In which Endurance 101 endeavors to prevent "bewildered"

Endurance 101 : Trail markers, route-finding, and avoiding bewilderment

“I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”
 --attributed to Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

The last thing you want to be, on an endurance trail, is “bewildered.” 

Actually, that’s not right.

The very last thing you want to be, on an endurance ride, is “bleeding, cold, alone and bewildered.”

It’s up to you (and whatever gods of luck you ascribe unto) to avoid the blood and cold and solitude. 

In this post, I will do my best to keep you from getting irretrievably bewildered on the endurance trail by describing some of the commonly-used trail-marking conventions.  The ride manager (or “RM”) is not obligated to follow the convention, but if the trail-marking system is unusual, the RM will certainly discuss it at the ride meeting—make sure you are there, and take good notes! 

Ribbons on the right
At the ride meeting, you will be told what color to follow on the trail.  Pay close attention!  When trails criss-cross or run together, you may see as many as eight or even twelve differently-colored ribbons hanging on a tree branch or fence post.  To avoid going off the designated trail for your event, keep track of the color you need to follow. 

AERC rules stipulate that riders must do all loops of an event in the correct order, so take steps to ensure that you are in the right place at the right time.  When I’m riding a long event with many loops, I write the loop colors on my arm with a sharpie marker.  I’ve been known to lose the map and the information sheet along the trail, but thus far I’ve always been able to keep track of my left arm.

Trail markers are commonly made from long strips of surveyors tape, tied or attached with clothespins to branches, fenceposts, or even posts pounded into the ground by the trail crew.  The ribbons are hung on the right side of the trail; if you see ribbons only on the left side of the trail, you are going the wrong direction.
blue+white-striped ribbon with solid pink ribbon
Three ribbons mark a turn
This is a trail-marking convention but it is not universal:  as you approach a turn, you will see, instead of a single or pair of ribbons, a trio of ribbons.  That means “slow the heck down and look, because you’re going to change direction!” 

Three ribbons = slow the heck down and watch for a turn!
Some ride managers find that a long, wide strip of bright-yellow or bright-red CAUTION tape is easier to alert riders if a trail has many turns.   Whichever system is in place, learn it, and watch for it so that you don’t wander off-course!

Common trail
Sometime you will encounter a stretch of trail where riders will travel in both directions.  These “common trails” are marked with ribbons on both sides of the trail, so that you will continue to have your ribbons on the right side of the trail no matter which direction you travel.  This can be confusing at first!  Slow down when you see common trail, check your map, and make sure you’re heading in the correct direction.

The RM will often use ribbons that are not only different colors to mark different parts of a trail course, but also different patterns, for example:

Loop 1:  blue+white striped ribbon, paired with a pink ribbon

Loop 2:  white with orange polka-dot ribbon, paired with a green ribbon

Loop 3:  solid red ribbon paired with a solid white ribbon

Ideally, while travelling at a trot, you will be able to see either a ribbon on the trail ahead or a ribbon on the trail behind from any point of the route.  The amount of ribbon needed for this kind of marking varies dramatically, depending on the terrain.  A prairie ride may need 20 ribbon-markers per mile, because the sight lines on the open prairie are long, with nothing to disrupt them except sometimes a ground squirrel.  A route in deep forest may take 100 ribbon-markers or more per mile, depending on the twistiness of the trail and the size of the trees.

Trail tape is often a victim of wind, rain, and sun.   A strong wind will blow the ribbons to Kingdom Come or wrap them tightly around a tree branch so they no longer dangle in plain sight.  Rain will drive the ribbons to the ground, and sun will bleach them until they are all a uniformly unhelpful greyish-white color. 

The weather isn’t the only element to plague ride managers:  humans can be just as much of a pain in the patoot, either intentionally or in ignorance.  “Teary-eyed tree huggers” are a common breed in our local wilderness.  These are the city-dwellers who visit the trails once or twice each calendar year, and expect the trails to be perfectly groomed but with no obvious sign of humans (or horses) upon them.  They want the trails clear of eye-poking branches and blowdowns, but they don’t want the sound of chainsaws to mar their pristine wilderness experience, and they really don’t want to see the manure left by a trail crew’s pack animals.    TETH are well-intentioned folks who lobby the state legislature for money to maintain trails and trailheads; we are grateful for their efforts and never wish to alienate them…however, we do wish that they knew a little bit about how the trails are built and maintained, and we definitely wish they would leave trail markers alone.   More than once a RM and trail crew has had to load up horses, trucks or quads to re-mark a trail that has been “restored to pristineness” by a TETH on the evening before a ride!

Even more annoying and potentially dangerous are the Pranksters in Jeepsters, who find it amusing to re-route a marked trail into a dead-end or into an area that may not be passable by horses.  These weekend warriors don’t like to get out of their buggies—they prefer to yank down markers and place them elsewhere on a road, so if a RM knows they are in the area, a quick check of all the jeep-road/horse trail intersections may be needed on the morning of a ride to eliminate Prankster damage. 

Even if every human within hundreds of miles is aware of the ride markers and supportive of them, the trail may still be sabotaged by cattle and their cousins.  For some reason, ruminants wild and domestic find trail ribbons absolutely delicious.  Nobody has ever explained why this is so, yet on many occasions I have observed elk, deer, and cattle meandering down a trail, stopping periodically to snack on the colorful delicacies.

If RM’s know that these plastic-eaters (or the human vandals) are nearby, they will usually put out plenty of extra ribbons with the hope that some will still be in place on ride day.  If you are riding in elk territory or have been warned that there are bovines eating the markers, check the ground periodically for clothespins—elk love to eat ribbons, but they always spit out the clothespins.  Finding those little wooden markers on the ground can be a challenge, but they will let you know that you aren’t lost…or bewildered.

Pie plates:  not just for dessert anymore
Pie-plates or paper plates are handy trail marking devices commonly used at intersections or confusing points, because important information can be written on them with indelible ink markers.   

For example, a pie plate for Loop 1 might read:

Loop 1:  blue/white/pink  2 miles to vet checkà

It would be splendid if RM’s had the time and energy to color-code their pie-plate markers, but usually a black marker on a white plate is easiest to read, and that’s the most important thing.

Many of the RM’s in my region are strong proponents of “confidence ribbons”.  Confidence ribbons are the extra markings added to the trail after a confusing turn or intersection.  For example, after making a sharp turn from an elk trail onto a logging road as directed by a pie plate, the rider will see several ribbon markers ahead leading along the correct direction.  These ribbons are cheap insurance to keep as many riders as possible on the right trail.

Clues on the ground
RMs will also put trail markings on the ground itself, using white lime powder, chalk, spray paint, and at one recent event I attended, pancake mix! 
Red-ribbon trail goes left.  Blue-ribboned trail goes right.  Any questions?
These substances can be carried easily on a pack horse and then used to draw arrows or even write brief messages on the hillside beside a trail.

Getting bewildered 
If you are trotting along the trail and cannot see a ribbon, and cannot quite remember the last time you saw a ribbon, you may be off-route.  

Before you panic, look at the ground.  Do you see a lot of hoofprints on the ground in front of you, from horses travelling the same direction?  Do you see fresh manure on the trail?  Those are all signs that many riders from your event have been here and you really ARE on the right trail.  Look carefully at the ground where you think a ribbon marker should be…can you find a clothspin left behind by a marauding elk? 

If you’re still not convinced that you’re in the right place, look up.  You may not see ribbons hanging from branches, but can you spot a clothespin or stub of ribbon?  Cattle can’t reach as high as deer or elk, so they “spaghetti” the ribbons that they can reach, and then stop sucking in when they get to the clothespin, leaving orphaned clothespins high overhead on tree branches.  If you can see those clothespins, you’re probably in the right place.  You may also be able to see that the trail has been “brushed back” and trimmed by trail crews with loppers.  If you see recently-trimmed branches at eye-level for a rider on horseback, you are probably not really off-trail.

But what if you ARE off-trail?  A few words of advice:

·       Don’t panic.  Before you go anywhere, stop for a moment, take a drink from your water bottle, and breathe. Check your trail map, and try to figure out where you are. Think about the last time you saw a trail marker.

·       Mark your location.  Tear up a bandana and tie a strip of cloth to a tree branch, stick a scrap of paper under a rock in the middle of the trail, make a pile of rocks or branches on the right side of your trail to mark where you are now, or partially break off a branch beside the trail and leave it dangling.  This gives you a landmark that you can return to if you can’t find the trail.  You do not want to get more bewildered! 

·       Look in all directions for clues to the trail.  Remember that your trail is marked for RIDERS, so if possible, stay on your horse so you can see the markers 6 to 8 feet off the ground.

·       Backtrack your trail, if possible.  If you aren’t sure you’re going the right direction, mark the trail as you go with strips of cloth tied to branches, piles of rocks or dangling branches.  Scuff an arrow into the dirt with your boot to indicate the direction you travel to backtrack.

·       Listen for other riders.  They may not be talking, but you should be able to hear their horses’ hoofbeats. 

Don’t worry too much about taking wrong turns, it happens to everybody.  In my first few years of endurance riding, I took a wrong turn at least one time at every event, but usually discovered my mistake within a few minutes.  Stay alert and watch your trail markers, and you will always find your way back to camp.

There are a few ride managers who pride themselves on not “over-marking” the trail.  This attitude is not a secret—anyone who has ever attended at ride managed by “The Duck” will attest to that manager’s steadfast refusal to make an endurance ride easy by making the route easy to find. 

If route-finding is a concern for you, find another person to ride with, preferably one who has ridden the event in past years.  Although some trails change from year-to-year, due to the effects of changing riverbeds, logging operations, and even urban sprawl, the basic “shape” of the trail will be familiar to some of the riders in camp, and one of those is bound to help you.


  1. Hmm. I would think GPS would be my best friend on one of these rides. My sense of direction is not the best.

  2. This is fun stuff, Aarene. However, honestly, aside from "the Duck" (loved that), it doesn't really sound too tough. Contrast it, for instance, to finding the little used route into a lake I had last visited fifteen years ago, with a group who had never been there. I cast about for an hour until I realized that someone had moved the trail in the interim--moved it quite a ways from where it had been. I had found the "big gray rock in the cottonwood grove" which was the old marker for the trail turnoff, even though it was completely overgrown, but no sign of the trail. You can imagine my frustration (and that of my pack trip companions (I had assured them I could find the trail, even after all these years) as I tried to figure out what to do. We were already a long day's ride into the mountains. I would have LOVED a few helpful ribbons. Eventually, by making ever widening circles, I stumbled upon the new trail (found hoofprints, just as you say) and we rode on to the lake. Anyways, some of our backcountry adventures involved finding "ducks" (little piles of stones) to lead us across solid granite in order to get to lakes we'd never been to before. It could be quite challenging.

    Do many people actually get lost in the course of an endurance ride? I mean actually lost for quite awhile, as opposed to confused for a few minutes (to paraphrase Daniel Boone).

  3. Another good idea is to get the phone# of a ride manager and program that into your cell phone! I have an address book entry titled "CTR" and at every ride I just put the new phone# on there.

    And yes, Laura, I have seen quite a few instances where people have gotten lost for hours. Only once did it happen to me. I purposely separated from my group, don't know how I did it but got totally off trail. I could hear cars in the distance so headed in that direction (we had no trail maps, and in pre-cell phone days) and got to a dirt road. Eventually stopped a car to ask where the heck I was, and they gave me directions to head directly back to camp on the road. Disqualified, but safe and sound!

  4. KT--I guess I just perceive it as hard to get lost because the one endurance ride I worked there were tons of people and the trail was well marked and trampled by all those hooves. I'm used to prospecting around the back country with a few friends trying to find a trail we've been told is there, which often hasn't had a lot of traffic. However, since I've never ridden an endurance ride, I obviously don't know what its like. I can easily imagine getting "off course", as the little loops sound complicated. But I have a hard time picturing getting truly lost.

    I don't get lost easily--perhaps that's part of it. Whether on foot, on horseback or in a car, I usually know about where I am even if I'm not on a known route. Much of my current trail riding involves trails that are not much used, and we are frequently sort of bushwhacking our way along a trail we last rode six months ago (and apparently no one has ridden it since). We just remember where the trail used to be and hope we don't meet any downed timber we can't get over or around. Thus from my point of view it sounds quite luxurious to be on a marked trail that has been somewhat cleared for horsemen.

    On the other hand, I'm proceeding at a relaxed pace when I trail ride, and I'm sure it is much easier to take a wrong turn if you are hustling along.

    Its great fun to learn about your sport--if I ever take it up, I'll have a pretty good idea what its like. Thanks so much for the posts and interesting comments.

  5. I don't think it's common for riders at an endurance ride to get lost, but it is a common concern . Compared with bushwacking on seldom-used trails in the high country, way-finding isn't too difficult, once you get the hang of it. Trails sabotaged by elk or cows are the worst thing, and if you know what clues to watch for, you can get through those most of the time.

    The trails (in my region, anyway) are generally well-marked; there are a few RM's who notoriously skimp on trail ribbons; and when I ride one of their events I don't leave camp without a GPS. There are also a few rides that notoriously "lose" riders (the Big Horn ride in Wyoming is one of these; see Merri Melde's reports from the BH 2011: which convinced me that unless ride management makes some major procedural changes, it's a ride that I will be content to miss); these rides are a very tiny minority, fortunately.

    There are riders who notoriously "get lost" on trails as well. One rider in our region is famous for getting lost at least half of the time, and she always blames ride management. I wrote about her in this post: I would say that the common denominator in her failure to navigate trails is the rider . We do our best to build a trail that even she can't get lost on, but you know what they say about making something idiot-proof so that somebody will come up with a better idiot...!

  6. Aarene--Isn't it funny how some people are about getting lost? Not specific to horses and trails. They never seem to know what direction they are headed; they can get lost anywhere.

  7. Laura, I rode for years with a woman who could get lost in the KMart parking lot, srsly.

    (I myself get turned around inside shopping malls, hospitals, and other large buildings. Thus I rarely go to them, which means I get very little practice and never improve. I think that problem is more related to my complete disinterest in the "landmarks" in a shopping mall, and thus my inattention to routefinding!)

    My riding partner also had no sense of "narrative line"; she could never see the logical progression beginning/middle/end of a story or a novel or even a joke. She didn't enjoy reading fiction because it seemed random to her. I always thought that those two "disabilities" were probably related...!

  8. I think ride management is just as responsible for knowing all of this. The top 10 in MD in 2010 did an extra ten miles on the first loop due to poor markers and ribbons that blew down in a storm the previous week. The ride is notorious for bad markers and I've gotten 'bewildered' a few times down there. Frustrating!

  9. Dom, you're right, of course, but "Ride Management 101" is a whole 'nuther book. Lemme get this one published first....!

  10. I've never gotten lost, per se, but I have missed my fair share of turns. I'd say the farthest I've gone before realizing it was perhaps a quarter mile. Then it is easy enough to turn around and follow the trail back to the last ribbon you saw.

    That said, I've never ridden in real darkness. I've been party to some pretty dim morning starts, but I think true nighttime darkness, like coming in from the last loop of a forested 100, for instance, would be terrifying.

    I guess at times like those you just hope your horse wants to get back to camp as badly as you do...?

  11. i was thinking a while back, "i hope she talks about ribbons on the right, cuz i sure learned that one the hard way!"; )

    they have an odd system here for marking. they spraypaint symbols on trees. a straight line means obviously go straight. an upside down capital L means right turn ahead. a backwards upside down L means left. i wish i knew more but those are the ones i noticed. obviously if you're painting trees it's semi-permanent, but you can only see the symbols if you're going the correct direction.

    the loneliest and best feeling on earth: being at home on the range, seeing miles in all directions around you but seeing no sign of rider nor horse. no hoofbeats, only red-winged blackbird calls. but there's a ribbon tied to a bush at your feet.


Post a Comment

To err is human. To be anonymous is not.

Popular Posts