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, we have to admit, here in New York, our registers ask for a lot of information which we do not give (i.e., address). Yes, we know not a great way to start a post on why to use the register. We do give the town we live in but not the address.
We feel that if a search is initiated, it will happen because the person or people we’ve left trip information with will call if we don’t return. ALWAYS leave a trip itinerary with a trusted person.
We’re sure there are scenarios and arguments against my preference, but we weigh our personal data being put out there vs. our entire safety plan on or off the trail and how we feel this data can help.
Having said that, WE 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 group leader’s first initial and last name vs. full name will keep you safer. We write our last name.
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. It may help rangers search for another person as they can reach out to other hikers that were in the area at about the same time. Another key usage for these registers is to track area usage.
Using this tool helps land managers make informed decisions about allocating resources and important issues such as justifying budgets. Additionally, authorities may attempt to contact people who logged in at a register if they feel that it may help with a rescue or other issue.
As hikers, we use them for safety and 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 to help other travelers make informed decisions.
Related reading: How to Estimate How Long It Takes to Complete a Hike
Our advice is never to leave the trail-head without signing in and out on return at the same register or signing out at the trail terminus on a point-to-point. In other words, always sign in and out.
Anatomy of a trail register and kiosk
Key for Denning Trail-head Picture
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 the top of the 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 phones. With Scott’s old dyslexic, obsessive-compulsive brain, He’ll do both in fear of writing the numbers down wrong. His 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 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, land managers will post specific information related to safety and rules; read it and use it. Remember, traveling safely in the backcountry starts well before you step foot on a trail, including good trip planning and signing registers.
Posts done in collaboration by Chris and Scott