June 12, 2024
DSC0307 2 by ..Gratefulhume.. is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.750

DSC0307 2 by ..Gratefulhume.. is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.750

Rock cairns can be a useful navigation tool, but be aware of the risks they pose to the environment. This guide will teach you everything you need to know about rock cairns and why you should avoid building them.

What Is the Purpose of Rock Cairns on Hiking Trails: Are They Helpful or Harmful?

Rock cairns, or stacks of rocks, have been a popular feature on hiking trails for many years. While they are often used to guide hikers on their way, they can also lead to confusion and disturbance in the natural environment. This article explores the history of rock cairns, the reasons behind their creation, and the impact they have on the environment and other hikers. It also provides advice on what to do if you encounter a rock cairn on your next hike and why you should avoid building them yourself.

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DSC0307 2 by ..Gratefulhume.. is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.
DSC0307 2 by ..Gratefulhume.. is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.

What Are Rock Cairns?

Rock cairns are man-made rock piles that are used for navigational purposes in hiking. The word “cairn” is a Scottish Gaelic word literally meaning “heap of stones” and they have been used throughout history for many purposes, from marking trails in grass-covered, hilly landscapes to marking gravesites and hiding caches of food supplies. They are used as navigational tools, burial sites in many ancient cultures, and more recently as a form of artistic expression or even a competitive game like a game of Jenga in the wild.

Are Rock Carins Good or Bad?

Are rock cairns good or bad? This is a highly contested topic, with proponents citing their aesthetic beauty, navigational purpose, and even mindfulness practices, while opponents deem them an environmental menace that disrupts natural ecosystems and undermines the Leave No Trace rule of recreating outdoors.

Rock cairns are not inherently bad, as they can be useful in marking hiking trails and have been used in this way for centuries. However, when visitors create rock cairns purely for aesthetic reasons in national parks or other protected areas, they should be aware of the potential negative impacts this can have on the environment.

For instance, moving rocks can disturb the natural ecosystem of the landscape, expose soil to unnecessary erosion, and even pose a danger of falling and harming insects and animals. Furthermore, an overabundance of rock cairns can detract from the natural beauty of the landscape and take away from the Leave No Trace rule of recreating outdoors.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that while rock cairns can be helpful and beautiful; it is best to only build them when absolutely necessary in order to preserve the natural beauty of the outdoors and protect the environment.

What Does the National Park Service Say About Rock Carins?

The National Parks Service (NPS) advises people to leave existing cairns alone, and refrain from building them. This is largely due to a recent increase in building rock piles for photo opportunities and social media posts, which is in direct violation of the Leave No Trace rule of recreating in the outdoors.

Additionally, the NPS recommends that visitors check with park rangers for information on the design and materials used in the creation of any cairns they encounter on the trail to differentiate official markers from impromptu ones.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that rock cairns can be useful for navigation, and should only be made by park rangers, trail maintenance volunteers, or trail creators. When hiking, it’s essential to leave the rocks alone and adhere to the Leave No Trace principles. Moving rocks around in nature can alter the environment for the next visitor, and in National Parks can be considered illegal. So, the next time you’re out exploring, remember to be respectful of your surroundings and leave no trace.

Stacking rocks on Vashon Island @ Camp Sealth by FlintWeiss is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0.
Stacking rocks on Vashon Island @ Camp Sealth by FlintWeiss is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0.

How Do You Identify a Rock Cairn?

Rock cairns are used to identify trails, especially in backcountry areas where it can be difficult to tell which direction to take. To identify a rock cairn, look for a unique formation of rocks, usually in the shape of an arrow, that points in the direction of the trail. A typical rock cairn is made from a single, larger rock at the base, with two smaller rocks stacked on top of it, with a long rock used to bridge the two stacks. The top of the cairn is usually topped with another rock to indicate the direction of the trail.

For example, Bates Cairns are known for their unique construction and are used to mark trails in the Acadia National Park in Maine. To identify a Bates Cairn, look for two rock stacks with either a single, larger rock or two smaller rocks stacked, spaced inches apart, with a long rock bridging the two stacks, and topped with another rock.

Max Assembled Nature Made by bmooneyatwork is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.
Max Assembled Nature Made by bmooneyatwork is licensed under CC BY NC SA 2.0.

How Are Rock Cairns Used for Navigation?

Rock cairns are used for navigation by hikers in the wilderness. They are usually found in places where trails are not well-established or in barren areas and serve as a guide for hikers who may have become lost or disoriented.

Step-by-Step Instructions:

  1. Stop and look for a rock cairn if you have become lost or disoriented while hiking.
  2. Follow the cairns in the direction they point until you find the trail again or arrive at your destination.
  3. Look for pyramid-shaped piles of stones that appear to have been there for a while, as they are likely to be cairns.
  4. Avoid using rock cairns for recreational purposes like building towers, as they can potentially lead unsuspecting hikers astray.

Example:

“While hiking in the alpine tundra, I became lost and couldn’t find the trail I was on. I stopped and looked around for any signs of a cairn, and eventually found one. It was a pyramid-shaped pile of stones that appeared to have been there for some time. I followed the direction of the cairn and eventually was able to find the trail again. I was relieved to have found the trail and was thankful for the rock cairn that was there to guide me.”

-Author Unknown

What Are the Legal Implications of Rock Cairns?

The legal implications of rock cairns are serious. Building rock cairns is technically illegal and can be seen as vandalism, which can result in fines or other penalties.

Visitors caught building cairns are often discouraged from doing so by rangers. This is because building cairns can distract from the natural beauty of the area, uproot plants and disturb habitats of insects and small mammals, and cause erosion that can wash away plant and animal life. Rock cairns can also pose a safety hazard if built on cliffs or hillsides, as they can tumble and fall on hikers below.

Adding to existing rock cairns can make them impossible to read as trail markers, sending hikers in the wrong direction. Therefore, it is important to understand that rock cairns should only be made by park rangers, trail maintenance volunteers, or trail creators in order to ensure safety and minimize disruption to the natural environment.

What Are the Historical Origins of Rock Cairns?

Rock cairns have been part of human history for centuries and have been used for a variety of purposes. The name originates from a Gaelic term that means “heap of stones” and was likely first used by Scots to mark trails across grass-covered, hilly landscapes. In the Andes Mountains and Mongolia, rock cairns were used to mark routes to safety, to food, and to villages. In the Arctic, European explorers left cairns with messages hidden within and also dismantled many cairns left by indigenous people. In the American Southwest, rock cairns were likely used to mark burial sites and create memorials.

In Scotland, it is traditional to bring a rock with you when climbing a mountain and placing it on the pile at the top, while highlanders returning from battle would remove a stone from a pile to mark their survival. In Northern Europe and North American Indigenous cultures, cairns have been used to mark gravesites, while in Scandinavia they were used to mark coastal pathways. In Peru, rock cairns are built as shrines and they hold symbolism in folklore from Britain, Ireland and Greek mythology.

More recently, people have been using rock cairns for social media posts, creating gravity-defying formations and posting them online. However, this trend has caused controversy as it often goes against the “leave no trace” policies of many conservationists.

What Are the Traditional Uses of Rock Cairns?

Rock cairns have been used for centuries for a variety of purposes. In America, rock cairns are used to mark trails and paths that are not obvious. All over the world, cairns have been used as symbols of respect, markers of burial sites, directional markers, and even to hide caches of food. In indigenous cultures from Canada, Greenland, North and South America, Inuksuk (stone sculptures that acted as landmarks) are used to mark paths and directions.

In the Neolithic period, rock cairns were important as they acted as sculptures embedded in folklore, culture and travel. In many cultures, cairns are seen as spiritual objects, such as in Jewish religion, where rocks or cairns are placed on graves to signify eternal love. In sea-faring countries, larger cairns were used to mark trails and oceans.

In the Buddhist tradition, large rock cairns are placed atop peaks near temples.

Cairns are also used for ceremonial purposes, such as in Mongolia where they are used to mark burial sites in cemeteries, and in Tibet they are used in Buddhist ceremonies to call in good fortune and balance out conflicting energies. Prior to the invention of lighthouses, cairns were used to warn sailors away from Norway’s jagged fjords. In addition, they were used as trade route markers for sled dogs in Alaska, and even as a key tool in a strategy for hunting bison by indigenous groups from the Rocky Mountain foothills to deep in the Dakota plains.

Photo by D. Saparow
Photo by D. Saparow

Why You Shouldn’t Build Rock Cairns

Building rock cairns in parks and backcountry trails should be avoided as it is often considered illegal, environmentally disruptive, and can lead to safety risks. Not only do they distract from the natural beauty of the parks, but they can cause harm to the habitats of bugs, reptiles, and small mammals that live under the rocks. Additionally, when too many rocks are removed from an area, it can lead to soil erosion and the displacement of plants and animal life.

Rock cairns can also pose a serious safety issue. When large rocks are used to build cairns on cliffs or hillsides, they can easily topple over and fall on hikers far below. Additionally, if existing rock cairns were built by park officials and more rocks are added to them, they could become impossible to read as trail markers, leading to disorientation. Lastly, when cairns are overbuilt in an area, they can become a nuisance to the nature preservation team that maintains trails and pathways and can send hikers in the wrong direction.

For these reasons, it is important to respect the Leave No Trace principles and avoid building rock cairns, unless you are a park ranger, trail maintenance volunteer, or trail creator.

1. They aren’t always effective as markers

Rock cairns can be ineffective markers due to a number of reasons. Firstly, if they are not built correctly or are built by inexperienced hikers, they can lead others astray from the actual route, potentially resulting in dangerous situations. Secondly, if they are built to mark a hiker’s personal route, there is no guarantee that someone else won’t move or add to the cairn, making it difficult for the original hiker to find their way back. Thirdly, building cairns can be a strain on local resources, as emergency services often have to rescue hikers who do not stick to the trail. Lastly, building decorative cairns can take away from the natural beauty of an area and disregard Leave No Trace principles.

2. They can be confusing for other hikers

Building rock cairns can be confusing for other hikers if they are placed off the trail, as it can lead hikers astray and put them in dangerous places. Furthermore, if hikers build cairns to mark their own route, there is no guarantee that someone else won’t move or disturb the stones, meaning the hiker may have difficulty finding their way back. Such rock-stacking can also lead to erosion or destruction of habitats, and if rocks are moved to add to the top of a cairn it could cause the whole thing to collapse.

3. They can cause damage to vegetation

Building rock cairns can damage vegetation by disrupting the delicate ecosystems of the area and exposing seedlings of rare and endangered species to potential death or injury. It can also destabilize the soil, making the area more vulnerable to erosion, and disrupt aquatic habitats by removing rocks from water bodies. In addition, it can pose a serious safety issue if large rocks are used to build cairns on cliffs or hillsides, as they could tumble and fall on hikers below.

4. They can be dangerous if they are confused with markers indicating a trail

Rock cairns can be dangerous to build, as they can lead hikers astray from the actual path and into dangerous places. For example, an experienced hiker or guide can be misled by strangers’ rock stacks, which could lead to serious consequences such as getting stuck out after nightfall, falling from a cliff, or straining local resources. Additionally, picking up a rock in the wild could put hikers at risk for scorpions, snakes, and other creatures. Furthermore, building cairns can confuse those not familiar with the area, disrupt delicate microhabitats, and contribute to soil erosion. For these reasons, rock cairns should be left to park rangers, trail maintenance volunteers, or trail creators to construct.

5. They are generally not needed in well-marked trails

Building rock cairns in well-marked trails is generally discouraged, as it can lead to dangerous situations and potentially strain local resources. It can mislead other hikers who are unfamiliar with the terrain, and the rock stacks could be moved or built upon by someone else, thus making it difficult to find one’s way back. Furthermore, picking up rocks in the wild may put one in proximity to dangerous animals, such as scorpions or snakes.

Rather than making one’s mark on the natural environment, it is important to follow the Leave No Trace principles and to move through the landscape in such a way that there is no direct sign that one was there, thousands of years from the present. If a navigational resource is insufficient, the land management organization should be notified. Additionally, a great way to get creative in nature without disturbing the environment is to bring paper and pencil to sketch the landscape.

20100822 36 by nimdok is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0.
20100822 36 by nimdok is licensed under CC BY ND 2.0.

6. They can cause rock stacking disorder

Rock stacking disorder is the phenomenon of people building stacks of rocks, otherwise known as cairns, for their aesthetic or spiritual appeal. Although cairns have been used for centuries to mark trails, the recent surge in rock stacking and the negative environmental impacts it brings have been a cause for concern.

Building rock cairns can have a negative impact on the environment, as it can disrupt ecosystems, cause erosion, and can even be fatal to small animals and insects living in these areas. For example, when people take rocks from the side of a river, pond, or lake, it can cause destruction to the homes of microinvertebrates, which are essential to freshwater food chains. In addition, the structure of cairns can be unstable and can collapse, leading to potentially dangerous situations for unsuspecting hikers.

Overall, rock stacking disorder is a serious problem and can lead to destruction of the environment, as well as potentially dangerous situations for hikers. It is important for people to be mindful of the impacts of their actions and to be aware of the Leave No Trace principles when recreating in the outdoors.

7. They can be expensive and time-consuming

Rock cairns are often viewed as an eyesore, and can even be a distraction from natural beauty or disrupt ecosystems. They can be expensive and time consuming to create as well. For example, StoneCairns offer rock cairns for sale, with prices ranging from $17 to $34.99, and some require a significant amount of time to construct and assemble. Additionally, there may be official rules to abide by in certain areas, adding to the time and cost required to create a cairn.

8. They are not always aesthetically pleasing

The downsides of building rock cairns include potential confusion for lost hikers, cultural insensitivity to past and present residents of the area, disruption of ecosystems, an eyesore that detracts from untouched environments, erosion of delicate soil, disturbance of habitats of bugs, reptiles, and small mammals, risk of rocks falling and injuring unsuspecting hikers, discouragement and even illegality by park authorities, and negative effect on those seeking solo wilderness experiences.

9. They can be potentially damaging to wildlife

Are rock cairns potentially damaging to wildlife?

Yes, rock cairns can be potentially damaging to wildlife. Visitors to Hawaii, for example, should be aware that rock cairns can put local plants, insects, animals and more at risk due to their fragile ecosystems. If rocks are moved around, this can potentially kill endangered species, destabilize the soil, and disrupt aquatic habitats. In addition, when rocks are removed from rivers and other water bodies, it can expose invertebrates that use the rocks for shelter and breeding purposes, leaving them vulnerable. Building rock cairns on cliffs or hillsides can also be dangerous, as they may tumble and fall on hikers. Even if the environment is changed with the tides, it is important to remember that inland, rock cairns can potentially disturb the natural ecosystem of the landscape, erode the soil, and cause injury to insects and animals. For these reasons, it is important to be aware of the potential negative effects of creating rock cairns.

Final Thoughts

Rock cairns play an important role in the hiking and outdoor community as they provide guidance and direction to hikers and serve as markers for important locations. These stacks of stones have been used for centuries and remain a valuable tool for outdoor enthusiasts today. Despite their practical purpose, they also serve as cultural symbols and tell the story of human interaction with the natural world. The continued use and creation of rock cairns serves as a reminder of our connection to nature and the role we play in preserving and protecting it.

Happy Trails,

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Rock Cairn Guidance From Leave No Trace

Watch on YouTube | Channel: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics

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