Understanding The Trail Signs

Have you ever wondered what it means when a skier or snowboarder says, "Yeah, I can do the blacks" or "I ski mostly blue trails?"

They are referring to a mountain resort trail designation system that categorizes ski and snowboard slopes by difficulty. Since the 1960s, mountain resorts throughout North America (and much of the world) have used green circles, blue squares and black diamonds to indicate difficulty. Nordic trail systems often use these symbols, too. This is what the symbols look like and mean:

the easiest trails at a particular resort

trails that are more difficult

trails that are the most difficult

Other things to know about the trail marking system:

  • Each resort ranks its own trails based on the difficulty of that particular area. At most resorts, you'll find that about 25 percent of the trails are designated green, about 50 percent are blue, and about 25 percent are black. But if a mountain is steep all over, the green-circle trails will be a huge challenge for novices. They are the easiest trails at that resort, but they may be too tough for someone who is learning.

  • A few resorts use the symbols in combination to show even more degrees of difficulty. As you progress, you will find it very helpful to have five or six levels instead of just three. Telluride, Colorado, for instance, uses single and double markings to show six degrees of difficulty, like this:



more difficult

still more difficult

most difficult

extremely difficult

Winter Park, another large Colorado resort, has five designations: a green circle, blue square, black diamond inside a blue square, black diamond and double black diamond. Their intermediate marks look like this:

more difficult trails

even more difficult trails

most difficult

  • You will also to see a new trail designation on maps and signage, an orange oval. This marking will be used for halfpipes and freestyle terrain parks. It looks like this:

  • Whenever you are at a new resort, pick up a trail map at the ticket window. Trail markings are indicated on the map, and also on large signposts at the top of trails and at trail crossings. Make your first run on an "easier" slope, not only to warm up, but also to understand the relative degree of difficulty at that area.

  • How can you find out if "easiest" terrain is truly easy? Get a good guidebook. One book that details terrain suitable for five ability levels is Ski and Snowboard America and Canada by Charles Leocha and a team of ski and snowboard journalists. This book, sold in bookstores, also is online at http://www.resortspace.com/. Click on "Mountain Layout" in each resort's section to find out whether the green circles are true learning terrain, and whether the black diamonds are merely tough or definitely white-knuckle.

Did you know? In 1964, the first trail marking system in the U.S. used a green square for "easiest," yellow triangle for "more difficult," blue circle for "most difficult" and a red diamond for "extreme caution." Four years later, the signs were modified to the present system of green circle, a blue square and a black diamond.

Check out the National Ski Patrol's video on trail signs: