The segmental arrangement of spinal nerves in higher vertebrate embryos provides a simple system in which to study the factors that influence axon pathfinding. Developing motor and sensory axons are intimately associated with surrounding tissues that direct axon guidance. We argue that two distinct guidance mechanisms, viz. contact repulsion and chemorepulsion, act simultaneously to prescribe spinal axon trajectories by 'surround-repulsion'. Motor and sensory axons grow freely within the anterior half of each mesodermal somite, because they are excluded from posterior half-somites by contact repulsion. By contrast, the dorsoventral trajectory that bipolar sensory axons of the dorsal root ganglia follow is governed by diffusible repellents originating from the notochord medially and dermamyotome laterally. Even though spinal nerve development appears to be a simple system for elucidating axon guidance mechanisms, many distinct candidate guidance molecules have been implicated and their relative contributions remain to be evaluated.