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The Strange Heterogenity of Hiking Signs

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We took a few days off to enjoy the local scenery and hiking trails, as good and as bad as my sprained ankle allowed for it. This may sound strange, but we usually take a wrong turn and get lost at least once during those short hikes. You’d think this is more common when exploring abroad because the signs aren’t the ones you’re used to look for and the trails are unfamiliar. Perhaps it’s because we’re inattentive and too confident.

I have another theory. It’s because of the signs. They are way off, not us! Does that sound overly confident as well? Let me explain.

In our province, Limburg, almost all hiking paths are indicated by different symbols of which each has a different color. Each symbol represents another loop or pathway with another distance—some don’t loop at all. For example, in the photo below, following the orange “Plus” sign meant taking the 11 km route and enjoying a few more monuments or fruit plantations in-between turns, compared to the blue “Diamond” sign that was the 6.5 km we were trying to follow. A decent amount of trails were shared, like the road in the photo.

A hiking route in Borgloon, Limburg.

Here’s where things already start to go wrong. You’d think that an orange “Plus” is always the longer route, but no. This is dependent on the site you visit, so pay attention when looking at that map. So far so good, but as soon as you dare to cross the provincial borders—which doesn’t take much in tiny Belgium—the signs suddenly and completely alter face. Instead of being served symbols, you’re being served numbers on a bigger burgundy-colored almost traffic sign, in the same vein as the bicycle crossroad signs across Flanders. Why bike signs can be uniform across Flanders and hiking signs can’t is beyond me.

To be honest, I actually prefer the signs of the neighboring province, where you’re following a chain of numbers instead of looking for symbols. Not only because the signs are simply bigger, but because of the smart placement of the signs.

Suppose you hit a crossroad. The first natural thing to do is to look for a sign which tells you which direction to go to. Where is the sign? Always placed to the right? Before or after the crossing? A few centimeters from the pathway or always clearly on the pathway? I have failed to discover any logic behind the placement of these signs. It’s a complete mystery to me. Some plaques are mounted to small wooden poles, while others are attached to bigger concrete lampposts. Some are to the left of the road, while others are placed to the right, semi-hidden behind the unshaven ivy. It sometimes feels like a big geocaching adventure to even locate the sign.

And then there’s the plethora of sign designs and locations abroad that, if you’re unlucky, also changes every few years. In North Rhine-Westphalia in West-Germany, we like to go hiking in the woods because of the tranquility. It sometimes takes hours before encountering another human soul—a welcome change compared to cramped Belgium. Those hiking paths used to be numbered and prefixed with the local city name, but during our most recent stay there, we were surprised to find those signs to be replaced with ridiculous names such as “The Heavenly Falls” or “Beauty Beyond Borders”. Naturally, the signs that guide you towards heaven had to change as well. Furthermore, the names are in German, which introduces another layer of inaccessibility for foreigners.

Guess what. We got lost.

Perhaps the change was for the better: as far as I understand it, the local signs—that were different from village to village—were replaced by Eifeler Wanderung signs in the entire Eifel mountain range area.

Local changes aside, the strange heterogeneity of hiking signs and their placement leaves me wondering: why isn’t there some sort of standard that dictates these rules? Even if rules change from location to location, they could be communicated next to an overview map of the routes. That way, the hiker knows exactly what to expect. It might eliminate a few marital quarrels here. “I told you we should be going that way!"

On the other hand, perhaps that eliminates a bit of the fun during the hike itself: finding your way back home or to the car.

tags icon hiking signs Borgloon

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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