How to read trekking trail signs in Italy
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How are the trails classified and how do we know how much height difference awaits us, for example, on a three-hour route? Arrows, stone cairns or red/white markings; what information do they give us?
The people responsible for these signs are the friends of the Italian Alpine Club known as CAI.
Italian Alpine Club: what it is and what it does
The CAI was founded in 1863 and has approximately 310.000 members, 800 branches and sub-branches all over Italy and they look after 700 national mountain areas.
The number of paths that are marked and looked after is estimated to be more than 60.000 while 7.000 volunteers ensure an efficient mountain rescue service (both Alpine and Speleological) over all their lengths.
This is how they describe themselves:
The CAI, using the support of its members, marks out, signs and takes care of paths. This is an undertaking that offers safety to walkers, to get to know, value and protect the vast natural areas and the culture of the Italian mountains, and to promote sustainable tourism. The White and Red signs are the “Ariadne’s thread” for hikers. You can also help us to keep the hiker’s web efficient by taking part in the trips organised by the Sections and technical groups and also, simply, by following and respecting the path signs, avoiding short-cuts and by letting local Sections of the CAI and the Refuge owners know of any damage to or problems along the way of the paths.
Their motto is “Walk to know and protect”
The CAI offers safety to hikers, promotes sustainable tourism and the responsible use of the terrain and wants to help people understand and value the culture of the Italian mountains: a philosophy of quality walking and of seeking out the environment and culture of different places. To meet and compare yourself with the natural environment and the land surrounding you without technological help and driven only by your own motivation. This is in itself of great value.
and there’s more!
The path, this humble and often forgotten track on the earth, which for centuries has been synonymous with movement over this earth, has been an invaluable network for the life of a civilisation which we keep with us. To the hiker, the modern user of these paths, we have been given in trust the memories, histories and conservation of this priceless inheritance.
How can we NOT care for them!!
Itineraries following streets, mule paths or easy paths, with easily visible routes which don’t cause orientation problems. They require a basic level of mountain environment awareness and good walking level fitness.
E = Hikers
Itineraries for paths and varied terrain tracks (pasture, rubble, quarries) usually well signed. They require a good sense of orientation, and also a good level of experience and knowledge of mountain terrain, some hiking training and suitable footwear and equipment.
EE = Expert Hikers
Itineraries generally marked but which require an ability to travel on the paths or over less accessible and trustworthy terrain (steep slopes and/or slippery grassy areas, or mixed rock/grass areas, or rocks and rubble, quarries and short, non-steep snow fields, rocks tracks with technically difficult parts). Necessary: mountain experience and understanding of Alpine environments; sure-footedness and no vertigo; suitable equipment and level of fitness.
EEA = for expert Hikers with equipment
Protected paths or Via ferrate for which it is necessary to have safety equipment (harness, dissipater, clips and lines) and personal safety equipment (helmet, gloves).
Paths of no technical difficulty which normally follow old mule tracks created for agricultural, forestry and shepherding purposes. These may also be old military paths and access routes for the mountain refuges and those connecting neighbouring valleys. These are the most common types of paths found and used and represent 75% of the hiking routes in Italy. (On the CAI hiking difficulty scale they are classified as ‘E’: hiking itinerary without technical difficulties)
Paths that have developed in inaccessible areas with parts that demand a good mountain knowledge, basic technical skills and suitable equipment from the hikers walking these paths. They generally correspond to a mid-high itinerary level of mountain treks and can include parts that have been fitted with fixtures (hand cables and short ladders) which don’t, however, interrupt the ‘flow’ of the path. (On the CAI difficulty scale they are classified as ‘EE’: itinerary for expert hikers)
Itineraries that bring the Alpine Climber over rock walls or to ridge and ledge areas, previously fitted with hand cables and/or ladders, without which these routes would be considered rock climbing. They require adequate preparation and equipment such as helmet, harness and dissipater. (On the CAI difficulty scale they are classified as ‘EEA’: itinerary for expert hikers with equipment)
These are white (or wood coloured) with a red arrow-head and white and red tail. They indicate the direction of the various finishing points of the path and predicted time to reach them for a medium ability hiker. On the tail of the sign, in the white space, the number of the path is shown. You will find these signs at the start of a route and at major crossroads. The walking time going uphill is calculated on a scale of 250/300m rise per hour. The walking time going downhill is generally calculated as 2/3rds of the same uphill time. Times indicated do not include resting times. Remember that these are only median times.
These are white or wood coloured. You will find them at major crossroads on a path (passes, forks in the road, small residential areas) which can be found on maps: they indicate the place name and its height above sea-level. Normally they are placed on the same posts as the Route Markers.
Respect Nature and Stay on the Path signs
These are white or wood coloured. They are placed near shortcuts to remind hikers to stay on the path and avoid damaging the borders of the path and the surrounding terrain. In the top right hand corner you will find the path number.
Themed path markers
These are white or wood coloured. You find them at the start, the finish and at important parts of a hike, depending upon the theme of the itinerary (history, nature, geology etc.) to encourage walkers to have a good look around, and to stimulate research, understanding, value and care of the place being visited.
Via Ferrata markers
These are metal signs, red with white writing. You will find them at the start of an access path to a Via Ferrata or a difficult path as well as at the start of a path to request (in 4 languages) the correct use of the path fixtures and personal safety equipment. Usually, on the same sign, there will be a contact number to notify any damage noticed to the path fittings.
Expert hikers path markings
You will find these at the start of a typical Alpine path (exposed, partly fitted or else difficult because of length or the path’s situation in a particularly wild area.). In the top right hand corner, the path’s number will the shown.
This is a large information panel which you find in main access points to and on the path network.
They show an overall view of the paths in this area, grouping them in boxes relative to geographical, environmental and historical issues.
- A schematic map of hiking paths and their connection to roads and existing infrastructure.
- List of hiking routes accessible from that place, path numbers and trek times.
- Descriptive notes about the environmental and historical aspects of the area and other significant local area information.
These are considered to be secondary markings and are normally found at ground level, usually positioned on stones or tree trunks to show which way the path goes (numbered paths only). The colours adopted by the CAI for marking paths in this way are red and white.
Simple path marking, white-red
In the top right hand corner, you will see the path number.
This marking is to show which way the path goes; they are put close to crossroads and road forks – every 200-300m if the path is easy to follow and otherwise closer together, bearing in mind the terrain characteristics and not disturbing the environment unnecessarily.
These indicate the path number. They are positioned at the start of a route and near road forks and in other places where it is necessary to be sure of the path that you are following.
These indicate a spring, a fountain or a stream in the area. The Arrow will be facing the direction of the water and indicates the distance (in metres) to the water source or the time needed to get there; these signs are used only when the presence of water is not obvious from the path and might have importance to the hiker.
Path sign posts
You find these along a path which goes over open terrain or pasture where there are no natural sign posts and where a lack of markings might result in difficulties in sense of direction for the hiker. The post is painted all round the top part with a simple red-white sign or a flag.
A very simple and effective way of marking a path, natural, discreet and long lasting. These are 40-50cm high and remain visible even in difficult conditions in particular in unexpected snowfalls on high mountain paths.
Respect where you are walking, Nature and the wonderful work of all the CAI sections!
Happy hiking to you all!