Trail Signs I: Trailhead, Warning & Regulatory Signs

One of the most critical steps in new trail development is ensuring the new trail is properly marked. Lack of detail can cause problems for the disabled, elderly or less skilled users if they do not have sufficient information to choose a proper route.

Stonehouse Signs Custom Interpretive Trail SignThis two article series offers detailed information on the various types of trail signs that are recommended for recreational trails by the US National Park Service, the US Forest Service, American Trails, and the Woodland Stewardship. 

Each section includes tips on layout, wording and installation for various types of trail signs.

Stonehouse Signs is your source for custom trail signs and trail markers. Contact our expert staff for more information or to order. 

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Trailhead Signs

Warning Signs

Regulatory Signs


Trailhead Signs

Trailhead signs are used on public trails to identify trail names, directions, destinations, and distances.  They also alert trail users of hazards along the trail, or environmental resources that require protection.

Trailhead signs may include some or all of the following information:

  • Name or number of trail—if there is more than one trail.
  • Permitted trail activities (such as hiking, skiing, etc.) and specifically prohibited uses.
  • Rules for trail use, which could include:
    • Stay on the trail
    • Only skiers may use the trail when there is snow cover
    • Pets must be on a leash
    • Hikers get off the trail to let horses pass
  • A map showing the trail route and key features along the trail, including:
    • "You are Here” mark
    • North arrow
    • Map scale or distances along major trail segments
  • How the trail is marked (such as paint marks, signs, rock cairns).
  • Warnings, including hazards along the trail (poisonous plants or snakes, dangerous animals, steep cliffs, falling rocks, unsafe drinking water) and environmental features that must be protected (fragile vegetation, rare animals, and natural springs).
  • How to contact the landowner and emergency help (including the sheriff, fire, or hospital).

Most trail signs provide basic information that usually includes destinations along the route and basic usage guidelines.  

Designing and Installing Trailhead Signs

  • A trailhead sign or kiosk should be installed at all primary trailhead locations where parking is available. This structure should be built within 50 feet of where the trail leaves the parking lot and should include a roof and a double or triple bulletin board structure.
  • There are two primary panels on a standard trailhead sign.
  • The left display panel should contain general information about the trail. It should depict the general location of the trail in relation to other major landmarks.
  • The right display panel should contain specific information about the trail segment, including local trail interpretation. A map should show the trail as far as the next trailhead in either direction. It should also include regulatory and safety information and information about temporary trail detours.
  • Lay out the trailhead sign in components that can be changed without remaking the entire sign.
  • To protect signs from weather, build a small roof over the trailhead sign and/or enclose signs in a shallow box with a window.
  • Print signs in fade-resistant ink, or choose a sign manufacturer that provides excellent outdoor durability. Photographs and some inks fade when exposed to sunlight. Make letters at least 1 inch (72-point typeface) for headers and 1/4 inch (18-point typeface) for body text.

Examples of Trailhead Signs

Stonehouse Signs Custom Map Trailhead Sign
Stonehouse Signs Custom Trail Condition Sign Stonehouse Signs Custom Informational Trail Sign

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Warning Signs

Additional warning signs are good reminders along moderate to heavily used trails. A good warning sign will tell trail users what to do or not do, why, and what the consequences are for non-compliance.

If your trail is crossing a road,  or if it's a designated bike path, there are standard MUTCD Warning Signs that should be installed in advance of trail crossings where trail use and road conditions warrant.

Designing and Installing Trail Warning Signs

Be friendly, but persuasive. Consider using humor through your words or drawings. Drawings are as good as words if their meaning is clear. 

  • Be polite & give a reason: “Please stay on the trail. Protect the fragile plants!”
  • More forceful: “Stay behind the fence, dangerous water, strong currents!”
  • You can also warn and explain the consequences: “$100 fine for walking on cryptobiotic soil!”

Trail users appreciate humor and still get the message:

  • “Please stay on the trail so you don’t disturb the rattlesnakes.” (The real purpose is to keep people from trampling fragile vegetation)
  • “Please stay on the trail so you don’t trample the poison ivy.” (This may be the reason or it may be a way to keep trail users from short-cutting a switchback)

You also can provide a mixture of signs along a trail, some that are polite and others that are more forceful:

  • “Please stay on the trail to protect fragile wetland plants”
  • “Walking on the trail is free. Walking on wetland vegetation costs $100″

Place warning signs where trail users actually encounter hazardous situations or fragile environmental resources.

MUTCD warning signs are especially important where visibility is limited due to road curvature, vegetation, or hills. If these signs are needed, the highway department should be contacted.

Examples of Warning Signs

Stonehouse Signs Custom Warning Trail Sign Stonehouse Signs Custom Warning Trail Sign Stonehouse Signs Custom Warning Trail Sign
Stonehouse Signs Caution Advanced Terrain Proceed Cautiously Trail Sign Stonehouse Signs Trails Merge Trail Sign Stonehouse Signs Caution Trail Narrows Sign
Stonehouse Signs Stop Ahead Diamond Symbol Sign Stonehouse Signs Bump Diamond Sign Stonehouse Signs Railroad Crossing Circle Sign

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Regulatory Signs

While trailhead signs contain information on the usages allowed on the trail in a positive tone, regulatory signs are an opportunity to teach or remind users what is expected of them.  These signs are especially important if there have been problems on a particular trail.

Designing and Installing Regulatory Signs

  • The most common graphic devices are variations on the international symbols. For example, take the standard pedestrian silhouette, add a walking stick, and you have a hiker.
  • Stonehouse can provide any range of regulatory symbols, posts, and signage systems.   Other signs provide allowed/prohibited trail uses along with an explanation or user etiquette.
  • Remember, the longer the sign is, the less likely visitors will read them, but stating the regulations satisfies a lawyer-driven need that enables staff to enforce the laws. Trails and parks have many variations in what is allowed- be sure to clearly state what is essential.  Signs can also encourage more responsibility on the part of the user, such as taking away trash and being aware of other users. 

There are two options for regulatory signs.

  1. Flexible fiberglass posts with strip decals (shown here)
  2. Larger format signs mounted on flexible fiberglass or wooden posts. On these signs, the standard 3″wide vertical decals are not prominent enough at busy trailheads or major road crossings.

This strip decal should be placed directly below a trail identification emblem next to the managing agency/organization's logo (e.g., the USFS shield, the Buckeye Trail Association emblem, etc.).

Regulatory signs should be placed at all access points such as trailheads, road crossings, and junctions with other types of trails.  Other control measures, including barriers or stiles, may be required in areas where the trail is subject to illegal use.

Examples of Regulatory Signs

American Trails has an excellent selection of regulatory signs that are used in parks and on trails throughout the nation:

Trail Signs Showing Allowed and Prohibited Activities

Trail and Park Rules and Regulations Signs

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Want more information on Trail Signs? Visit Part II of our Custom Trail Sign series, which includes detailed information and installation tips for Trail Markers, Directional Signs and Interpretive Signs. 

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