As offroad racers, often, we take for granted that when we show up to a race, the course has been laid out in advance and is clearly marked. A race course that’s been laid out correctly can be the difference between a fun race or a frustrating disaster. There are countless reasons why we mark trail, but a few of the most obvious include:
- To mark areas where riding is allowed—and not allowed
- To indicate course direction to avoid head-on collisions
- To mark the boundaries of a race course
- To indicate upcoming dangerous obstacles on the trail
- For overall rider safety
Now that we know how vital marking trail is, it’s also important to note HOW we mark trail is just as important. For example, most do not take into account what trail marking products can do to the environment. When I say environment, I’m not referring to the ozone, ice caps, or the hot weather in South Central Texas in September. I’m referring to the wildlife and trees that we happen to ride through and that we often share with other trail users.
In this article, I will explain common ways to mark trail and consider the upsides and downsides of each method.
Arrows can be used to mark the direction of turns or if a hill or drop is coming. I like using arrows. Most have either a wrong way or danger mark on the back, which can be very useful—especially when marking tests or a race course or to let riders know what’s ahead.
What’s the drawback of using is arrows? They can be wasteful. Most are printed on durable weather and UV coated paper, which in my experience, only stay bright and colorful for a few months. After that, they’re hard for the eyes pickup while riding at speed, which means they must be taken down and replaced often. The result is excessive waste and the need to purchase more arrows. When hung correctly, cattle, livestock, and wildlife typically cannot chew or eat the arrows. While they are made out of paper, we can safely assume the coating isn’t very safe for consumption.
Flagging, AKA Course Marking Tape or Ribbon
Flagging, also known as course marking tape or ribbon, is the seemingly preferred method for marking trails. Flagging is typically found on the right-hand side if it’s a one-way trail, which once you get used to this convention, you’ll find yourself freaking out if it switches back and forth. Flagging is easy to carry, easy to place, and easy to see. No staple gun is needed. It can be found in many colors and even custom made to your specification. (I work in land surveying, so I use the stuff on a near-daily basis and tend to use it on my own trail because it sometimes follows me home.)
For years I’ve been under the belief that the Presco Brand Texas Flagging (it has embossed Texas outlines all over it) was soy-based and biodegradable. That is until I started researching to write this article. It was an easy assumption to make because as you go back to jobs, pass by fence posts with it, or mark trail with it, you’ll notice it fades just as quickly as paper arrows when exposed to UV light.
A big issue with flagging is that cows eat it like candy. Whether it’s the color, movement, or something else, I’m not exactly sure why. But PVC based flagging can get tangled in cattle’s digestive systems, leading to high vet bills or the loss of a cow entirely. Although it’s not toxic and is safe to consume, for some reason, cattle have an issue with it.
There are some companies with biodegradable flagging, including Presco, that can last anywhere from 6 to 24 months before complete degradation. Depending on how often you maintain the trail and your budget, this would probably be the easiest method for environmentally friendly trail marking.
An easy yet short-term trail marking option is to paint arrows on trees, posts, and rocks. Depending upon the type of paint used, it can be an excellent option since we are only covering the environment of the trail itself. A solvent or oil-based paint, which is long-lasting, can potentially harm vegetation. Water-based paint is safe for trees, grass, and flowers but washes off the first time it rains, making it wasteful due to the time and material it takes to remark the trail continually. Paint also doesn’t move like flagging, nor is it glossy like arrows. So, to me the negatives of using paint outweigh the positives.
The local club I am a member of made some painted wooden arrow cutouts mounted to a white rectangular board, so they stand out, then attached to a tree via nails or screws. These arrows have faded since first being painted, and the club seems to have been given up on them and reverted to flagging to keep its trail system marked.
Trail Marking Posts
Like those used in many state or federally owned and maintained trail systems, fiberglass trail marking posts don’t pose much harm to the environment, which is why they’re commonly used. The issue is cost. A post without the marking stickers retails for approximately $20.00, which can quickly get expensive if you’re marking a long trail. They can also be hard to spot when riding with any intensity, especially for those who may be colorblind.
In conclusion, for me, I will continue to mark my 9-mile trail with Presco Texas flagging. I hang it at riders’ eye level, which is typically above where cows look for food. But if my free supply of flagging ever dries up, or if I ever start charging people to ride my property, which in turn means more trail maintenance, I definitely would switch to biodegradable flagging. Hopefully, this article helps inform your decision-making process when you go about marking your own trail.
About the Author
Samuel Hastings is a rider and racer who operates A-Spear Ranch in Stockdale, TX, a private riding facility with 9 miles of singletrack trails.
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