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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Building a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Trail Signs and Exhibits
Water Trail Toolbox: Trail Signs and Exhibits

Signs, orientation exhibits, and interpretive wayside exhibits are critical communication tools. They guide visitors to the trail and sites along the trail, identify sites and facilities, provide warnings about hazards, convey management policies, and provide educational information.

Signs and exhibits can also detract from a wilderness experience. Usually, a few judiciously placed and properly scaled signs are more effective than many signs.

Planning and Design

Hire a planner and designer to create a signage plan for the whole trail. Determining the content, sizes, colors, styles, materials, and locations should not be left to chance or the whim of a member of the board or staff.

Create a hierarchical signage plan that honors the sequence in which visitors will view the signs and their needs at that moment. For instance, a visitor might first see a relatively large directional sign on a major highway, a smaller access identity sign, a parking sign, a trail orientation exhibit, and a boat launch sign. On the waterway, the visitor might see a small hazard sign, a bridge or campsite identity sign, a picnic area sign, and an interpretive wayside exhibit.

A comprehensive sign plan will bring order to the content, scale, appearance, and placement of these various kinds of messages. The content must be large enough to be legible from a car or a canoe or on foot.

Decide what is important to sign and what is not important to sign, so the landscape does not become littered with signs. Is a sign necessary if the information is covered in a map folder or guidebook?

Make your messages concise and clear not only on signs but on orientation exhibits and interpretive wayside exhibits. Remember, most people will spend only about 45 seconds looking at an outdoor orientation or interpretation.

Use colors that blend in with the natural environment, and use them consistently to help establish the trail's identity. For instance, the Hudson River Water Trail uses a green and blue color scheme that is similar to the logo of the sponsor, the Hudson River Valley Greenway. Many outdoor groups use a variety of brown and yellow tones.

Obtain permits and permissions before creating and installing signs on public and private lands that your organization does not administer. State or local highway departments usually have to approve the installation of signs along roadways, and, after approval, carry out the actual installations.

Orientation exhibits can be standardized for all the access points along the trail. They typically are freestanding vertical panels that contain a brief introduction to the trail, key safety tips and regulations, a map with a You Are Here label, a list of facilities along the trail, and a few photographs and descriptions of scenic and historical sites. Include brief statements about overnight parking restrictions, Leave No Trace principles, and human waste disposal policies.

Possible safety issues include fast currents and hydraulics; the ranking of rapids according to the International Scale of River Difficulty; seasonal, tidal, and hydropower variations in water levels; mandatory portages, and other hazards.

If the trail is long, modify each orientation exhibit to highlight different points of interest and hazards in a specific area.

Some organizations install orientation exhibits under a small kiosk roof. Such structures provide shade and shelter from rain, but they add to the cost and can become homes for bees and birds.

Consider installing a bulletin board next to or on the back of the orientation exhibit if there is a need to post several temporary notices.

Interpretive wayside exhibits should be as site-specific as possible. They are an excellent means of telling stories about the human history in the area and variations in the plants and animals along the waterway. Keep the texts brief and to the point and include pertinent photographs and illustrations to heighten interest and to distinguish them from signs.

Campsite and day-use area identity signs can be helpful to trail users, but some trail organizations rely instead on identifying them in map folders and guidebooks.

Signs to mark the route generally are not necessary on water trails, but they can be used to assist with orientation and navigation (such as to direct boaters to the best channel or route around an island or a sign on a bridge) and to warn them about waterfalls, dams, shipping channels, or blockages. Do not place signs in sensitive habitat areas such as wetlands and areas with rare plants and soils unless signs are absolutely necessary to curtail trespassing. Signs could attract undue attention to those areas.


Use materials for the sign panels and bases that are durable and resistant to flooding and harsh weather conditions and vandalism. Your budget may determine what materials you use and their sustainability. Explore the possibilities of using recycled materials. If you are planning to change the information on a sign or exhibit in two years, consider fabricating signs using a digital print process. Materials and printing technologies are constantly changing, so check methods and prices with several fabricators.

Wooden signs and posts may be esthetically pleasing on water trails, but they may require more frequent replacement and maintenance than other types of signs. If you use wood in wet areas, be sure the signs are made of marine plywood and cedar. Do not use pressure-treated wood preserved with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to avoid having the chemicals leach into the environment. Wooden signs can be painted and silk-screened. They also can be routed or sandblasted. They may require new coats of polyurethane or comparable sealant on a annual or bi-annual basis.

Aluminum and steel sign panels coated with baked enamel are commonly used for permanent identification signs along highways, at trail access points, and to identify facilities. Both types are durable, but steel is subject to rusting in marine environments.

Orientation and interpretive wayside panels are commonly screen-printed or digitally printed on paper and embedded in fiberglass to provide a high level of detail in the photographs, illustrations, and maps. For even greater clarity and sharpness, use the more expensive porcelain enamel fabrication process.

For bulletin boards, use a computer to print temporary notices on standard copy paper (8”x 11”, 8” x 14”, or 11” x 17”) and laminate the paper. Use bulletin boards to post information about lodging accommodations, outfitters, shuttles, and stores.

Rock cairns may be more appropriate than signs to mark landing sites at beaches.

Sign Maintenance

Determine before installing the signs and exhibits who is responsible for maintenance and replacements: the property owner, trail organization, local or state agency. Use the master list in your sign plan and inspect all signs and exhibits on a regular schedule. Remove graffiti and make repairs as soon as possible. Paint can be cleaned off metal and fiberglass relatively easily, but wooden signs may have to be repainted or replaced.

For more information about developing map folders, guidebooks, and wayside exhibits, visit the National Park Service at ( )

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