America’s great trail, the Appalachian Trail, runs 2,181 miles long. It begins at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Blazes are on trees and sometimes posts and rocks. Side trails and shelter trails use blue blazes. How impossible it would be to make that trek without trail markers all along the way.

In 1979, as a newly hired party chief, some of the old chiefs complained to me about using too much flagging. Those “old timers” told me how they used to go to the fabric store and buy red cloth to make their own flags to tie onto lath; how much upset the boss would be if he saw me using so much. They might have been pulling my leg about the cloth, but it makes sense.

trail marker

I never discussed my flagging use with the supervisor, Ernie. I was using rolls of plastic flagging and did go through a lot of it for various reasons.

First, I want to see the things I marked and find them when I returned to the site. When setting up a traverse, I needed to stand and easily see boundary markers, possibly from a distance. Often I would cut a small tree, sharpen the bottom and stick it in the ground next to a point. I refer to them as George Washington lath. Then I would tie flagging about eye height so when I picked my spot for the next traverse point I knew I could look back and see the instrument or prism.

For many years, I have paid for the flagging and know it is worth it to me to use as much flagging as I feel necessary. Another reason, among the many, for using lots of flagging is for the survey where you are weeks late in getting started and want to shout out a sort of “KILROY WAS HERE.” I started that practice years ago when the company VP told me about an angry client.

Could you go out and make it look like we were getting things done to appease the customer?

With only a few hours left in the day, I walked the site, put in some hubs and lath, where possible traverse points might be set, and flagged them well. Then I quickly walked the site and tied up very visible strips of flagging at fence corners and places where corners “might be found” using a different color flagging.

I teach my employees to do this also, and I have never had a person accuse me of faking anything. The most important part of the time to light up a site is to calm the client and make them feel respected. The cost of time is perhaps like a traffic ticket for me as an employer but well worth the effort.

There are occasions when a minimum of flagging is prudent. I have found that during weekdays, the majority of people are not home. I knock on the door, wait 30 seconds, and then proceed through the neighbor’s lot to look for corners. Recently, I set a backsight nail on the other side of the neighbor’s property and did not want to spotlight it with a wire flag or lots of flagging. I put a very small piece of pink flagging on a twig near the nail in hopes it would not draw attention. The magnetic nail in the ground had pink flagging but you would not notice it until you walked right up on it. After I set up the control nails and located the boundary corners, I pointed out my backsight nail to my apprentice so she could find it and use it for the basic topographic survey work.

A wise old surveyor showed me a technique he invented. When drafting the final plan with ink on Mylar, he had his secret way of showing his traverse points. Typically, a draftsperson would overlay their rough drafted copy, then, on the Mylar final, he used his thinnest ink pen and put a dot at his traverse point. Then he put four more dots to form what looked like the “five” on a die.

When he had his own business, he always did that to help himself out should he return to the site and look for control points. Thinking back, I’m surprised he did not make it a company-wide policy when he managed the firm where we both worked. Seeing the wisdom in his technique, I did likewise.

At that surveyor’s oldest job where he earned his license in land surveying, while final drafting a plan, he had a way of sneaking his initials on the north arrow. He knew with surveying in his blood, twenty years hence he would want to know the quality of work when picking up an old plan. He knew he could trust his own work.

In the field, there are times I still employ his five-dot symbol. Should I want to make a mark on someone’s flag stone patio, I would place the five small dots. If there were concrete between the stones, then the dots would go on the nice light colored concrete. I figured only my coworkers and employees would ever find my point and then with the aid of a small-scale printout.

Only once have I had a person call me about the mark I made on his patio. I was shocked and knew he had to be observing me from the window. The client must have watched me bend down to make my mark and later walked out to see what I had done. I assured him the sun would bleach it out in no time. Keep in mind, at any time you could be on camera.

This past week, I had daylight left, and stopped by a new project to walk the site and look for corners. I found trail markers from the previous surveyor. As I stood on the roadside where I guessed the property corner to be, I gazed into the brush and saw two short orange wire flags, rusted and bent over. After kicking the leaves away, I found at their base was an old pipe.

My pink wire flag was added to the old flags. Then I put some flagging on a branch hanging over the pipe so I could see it easily when I picked out a place for my traverse point.


Along the sideline of my project, a small piece of flagging caught my eye. It was tied onto the fence surrounding my site and where the neighbor’s fence would intersect our fence. (I generally refer to the client’s property as “our property” during the survey.) Being that it was under the old metal fence, there was little chance I could have easily found it with my metal locator. It was most probable that the flagging had been tied directly over the marker.

After some digging, a pipe appeared and I added another piece of flagging to the fence next to the old flagging. Should some neighbor complain, I like to be able to say that I found the monument, here is where the last surveyor tied their flagging and also explain that I verified the marker was correct. If the neighbor looked at the small dried ancient flagging they would understand it was already there.

I sent a seasoned party chief to perform the fieldwork on the aforementioned survey and just looked at his rough CAD drawing. I noticed he found more points than I had during my short walk. I always appreciate when an employee finds something I did not. I make this comment to encourage all apprentice surveyors to strive to do their best because hard work will be noticed, as will greater talent.

All around the world, surveyors are making their marks, highlighting them, and pointing the way for those who follow. There must be billions of chisel cuts, bits of flagging, paint marks, tree blazes, drill holes, spads, shiners, tack in lead, brass disks, mag nails, concrete nails, to name a few. Like the digital rain code in the “Matrix” movie, we see a world hidden to others, and that’s just one part of why land surveyors are so important, and the expertise only we bring to our profession.