Trail Flagging

One of the most frustrating things for a distance runner is to get lost due to poor flagging. Sometimes this can even be dangerous. Therefore, it is a key responsibility of racer management and flaggers to ensure flagging is executed to the highest level. This article gives an overview of our approach.

Sweaty Yeti will be offering half-day training clinics for people wishing to flag our races, email us if you are interested!

The basic benchmarks for flagging at Sweaty Yeti are:

  • Navigation is not, unless specifically stipulated, the goal or a requirement of races.
  • Racers should not have to go for more than a few minutes, 500m at most, without seeing a confidence marker. This includes well-defined trails with no junctions…. if there are junctions or areas of poorly defined trail, the markings should be more frequent… and should be more frequent at night.
  • If a racer is likely to be blind-sided by a hazard, it should be flagged. This is particularly important at night or late in the race when people are tired and may not be as attentive.
  • However, Sweaty Yeti races take play under the “Big Boy” rule – racers are responsible for their own safety – flagging should help, but the responsibility cannot be abrogated

Flagging comes in two colours: pink shows the correct way, while blue indicates the wrong way – remember “BLUE IS BAD”.

There are several types of flagging which are used with these colours:

  • Simple flagging tape (attached using a bow NOT a knot – see below)
  • Dragons: flagging tape attached to a clothes peg
  • Paper dragons: a pink card (usually with reflective flashing on both sides) attached to a clothes peg so it can swivel
  • Pins – switches of fabric on a wire stem. These are carried in PVC quivers; the small ones carry about 100 pins in good condition, while the large ones carry about 400 in good condition or 100 which have seen better days.
  • Tyvek signs
    • Yellow with arrows, usually with a red reflective tape, showing the direction to travel
    • Blue with a bar and white reflective tape, showing the way NOT to travel
    • Red with three arrows pointing down, indicating a hazard which may not be obvious

Whenever the route to follow is not obvious, flagging should be used. For example, junctions between two or more trails, or where the trail becomes unclear. As before, even if the trail is obvious and without junctions, runners should not have to go more than 500m or 5 minutes without a confidence marker.

To flag a junction, use as many of these components as may be needed to make the choice clear:

  • Several flags leading into the corner to alert runners that something is happening… in the throws of Ultra-Brain, every warning is worthwhile!
  • Blue flagging and Wrong Way signs to block off the wrong way to go
  • Yellow arrow signs to show the correct way to go
  • Flagging leading through the corner and out in the correct direction

Again – not every junction needs all of these – use the ones which make sense to help sleep-deprived runners follow the correct path. However, at a minimum, if there is any chance of runners taking the wrong turn, place one flag at the junction and one a few metres down the correct way.

Where a trail becomes unclear, positive-direction (pink) flagging is generally more useful than blue (wrong-way) flagging, but use whatever makes sense. In the extreme case (where there is NO useful trail, such as crossing a fresh snow field or a boulder field), runners should be able to see both the previous flag and the next flag from each location.

When choosing where to place flagging, the most important aspect is that it is clearly visible from as far as possible as runners approach. However, where possible, flagging should be placed so that runners looking back or retracing their path can easily see it. As you flag a route, look ahead and plan where to place the next flag from as far back as possible.

Tyvek signs may be affixed in a few ways. They may be clipped to branches or edges with clothes pegs; flagging tape may be used to tie the sign to something; or pins may be fed through the holes to peg them into the ground. As a last resort, you can staple them to trees or posts – but this reduces their life a lot, and they are expensive, so this should be a last resort.

Flagging tape seems simple, but there are tricks. One of the simplest mistakes people make with simple flagging is to tie the tape around an obstacle with a knot… or worse, a double-knot. The better way is to tie the tape using a bow, so that the long tail can be pulled to release the tape – this takes a few more seconds when setting the flag, but makes clearing the course substantially easier; on balance, it reduces the workload.

In summary, navigation and route-finding should not be the challenge of a race – unless it is expressly identified. There are several flagging tools to help achieve this. This article and the accompanying video show how this can be achieved.

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