Understanding The Skiing Trail Difficulty Signs & Symbols

Ski Trail signs
James Shaffer
By James Shaffer
Last updated on February 22, 2021
Table of Contents

Have you ever wondered what it means when a skier or snowboarder says, "Yeah, I can do the blacks" or "I ski mostly blue trails?"

They are referring to a mountain resort trail designation system that categorizes ski and snowboard slopes by difficulty. Since the 1960s, mountain resorts throughout North America (and much of the world) have used green circles, blue squares, and black diamonds to indicate the difficulty of a particular route. Nordic trail systems often use these symbols, too. This is what the symbols look like and mean:

Easy trail symbolthe easiest trails at a particular resort
Moderate difficulty trail symboltrails that are more difficult
Difficult trail symboltrails that are the most difficult

Other things to know about the trail marking system:

  • Each resort ranks its own trails based on the difficulty of that particular area. At most resorts, you'll find that about 25 percent of the trails are designated green, about 50 percent are blue, and about 25 percent are black. But if a mountain is steep all over, the green-circle trails will be a huge challenge for novices. They are the easiest trails at that resort, but they may be too tough for someone who is just learning as a beginner.
  • A few resorts use the symbols in combination to show even more degrees of difficulty. As you progress, you will find it very helpful to have five or six levels instead of just three. Telluride, Colorado, for instance, uses single and double markings to show six degrees of difficulty, like this:
Easy trail symboleasiest
Easy trail symbol Easy trail symboleasy
Moderate difficulty trail symbolmore difficult
Moderate difficulty trail symbol Moderate difficulty trail symbolstill more difficult
Difficult trail symbolmost difficult
Difficult trail symbol Difficult trail symbolextremely difficult

Winter Park, another large Colorado resort, has five designations: a green circle, blue square, black diamond inside a blue square, black diamond and double black diamond. Their intermediate marks look like this:

Moderate difficulty trail symbolmore difficult trails
More difficult trail symboleven more difficult trails
Most Difficult trail symbolmost difficult
  • You will also sometimes see a new trail designation on maps and signage, an orange oval. This marking will be used for halfpipes and freestyle terrain parks.
Halfpipes or freestyle parks trail symbolHalfpipes or freestyle parks (varying difficulty)

Getting Off To A Good Start

Whenever you are at a new resort, pick up a trail map at the ticket window. Trail markings are indicated on the map, and also on large signposts at the top of trails and at trail crossings.

Make your first run on an "easier" slope, not only to warm up but also to understand the relative degree of difficulty at that area.

Are the "easiest" slopes truly easy?

How can you find out if the "easiest" terrain is truly easy? Once again, the best thing you can do is to ask a guide or worker at the ski resort you're at. Talk to them about your previous ski experiences and locations (if you've had any) and let them know whether you found it difficult or not. Chances are, there'll be some of the staff or a guide that's been where you've been as well.

Did you know? In 1964, the first trail marking system in the U.S. used a green square for "easiest," yellow triangle for "more difficult," blue circle for "most difficult" and a red diamond for "extreme caution."

Usa ski trail difficulty symbols in 1964-1968

Four years later, the signs were modified to the present system of a green circle, a blue square, and a black diamond.

To sum up, this is how the symbols and signs look today (with the inclusion of some nice-to-know ski lift signs):

ski and snowboard trail difficulty levels signs

Check out the National Ski Patrol's video on trail signs:

James Shaffer

James Shaffer

James is a veteran snowboarder and skier. His passion for snow sport dates back to his early life growing up in Colorado. He spent his early adulthood as a ski instructor around popular locations in Europe but is now back in Colorado.
Published October 21, 2020
Last updated February 22, 2021
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