Rock Cairns: What Are They (and What’s All the Fuss About)?

So, you heard about the rock cairns controversy and want to learn more? We’ve got you covered! Below, we’ll give you the full scoop on cairns, including their history, appropriate usage, and a few insights into the kerfuffle they’re causing in the hiking world.

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The Quarrel Over Cairns

Trying to Understand the Controversy About Rock Cairns?

You’re in the right place! In this guide, we will be covering the following:

    • A short history of rock cairns
    • The arguments for and against building cairns
    • Who should build rock cairns?
    • Is it safe to follow cairns?

The work of wise men or the litter-like leavings of hill-wandering nitwits? The debate over the use and (potential) abuse of rock cairns is one that rages on.

In the past, the issue was usually the preserve of mountaineering clubs, trekking groups, and the odd disgruntled, cranky purist.

These days, the topic has become something of a polemic, gaining greater notice and attention owing to a number of incidents and the sheer volume of cairns now bedecking our hill and mountainsides. Cairns are fast becoming, some claim, not only a bit of an eyesore but also an ecological concern and potential health hazard.

So, how did these once inoffensive, handy trail markers come to be such a hornet’s nest? And what are we to take from the controversy and all its kerfuffle? Use them or ignore them? Build them or leave no trace?

In this article, we’re going to take a wander through the world of rock cairns, stopping off to explain how to use them, when to ignore them, and also, of course, to shed some light on what all the fuss is about.

At a Glance: Key Takeaways

Take Each and Every Cairn With a Pinch of Salt – in many locations, distinguishing a bona fide waymarker from a bogus one is a tricky business

Don’t Follow Cairns Blindly – Stop and reassess your whereabouts if you think they might be leading you in the wrong direction

Respect the Rules – Don’t build cairns/stack rocks if prohibited by national parks and other authorities

Give ‘em Hell! – Feel free to regale those who leave litter in and around cairns with the most colorful language in your vocabulary (!)

Don’t Rely Solely on Cairns for Navigation – Always carry a map and compass and/or a GPS

Don’t Build Rock Cairns for Fun – Or for commemorative purposes, or ‘decorative’ purposes

Cairns: All You Need to Know

A Short History of Cairns

Etymology

The word ‘cairn’ is one of Scotland’s greatest linguistic contributions to the English language, second only to the now ubiquitous ‘wee’, ‘blackmail’ and, of course, ‘whisky’. The name derives from the Gaelic ‘carn’, meaning ‘stone mound’, ‘heap of stones’, or ‘rocky hill’.

The summit cairn of Cairngorm Mountain, Scotland
The summit cairn sitting atop Cairngorm Mountain, Scottish Cairngorms.

Origins

The oldest remaining examples of cairns were sepulchral constructions – burial sites (“burial cairns”) built to inter and commemorate the dead. The most famous examples are perhaps the Clava Cairns in Scotland and the Cairn de Barnenez in Brittany, France, which have been dated to 2,000 BC and 4,850 BC respectively, making them the most ancient cairns in existence.

When the cairn was first used for navigation purposes is largely unknown, but accounts from early expeditions in the Himalaya, Hindu Kush, European Alps, Karakorum, and South America all made mention of cairns, which were explicitly used to demarcate routes.

In Scotland, rock cairns were (and still are) customarily constructed on hill and mountaintops by picking up a stone at the foot of the hill and depositing it on the summit.

Cairns: The Current Situation

These days, rock cairns are fairly ubiquitous. Even in zones where trails are commonly waymarked by painted blazes or signposts, the cairn lives on and is thriving despite its detractors and stiff competition from officially endorsed, newfangled equivalents.

Hiker walking toward rock cairn mound
Rock cairns are a common sight, even on well trodden and marked out trails.

The pleas and prohibitions of many park and land management authorities, as well as activist groups, have done little to stall the proliferation and spread of cairns in wild places worldwide.

From the Wadi Rum to New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego to the Drakensberg Range, thousands of hikers every year still navigate by this most rudimentary of human technologies, and a substantial percentage, we’d imagine, still play a part in their construction.

Perhaps the most famous cairn in the hiking and mountaineering world is the Gilkey Memorial at the foot of K2, built to commemorate Art Gilkey, a member of 1953 US expedition to the world’s second highest mountain.

And the world’s highest summit cairn? Despite the obvious inconvenience and other notable distractions, even Everest’s summiteers aren’t averse to a spot of cairn building (even if it’s barely visible through all the prayer flags).

Some areas even have their own style of rock cairn, most notably Acadia National Park, which is home to the Bates Cairn. Bates cairns are similar to all others, only they use two base columns of rocks with a lintel stone laid across the top and another rock on top the lintel.

Mountains Out of Trail Markers: The Controversy About Cairns

When informed that the most heated debate in the hiking world at present concerns the assemblage of small rock piles in wild and mountainous areas, most non-enthusiasts are fairly nonplussed. 

For those of us who are regular outdoor-goers and familiar with the controversy, the cases of the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps both have arguments with which it’s easy to sympathize.

Rock cairn on a clifftop overlooking Himalayas
Controversy over these little guys?

To better understand those arguments and provide a little background to the issue, let’s first take a quick look at the rock cairn’s rise from humble beginnings to international infamy*.

*Kinda…

Squabbling Over Stones: The Case for and Against Cairns

The debate about rock cairns is not a new one. In recent years, however, opponents of unauthorized and willy-nilly bump-builders have become more vocal-slash-irate than ever before. As increasing traffic in wild areas has resulted in the construction of more and more cairns in almost every wild corner of the globe, the number of disputants has grown with them. 

In locations as diverse as Arizona, Iceland, Acadia, Wales, and Australia, their fury has been aired in newspapers, on websites, television, and, no doubt, many a hillside. Resultantly, an equally vociferous faction of proponents of rock cairns has emerged to defend their place in our wild areas. But what’s the beef all about?

Rock cairns in Iceland
Rock cairns in Iceland.

The ‘For’ Camp

Navigation

The purpose of rock cairns since time immemorial has been to mark routes for travelers in wild areas. Whenever we get lost, we see a cairn and – in theory – can then easily get ourselves back on track. Even if we aren’t lost, cairns make for a handy means of hassle-free travel, almost like a large-scale, real-life, outdoor version of connect-the-dots.

For many, cairns appear a very slight intrusion on the natural environment, particularly when compared to various other threats to the earth’s beloved wild places. Low-tech and low-key, they stand as a largely unobtrusive alternative to the painted blazes, gaudy signposts, and theme-park-like placards found on many trails around the world.

To others who are less assured in their use of a map and compass, or whose GPS hiking watch has run out of juice, cairns are often blessed beacons that guide the way out of many a potential jam. Their presence, some might add, can also allow non-hikers to enjoy the occasional hike without fear of getting lost (this, however, may cause as many problems as it solves). 

In some popular hiking areas and national parks (such as Acadia National Park), trail maintenance volunteers or national park service staff actually maintain cairns in order to keep hikers on the right track (though this also involves park rangers toppling other, ornamental cairns constructed by visitors – more on that later.)

Rock cairn on hilltop
Some cairns are maintained by park rangers to assist hikers with navigating.

‘Artistic’ Merit and Ecosystem Protection

Two of the most sizable bones of contention wielded against cairn building have been their blight on natural scenery and damage to fragile ecosystems. 

These claims are countered, however, by those who contend that cairn building is a valid art form and also helps to keep hikers on a single route, thereby reducing deviations which may cause more damage to off-trail soil and vegetation.

So, given their practicality, helpfulness, and possible artistic value, just how did rock cairns come to be the outdoor community’s answer to the question of gun control, Brexit, and/or the Pepsi vs. Coke debate? Alas, for every argument in favor of building rock cairns, there is an equally, if not more valid one against doing so…

The ‘Against’ Camp

Misdirection

Seeing a cairn ahead of you on the trail can be a comfort and reassurance, particularly if you’re hiking in heavy rain, snow, fog, or unfamiliar territory. But what if there are two, situated in opposing directions? Which one is legit and which was built by bored hikers to amuse themselves during a lunch break or breather? What, moreover, if there are eight?

Rock cairns in the fog
Cairns friend or foe in the fog?

The problem with the ‘little men’, as they’re known in Italian, perhaps, is that they don’t speak…

Many of us have had a ‘what the…?’ moment out in the backcountry when encountering a lonesome cairn or collection of cairns that appear to serve no purpose and lead to no obvious destination. 

Many times, this is not a big issue – we do a quick recon, consult our map, or lose a few minutes reestablishing our bearings otherwise. 

Other times, it can be nigh on deadly, as described in this thread by hikers and climbers descending on Italy/Switzerland’s iconic Piz Badile, and in this article on Scotland’s Ben Nevis, where cairns have recently been blamed for the deaths of numerous hikers.

Visual Impact

As mentioned above, one of the main charges being leveled against rock cairns is their aesthetic imprint, with some going so far as to call them ‘natural graffiti’, acts of ‘vandalism’, and ‘pointless reminders of the human ego’.

Wow.

But maybe they have a point…

Artistic rock cairns at Monterosso al mare, Italy
A collection of ‘artistic’ rock cairns at Monterosso al mare, Italy.

In popular mountainous areas in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to find sections of trail where rock cairns are not visible, and others where maybe a dozen or more form an untidy coterie of blemishes on an otherwise entirely natural landscape.

Given that the original raison d’être for rock cairns in wild places was purely to provide directions where established trails were less visible, the above criticisms seem fairly valid. Also, trail cairns tend to stand as unofficial rest stops or staging points on many routes, and nowadays it’s not uncommon to find litter scattered around them or wedged between the rocks.

How each of us view the visual impact of rock piles is undoubtedly subjective and, of course, is maybe not immune to the influence of relativity. 

Those used to built-up areas may deem the visual intrusion slight compared to the concrete behemoths found in the city. Those from rural areas, or who call any given wild area ‘home’, may be more likely to take umbrage at that area’s increasing embellishment.

Multiple small rock cairns overlooking a forested mountain area
Seemingly innocuous to some, an overtly offensive eyesore to others…

Matthew Nelson, executive of the Arizona Trail Association put it neatly when he stated: “We use the outdoors as a way to escape. We’re out there to get away from society, cars, electricity . . . all the systems we’ve built. So for people that are seeking deep, solo, wilderness experiences, [seeing man-made cairns] snaps them out of that.”

Environmental Impact

Those of us who have added our contribution to rock cairns at any point have no doubt done so carrying an exculpation at the back of our minds. Just one little rock, we think, isn’t going to do much harm. If, however, X amount of people think likewise times 365 days per year, that’s a lot of rock…and a darned big cairn!

Despite appearances to the untrained eye, rocks are both habitats and preservers of habitats.

Displacing rocks to build a cairn increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, which both damages trails and in turn increases the risk, in some areas, of landslides and flooding in the valleys below.

Also, given that many rare mosses, larvae, lichens, flies, snails, fungi, and plants all call rocks their home, our seemingly negligible act could amount to something of a genocide or mass diaspora for our one little rock’s minute inhabitants. 

Man using trekking poles-to-walk uphill over rocky terrain
In the rocks under your feet there is a veritable smorgasbord of plants and insects happily co-existing.

The slogan ‘leave no trace’ tends to leave room for thoughts that certain behaviors are okay so long as they are hidden or unseen. While the intended meaning of the counsel holds true, it’s best complemented by the more conscientious and responsible addendum: ‘do no harm’.

Navigational Nonchalance

Another oft-cited drawback of rock cairns is their potential to inspire an overly lax and casual approach to navigation. 

Many hikers and non-hikers alike all too often head to wild areas assuming that the presence of rock cairns eliminates the need for proficiency in the use of a map and compass. While this may well be the case on clear days and where rock cairns are well positioned, in poor visibility or where they are not, it could prove to be a fatal mistake.

Who Should Build Cairns? And Why? (Editorial Two Cents’ Worth)

Personally, I’m of the opinion that rock cairns would be lovely additions to our city streets, squares, sidewalks, and offices, but are superfluous adornments to our wild places when exceeding the bare minimum required for navigation. 

Rock cairn on the Appalachian Trail at Mount Washington
As a trail marker rock cairns do have a practical application for navigating the wilderness.

There’s no doubting the utility of rock cairns, as long as their construction and placement are carefully managed so as to avoid any disastrous deviations from the route.

The most convincing, if terse, rebuttal to the claims of the pro-cairn-building faction should, perhaps, stress the fact that mountainous, wild terrain presents enough variables and natural hazards without adding man-made ones to the mix in the form of errant waymarkers. 

The common sense answer to the issue where safety is concerned, therefore, might read something along the lines of the following: keep the babies, throw out the bathwater.

With regard to the visual impact of rock cairns, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to suggest that earth’s natural spaces face enough man-made threats to their purity and wildness without any further blows being dealt by the impromptu handiwork of self-appointed beautifiers. 

Rock cairn built amongst flowers on the mountainside
With few spaces in the world genuinely untouched by humans perhaps we can do without cairns?

In constructions and monuments, after all, the world is well-off; in truly pristine wilderness it is fast becoming impoverished. Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that each whimsically erected cairn marks an ironic return to the cairn’s original purpose, serving as a memorial shrine to our genuinely unspoiled landscapes while simultaneously contributing to their demise?

Pro-Tip: Dismantling Cairns

Before setting about any vigilante work in dismantling existing cairns or stone stacks, be sure to check they are not ‘official’ cairns, commemorative cairns, burial monuments, or part of a historical ritual site

Given all of the above, I believe rock cairns should only be built by designated park or nature area authorities, or volunteers acting under their direction. While this may seem like a fairly sweeping encroachment on the ‘freedom of the hills’, like most freedoms, our personal clout ends where the interests and welfare of others begin.

If you agree with the above points, then I’d recommend following the guidelines below. And now that I’ve taken myself off the fence, please feel free to respond, berate, or otherwise opine in the comments box at the bottom of the page!

Appropriate Rock Cairn Uses

  • To provide waymarking on routes that will be visible in snow, fog, and whiteouts
  • Marking trails where there are no other waymarkers and/or are off of established hiking trails
  • For safety
  • To avoid the use of (potentially) unsightly painted blazes, poles, or signs to mark trails
  • To prevent deviations into potentially fragile ecosystems or micro-habitats near existing trails

Inappropriate Rock Cairn Uses

  • ‘Decorative’ or ornamental rock piles where prohibited by park or area authorities
  • Unauthorized commemorative rock piles
  • Boredom-inspired rock pile (i.e. Jenga-like creations) where there is no trail
  • ‘Ego’ cairns used to mark your passage (like, you might say, a dog peeing on a tree (!))
Many cairn stacks made for decorative purposes
The issue with so called ego cairns is they tend to ‘inspire’ others to do the same!

Final Thoughts

Who knew that a few stone piles could stir up quite so much controversy!

Whatever your take on the matter, there are a couple of key take-homes from the rock cairn quarrel. 

First of all, not all cairns are created equally. Some of the rock structures now ubiquitously called cairns were built for cultural purposes, some to mark gravesites, and others to keep you going in the right direction on a hiking trail. Others still are the handiwork of bored or creative hikers and tourists with idle thumbs.

We’ll let the information included in this post help you decide which ones you believe should be allowed to remain and which should be dismantled. 

Secondly, cairns have been used since prehistoric times as navigational aids and to this day are a handy way to get from A to B without visiting Z and Q along the way…

…if, that is, they were built for navigational purposes by folks who actually know the right way to go. The take-home from this observation is that cairns should never be the only navigational tool at your disposal – always bring a map and compass and be ready to question any cairn you see if it appears to be leading you off-track.

If you enjoyed this post, please let us know in the comments box below. And feel free to share it with your friends!

Last update on 2022-12-03 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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