Blazing : How-To & Theory

In this post I’d like to explain the practice of blazing trees used for trail identification.  My original intention for the subject matter of this post was a history of blazing & a how-to guide but the history of blazing is quite honestly in my opinion not interesting enough & there was very little content I could find on the matter.  I won’t leave you hanging with nothing, just know that blazing was a common practice by early Americans marking the way, or “blazing the trail.”   Hunters tracking their game that may have wandered into deep woods would blaze trees to help find their way back home.  Finally, it was a tool used for land surveying by marking boundaries & property lines.

What the outdoorsman & woodsman of this century use blazing for is not very different, however is likely applied in a different manner.  The most common ways to blaze are painting, flagging, signage & cutting into the tree.  My area of focus in bushcraft that I practice myself would likely never use painting or signage like metal signs nailed to trees or installed on special posts along the trail.  Flagging may be done by hanging one of my orange bandannas on a tree branch so it can be seen from a distance but I would rarely be in that situation, however I can see that coming in handy in certain situations.  I’d like to focus on removing the bark of the tree which is the method I would most likely use.  It’s intentional that I will not discuss the other methods or the opinions of others in the act of blazing in this manner all but for when a tree is injured the only real reaction for us to do is to leave it alone & it’s the arrogance of us to think we would know better ways than nature.   When it come to ascetics I’m just glad that my psyche isn’t devastated as it sounds like some experience when they see a blaze on a tree.

Finally, I’d like to use a YouTube video from Dave Canterbury as a companion to help you with making blazes.  Pay close attention to the explanations as well as the actions in making the blaze as they are deliberate & done in a specific manner by someone that knows how to do this properly.  I will refer to this video throughout this post

Tree selection – Choose a tree that is right on the trail, make it one you can touch while on the path so the chances of it being seen are very high.  For consistency you should blaze a tree on the same side of the trail such as always blazing trees on the right hand side, especially if there are no abrupt turns in your trail, blazing the same side will cut down on confusion so whatever you do just be consistent.  Only blaze live trees.

Blaze size – The most common size for a blaze is 5″ to 6″ tall, or vertical, & 2″ to 4″ wide, or horizontal.  The placement should be about 5′ off the ground, otherwise known as eye level because too high or too low & it’s likely it may be missed.  When watching the video notice when Dave places his hand just over the blaze, if you noticed it is basically the size of his hand so don’t be to concerned with measurements & just make it roughly hand size.  Anything larger is quite unnecessary & you increase the chance that the tree will not recover from the wound.  Don’t make a blaze around the tree like a ring, that will almost for sure kill the tree.

How to blaze – Using your knife or axe like a surface planer just scrap off the outer bark if you can.  A nice thin & sharp tomahawk would also work very well, similar to what Dave uses in his demonstration video.  Start with swings or motion from the top down first, taking a sharper angle than you would normally using an edged tool removing the outer bark.  Do your best to not cut so far into the tree as it is unnecessary and only increases the chances the tree might not make it out alive.  On a nice white oak a larger tool like a tomahawk or hatchet is best but if the tree is smaller in diameter without a thick, aggressive bark you can certainly use your bushcraft knife & use a shaving  action & remove the outer bark layer.  The process of the trees recovery will be explained later which will give details on what exactly will take place in the tree.  One detail to aid in the trees recovery is to have a smooth, clean cut with smooth & neat edges, so don’t hack & chop like a wild man.  After a couple downward cuts it’s then important to take an upward cut or two to remove the flap of bark if it hasn’t come off already.  You don’t want to leave a slight bump or straight edge across that would collect materials that will cause a negative effect on the following processes the tree will undergo.  For a perfect example of this sequence watch Dave’s video as I said his actions are deliberate & it’s not a coincidence how he makes his blaze.  This blaze will be evident on the tree for the rest of its life, it will evolve into what can be described as a scar & any woodsman familiar with blazing will always be able to recognize this.  There is a practice of the “double blaze” where all blazes are doubled, one on top of the other.  Nature is random & identical marks are obvious that man has intervened just in case you feel a single blaze could either be mistaken for nature or just not seen.  If you double blaze I would just suggest making smaller blazes instead of the single larger cut.

Blaze frequency & etiquette –  First & very quick, don’t blaze over an old blaze.  If the blaze is there & you can identify it, then you’re fine, the blaze worked & I will explain further that the tree is already working hard to handle the first blaze & a second one is just unnecessary & would greatly harm the tree, just move down & pick another tree.  The distance between blazes is basically all in preference but a good practice would be as few as possible.  Suggestions like every 500′ may be unnecessary if your trail is obvious or very straight such as if you are walking a ridge line, or like some trails I’ve been on the east side of the trail is woods & 5′ west of the trail is a couple hundred foot cliff face for quite a distance so blazing can be kept to a minimum.  Another common practice is make a blaze, then travel as far as you can until you barely can’t see the blaze you just created & make another.  This may be a little overboard but it could also provide reassurance that you are still on the trail if you are cutting into deep & uncharted woods or you are making a path for a lesser experienced woodsman.

Blazing styles –  If you are on land where you are the first one to make a blazed trail or if you are on your own property or a large amount of property where you have the owner’s permission then the frequency & style is totally a personal preference.  Single blaze or double blaze, the choice is yours.  It is almost a given that during your trail cutting you will need to make abrupt, right angle turns & you must differentiate between traveling in the same direction & making a turn.  If you use the single blaze for straight travel then a simple double blaze can indicate a turn.  While looking at the double blaze, look in the direction you are going to turn & on the first & most obvious tree make a single blaze & this will give you the proper direction.  If you have a cliff or river to one side where a left turn is impossible & only a right turn would be made then the double blaze mark would work fine, but if you are looking for assurance then a turn signal blaze would be a better idea.  Make a typical single blaze, then if you are turning right look one blaze length about 6″ up the tree & make a single blaze on the right side of the tree; same procedure for a left turn. Dave will show you how.  Just keep in mind that when the trail changes is when you are most likely to lose your way so it’s good practice that after a turn or direction change you make the next couple blazes closer together, this will make you confident you are at the proper heading & the less experienced woodsman would definitely breathe easier.  Typically a tree with 3 blazes means stop, but then again if this is the trail you’re blazing then blazes can mean anything you want them to, so make up your own set of blazes.  Maybe you want to make blazes that only you can identify because you want privacy, so make the blazes small & maybe you can make blazes for misdirection purposes & lead people away from your camp.  Another reason why I suggested not to blaze over an old blaze is for search & rescue purposes.  Imagine you are on a well established trail with older blazes & an event occurs in which you or someone in your party is injured or is forced to leave the trail.  One thing I know I would look for is a re-blazed tree.  A fresh blaze in an area without any new blazes would be a critical clue in the direction the person went & at least you know you are getting close.

How the tree responds – Unlike us, trees do not have the ability to heal after a wound & a tree basically gives up on the area injured & in a way just puts a band-aid over it that never comes off.  Dip a stick into the river & that would be similar to what happens in the wood grain after a wound.  A brilliant biologist named Dr. Alex Shigo from Pennsylvania, where most of the great minds of this country are from, developed the theory of CODIT (Compartmentalization Of Decay In Trees) which describes the process a tree undergoes after an injury.  My research into this was very rewarding & I’d like to share this with you & thanks to the U.S. Forestry Service this is possible.  On the cellular level the tree begins to create walls in defense of the spread of decay & diseases.  The first wall that is created is the vertical wall that prevent the disease spread above & below the wound.  Wall number two prevents the disease from going inward.  The third wall prevents the spread around the surface of the wound.  The final wall is the new growth that forms around the injury & is the last wall of protection.  As I stated earlier, you don’t want to re-blaze an old blaze because this is the scab that you don’t want to pick at

This photo is courtesty of This was taken in Kings Canyon National Park by two park service employees on a survey of tree blazes in the park.

U.S. Forest Service

Echo Davenport & Mary Lee

Live tree with wound.

I took this picture at a local state park.  This tree was alive & well.


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