I’m often asked how the trail is marked and if people get lost along the way. The answer to both is yes, although it’s far easier to follow this 2,190 mile trail than you might think. The AT is marked by white blazes for the entire length of the trail, and you find blazes in the woods, scrambling over boulders, walking under an interstate or crossing through a trail town.
Of course, I’ve become lost (and found) again regardless. Sometimes a helpful addition is added which makes it easier, like this one telling us to u-turn under the bridge:
Other times, the helpful arrows didn’t help me at all. A set on the boulder at the top of a summit confused me into taking the wrong path, which turned out to be neither north or south on the AT. I quickly came to a cliff edge and realized my mistake. Once back at the boulder, I managed to take the southbound path and was heading downhill in the wrong direction when I came across two men I thought looked like the men I met at the last shelter. Sheepishly, I turned back around and followed them back up. They were Kodak and Q, section hikers who I ended up hiking near for a few days and Kodak became a friend. (He met back up with us much later to bring an evening of trail magic to us in Shenandoah!) Unfortunately, once at the top, I picked wrong again and was at the cliff edge. We all went back to the boulder just as Hank Hill strode by and picked a different path. We waited a few beats and followed him. Finally, I was free if the vortex holding me at that summit!
The blazes also point the direction of a turn. A double blaze means either turn right, turn left, or go straight through an intersection of paths. This first photo below tells us to go straight and the next one to turn right:
The only other time I was lost was when I left my tent late into the night and we were not at a shelter. The camp was bordered by two rivers close by on either side, so I thought I could follow the river back. I didn’t realize one river flowed into the ground and I had stepped over it at that point. I tried three times to find my campsite and could not. Luckily, my headlamp caught the site of our food bags hanging in the trees, so I knew I was close. Finally, I just tried going the opposite of what I thought was correct and voila! my tent reflectors glowed back at me in a few steps.
Other hikers told me to always take my phone at night, so I could use my Guthook app to bring me back. That’s a fantastic idea, because the app has a red arrow tracking me offline, as well as showing me the trail. If I camp off trail, I can at least find my way to the AT footpath. This is what the screen looks like:
Apparently, the app has rescued many hikers after a midnight potty break. I never leave my tent without my phone anymore.
There are blazes marked in other colors, too, primarily blue for water source or shelter paths. Yellow is used to mark other trails, and red blazes or stripes tell you where the National Forest boundaries are so you do not hike into private land.
After twelve hundred miles, I have found the trail is often tough to follow, but usually quite easy to find.