LAST UPDATED: 6 November 2023
A Guide to Sustainable Trail Course Marking
A race director's perspective on how to sustainably mark a trail race course to minimise environmental impact.
One of the bigger changes in running an ultra marathon, or any event for that matter, is how to have less of an environmental impact in the way you run your event. Course marking has always been one of the bigger waste-producing parts of the race, with most, if not all, of the course marking materials being used once and then discarded.
But it doesn't have to be that way, and small changes can have a big impact. Let me show you how we do it at our event, the Swiss Alps 100.
At the Swiss Alps 100 we offer 6 different divisions, which are a free 1K Kids Run, the Fly Division, a 6.2mi 6,000ft total uphill Vertical, a 50K, 100K and the tough 160K distance. All these divisions mean a lot of miles to be covered by the runners.
Our marking philosophy
The Swiss Alps 100 is a green event, so of course we put a lot of thought into our markings. The markings have to be very clear and easy for the runners to follow. But they also have to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Over the course of 3 years, we have refined our marking strategies and materials to the point where we can reuse over 95% of all materials.
Marking materials we use
To get as close as possible to zero waste without compromising a clear and easy to follow path, we found that small flags, ribbons and signs work best. We are using approximately 2,500 flags, 1,500 ribbons, and 25 signs in our events.
Small flags work very well because you can use them anywhere since they do not need anything like a tree to hold them up. Another big advantage is that they're on the ground and runners can look down on the trail. We invested in custom flags, which have a custom message on the flag, a highly reflective tape underneath, and are held up by a strong bamboo pole.
The main advantage is that almost all of them can be reused for many years. The strong bamboo pole does not break as easily as a plastic pole. We only discard a flag if the bamboo stick is broken or if the flag is torn or missing. After the event, we tie them together in packs of 50 and store them for next year.
For our ribbons, we buy 50-meter rolls of orange fabric ribbons with a reflective strip in the middle. It's the same material used for safety clothing. We cut strips about 30in (80cm) long, thread them halfway through the clothespin, and tie them together. That's all it takes.
This method has several advantages. First, the fabric strips won't deteriorate or tear, and the stainless steel clothespin won't rust. It can be used year after year. Plus, they are super easy to pin to a tree or anywhere else, and the sweepers really love them because they walk right by them and just grab them. They come right off without breaking.
After the race, we collect them and put them back in bundles of about 60 ribbons.
We always use a sign when we have a difficult turn or distance to split. They are lightweight but weatherproof so we can use them for many years.
While telling the runners where to go, we also add information for the sweepers. Some of the signs are picked up by the sweepers and some are picked up by aid station volunteers.
Marking materials we do not use
Barrier or high-visibility tape: These are usually used once and then thrown in the trash.
Spray paint: Typical spray paint lasts for many decades. Chalk spray that promises to be gone in 2 to 3 weeks often is not, depending on where it is sprayed. Chalk spray applied to a tree will remain there for many years.
Flour/starch paint: For a race that is held in a high-wind environment and where rain may occur, flour/starch paint is not an option for us.
So there you are...
Sustainable course marking takes a little effort to get started, but once the flags, tapes, and signs are ready, they can be easily reused for many years. It is well worth the effort, and if many races adopt this or something similar, a lot of disposable marker material can be avoided.