If there was an all-star team of global positioning system (GPS) devices, reflector tacks would be in the starting lineup.

They’re the fingernail-size thumbtacks covered with reflective sticky-dots. Push them into tree bark and they’re perfect for marking trails. I’ve relied on them for years to guide my clumsy duff in and out of the woods during darkness. At a time when GPS technology is all the rage, a simple light beam on those unsung trail markers outshines high tech for ease of travel in dense timber. If they were available by the pound, I’d buy them like nails at the hardware store.

But reflector tacks are about more than geographic survival. They nurture both a literal and magical closeness to the natural world. They slow me down, force me to observe, ask for quiet contemplation, call up creativity and help me see the forest in ways I might have otherwise missed. They guide me safely home so I can tell stories around the campfire about my experiences.

Though I use reflector tacks primarily for traveling to and from deer stands, they’re also useful trail markers for overnight camping, hiking, and wading or boating to duck blinds in swampland.

No doubt, reflector tacks collaborate with a GPS and a compass. The tacks are the Hansel and Gretel element after the high tech has done its work determining destinations. Keep the GPS handy until an entire trail has been marked. Then put that pricey gizmo into energy-saver mode, and reflector tacks will take you from there.

The method

The short, quarter-inch shank on reflector tacks doesn’t damage trees, but they can be prickly to humans. I had a friend in Boy Scouts who once used his pants pocket as a tackle box for a half-dozen Rapalas. It took a while to detach him from his pocket and the same principle applies here. Before I enter the woods, I store a cluster of tacks in a plastic bottle that travels comfortably in my clothing. The bottle has a large opening and the lid comes off easily — when I want it to — but otherwise stays fastened.

Trail marking requires layers of repetition, particularly for longer-distance destinations. I start by pushing two tacks into a relatively healthy tree. However, sometimes I have to accept the tree I’m offered. The double tacks become my trailhead anchor and let me know I’ve arrived at the same tree when I return. It’s helpful during times when I come in from an unfamiliar direction.

From there, I take the path of least resistance in the general direction of my tree stand and place single tacks in trees of an initial section. While standing beside any of those trees, I look for an unobstructed view of the next tack down the trail. The distance between each depends on brush density. I work as far along a trail as I can without losing sight of the first tree in a section. I also don’t want to tack too many, especially on public land. Illuminating the forest like Minneapolis reflecting on the Mississippi defeats the purpose of being out there. Minimalism takes precedent, and removing them at the end of the season on public land.

Then I travel back, tacking trees along the way for the return route. I’ve found that simply putting tacks in the opposite side of trees with existing tacks doesn’t always work. Many factors interfere, like other trees or branches that block my sightline. So, consider different trees.

This ebb and flow continues: Go deeper into the woods, retrace steps, lengthen the trail to a next stretch, return.

Brush is so thick at times that twists and turns are inevitable. In these situations, “connecting the dots” is helpful. I shorten the section of trail-marking, take the easiest detour around the brush and tack a tree on the other side of the brush that restarts the trail. With these two ends marked, a walking path can be cleared through it.

But those detours are sometimes misleading and result is in an inefficient array of dead ends. Thus, going around the brush, rather than through it, is Option Two. This is also vitally important on public land where cutting or damaging trees and vegetation is unlawful. Therefore, I’ve devised a “tacks’ code” to indicate when I should distinctly veer, or make a sharp left or right. These turn signals are designed in cryptic patterns — known only to me — to improve my chances of being the only one who shows up at my tree stand.

Once the tacks are in place, I walk the trail from end to end in both directions, fine-tuning it for safe, quiet entry during deer season. Windfall branches get moved aside from under foot and wherever possible, face-slapper twigs are tucked back.

The closeness

Establishing a footpath into the woods takes time and I don’t begrudge a bit of it. Physical exercise is different when walking slowly across forest terrain. Unseen rocks, branches and bumps cause teeterings that force leg, stomach and back muscles to rescue the upper body in the battle between gravity and upright.

I also begin nicknaming inhabitants of the surroundings, like the Fuzzy Aspen and the Elephant Foot Stump, to help me remember locations. It generates a feel of familiarity.

Without conscious intent, I catch myself examining tree bark and learning subtleties of color, texture and moss that distinguish one tree from the next and help determine its age. I inhale an ever-present mix of fragrances exuding from dried leaves, soil and pine needles. When I’m lucky, some of those aromas travel home with me as passengers in my boots or sap on my hands. I hear a beaver tail smack the water on a nearby lake. I watch a grouse pick its way across the forest floor until it’s within four yards of a tree I’m about to tack. So I wait. And it never knows I’m there.

Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached at sstowell19@yahoo.com.