Most maintained trails have a trail register and possibly a kiosk. In our many years on the trail we have observed back-country travelers faithfully sign-in and out providing valuable information for authorities. We have also seen hikers, hunters, trail-runners, mountain bikers, etc. pass right by them as they don’t exist.
First I have to admit, here in New York, our registers ask for a lot of information which I do not give (i.e., address). Yes, I know not a great way to start a post on why to use the register. I do give the town I live in but not my address. I also do not offer my phone number. I feel that if a search is initiated it will happen because the person or people I’ve left my trip information with will call if I don’t return. I’m sure there are scenarios and arguments against my preference, but I weigh my personal data being put out there vs. my entire safety plan on or off the trail and how I feel this data can help.
Having said that, I FILL EVERYTHING ELSE OUT, IN DETAIL, at the register. However, note that on its safety page for the Appalachian Trail the NPS states:
“Using gender-specific names or revealing personal information may make you more vulnerable.”
The choice is yours. Maybe using the first initial and last name of group leader vs full name will keep you safer.
What is the purpose of the trail registers?
Registers have several purposes. First, if something happens to you such as getting lost or injured, the register record provides search teams the best tool for finding you. Secondly, in areas where registers are located at various points in the back-country specifically at trail junctions, it will help track your progress. Another key usage for these registers is to track area usage. Using this tool helps land managers make informed decisions about allocation of resources and important issues such as justifying budgets.
As hikers, we use them for safety but also to assess who’s on the trail going where and possibly camping at specific locations. If we plan to camp at a shelter and see that a Boy Scout group of 10 is signed in and camping at the shelter we may need to adjust plans. Better to get an idea at the trailhead rather than after a five-mile hike to the shelter. In this light, it is socially responsible to log-in your trip information as it may help other travelers make informed decisions.
An excellent article in the NYS DEC publication The Conservationist written by NYS DEC Ranger Scott VanLaer highlights the value of signing in at registers. You can read it here.
Our advice is never leave the trail-head without signing in and out on return at the same register or signing out at the trail terminus on a. In other words, always sign in and out.
Anatomy of a trail register and kiosk
A – Trail-head Log, B – Chalkboard (new notices), C – Map of Catskill Park, D – Map of Region in Catskills for this Trailhead, E – Tips on Backcountry Preparedness, F – Emergency Information & Numbers, G – Bear Information, H – Sanitation Information, I – DEC & Catskill Rules & Regulations, J – water Treatment & Safety
Many trailhead registers are simple boxes with a sign-in log (pictured at top of page). These simple boxes will also have important information such as emergency numbers. We usually write these numbers down or even take a picture of them with our phone. With my old dyslexic, obsessive compulsive brain, I’ll do both in fear of writing the numbers down wrong. My phone has no such problem.
Registers at larger trailheads may have a kiosk. These will have varying amounts of information. Take some time to read it. Many hikers simply assume it is the same information that has been there in the past or is simply generic. However, don’t make this assumption. Trails close or get rerouted, bridges wash out, shelters burn or are removed, primitive campsites get closed, and springs may dry up. These among any number of things in the back-country may be posted, so read the information posted. The kiosk is your last-minute “reality check” before stepping out on the trail.
In our experience, there is no downside to registering at the trail-head and many in not doing so.
If you are new to hiking in general or new to hiking in an area, specific information that relates to safety and rules will be posted, read it and use it. Remember, traveling safely in the backcountry starts well before you ever step foot on a trail, this includes both good trip planning and signing registers.