Harper Grey: Signage in the Great Outdoors


Harper Goes Hiking

Being the shopper that I am, I typically think of signage in a shopping context. Signs that say, “Half off” or “Clearance Sale” tend to be my favorites. But even in the great outdoors, signage is important. In the sign industry, signage that provides directions to people is called “wayfinding signage.” Because, you know . . . it helps you find your way. Unless some of it is missing.

I went hiking last week. Which was a big deal for me, because I’m not necessarily an outdoors kinda girl. But my husband thought a vertical climb along a dirt path, surrounded by pine trees (and biting flies) sounded romantic. And he’s usually really good about accompanying me on ventures that I think sound fun (though mine usually involve sitting. Like at the ballet. Or an outdoor concert. Or a nice restaurant). So I thought I should probably accommodate him just this once. Little did I know that his adventure would test our strength and fortitude. And almost kill us.

Where to Start?

Our hike seemed perfectly safe. The trailhead started at a visitor’s center and there was a huge sign that showed five trails fanning out from the paved parking lot. Neither of us had been to this area before, and I left it up to my husband to choose the trail we’d take. Of course he chose the one with the 500 ft. vertical climb right at the beginning.

Our trail (I’ll call it Upward Death) was supposed to start just south of the visitor’s center. So we walked down the path and started looking for signs to point us in the right direction. Instead, we came to a fork in the trail that branched off in three directions. No sign. One trail went downhill, so we ruled that one out. The other two both looked as if they were winding up the hill, amongst the trees. Which one to take? We had no idea. Instead of popping into the visitor’s center to ask directions, we just eenie-meenie’d and picked the one on the right. Not the best way to make important decisions.

Up, Up, Up

So up we climbed. And up some more. For a really, really long time. With nary a sign to confirm that we were on the right trail. Finally, we got to the top of the mountain and found a sign that said, “Lake .8 Miles.” Lake? We didn’t remember seeing a lake on the big map by the visitor’s center. But ok. We like lakes. And my husband pointed out that, even if we were on the wrong trail, it would still be fun to go to the lake. Then he promised we could go back (downhill all the way) to the car and rest.

Except we couldn’t tell which direction to go to get to the lake. The trail went off in two directions. The “Lake .8 Miles” sign had no arrow. We eenie-meenie’d again and went right.

The Lost Lake

Apparently right was the wrong direction, because we never did find a lake. Instead, we hiked down the opposite side of the mountain and started back up another one, much to my chagrin. My husband was sure the lake must be, “right over that ridge.” Nope. We reached the top of the ridge to find . . . more pine trees. And still no kind of signage.

The Lost Hikers

After sitting down for a short break, we decided to just head back the way we’d come and call it quits. Except that when we got back down the second mountain and across the meadow to the “Lake .8 Miles” sign, we couldn’t tell which way to go. My husband thought left. I thought right. And of course . . . there was no sign. So we went left.

The Found Lake

After hiking (you guessed it, .8 miles) we found a lake. Yay! Well, kind of yay. I was not particularly happy, because my 3 mile hike had now turned into more like 5.5 miles and I was still a long way from the car. And the lake was really not that impressive – it was more like a large pond, covered in green slimy stuff. We couldn’t put our feet in the lake because it was surrounded by a boggy marsh. Yuck.

Finding Our Way Back

So back we went, another .8 miles to the “Lake .8 Miles” sign. This time we knew which trail to take to head back to the visitor’s center. And it was, at least, all downhill.  We got back to the car several hours later than we’d anticipated.

How We Almost Died

Ok, I might be exaggerating a tiny little bit. We didn’t really almost die. We had plenty of water with us, and my husband even had the foresight to bring a couple granola bars and apples, so we weren’t even hungry. But if we had run into bad weather, we might have died. Or at least gotten pretty cold. We were both wearing shorts and t-shirts. It was in the mid-80’s and we’d planned on a two-hour hike. We weren’t equipped with a map or GPS or compass, because we figured we were just doing this tiny little hike in a state park that would have signage. If we had gotten really lost, we weren’t prepared to spend the night out in the cold, dark wilderness.

Where Were the Signs?

When we got back to the visitor’s center, we asked the nice park ranger about the lack of signage. He told us that several of the signs had been removed for replacement and that temporary signs had been installed. He speculated that the temporary signs had blown away during a bad storm a few days earlier.

The Moral of This Story

First, wayfinding signage in the great outdoors is really, really important. More important than clearly marked signage that points the way to the restrooms at the mall.
Second, if your husband’s idea of a good time is schlepping around on a dirt trail in the middle of nowhere, you should definitely bring a map, a jacket and some tasty snacks. Because you might be out there for awhile.