The inspiration: While hiking on Isle Royale last summer (and using one of their A+ quality outhouses), I read a hate filled ode to cairns. While I regret not taking a picture of its flowery lyrics (I was in the bathroom after all and was cameraless), the poem basically equated the creation of cairns to every cardinal sin imaginable. Clearly this individual had a deep seated hatred for cairns. While I consider myself to be a relatively opinionated person, I had not previously considered the topic.
The Background: Cairns are seemingly harmless stacks of rocks that can be found on trails and national parks throughout the world. However, despite their popularity on outdoorsy Instagram accounts, cairns are controversial within the outdoor community. Some see them as helpful indicators that aid hikers in sticking to the correct trail, while others see them as unnatural road signs that interrupt and tarnish the wilderness experience. I'll present both arguments, and then give you my verdict. Feel free to disagree or offer your take.
The argument AGAINST cairns:
The anti-cairn argument is based around the belief that cairns are intrusive man-made objects that detract from naturally occurring adventures. Instead of having to utilize your skills and prowess as an outdoorsy person, cairns allow you to sheepishly follow those who have come before. No critical thinking, maps, compasses, or triangulation, just the mundane and thoughtless process of looking for piles of stones.
Leave No Trace principles also tell us to "leave what you find" and "be considerate of other visitors," and creating cairns could certainly be considered a violation of both principles.
The creation of cairns cause erosion!!! The creation of cairns is the physical manifestations of our selfish desires to leave a mark on the environment!!! We go into nature to escape human impact, not to be constantly reminded of its presence. Thoughts?
The argument FOR cairns:
The pro cairn argument (or at least the neutral cairn argument) is based around the belief that cairns are more helpful than harmful. Yes, cairns are signs and reminders of humanity, but so are the trails themselves. So are the trailheads you start at, the trail markers you follow, the maps/GPSs you bring, and the protected National Parks that you travel in.
In fact, if you blame cairns for destroying your wilderness experience, you probably have a misguided view of the uniqueness of your journey.
Pro cairn yahoos would argue that if cairns stop individuals from getting hopelessly lost... then that's good! Not everyone who wants to enjoy nature is skilled in navigation, and cairns make hiking easier and safer for those who aren't directionally savvy.
Also, typically cairns exist where already established trails are poorly maintained. Want to eliminate cairns? Fix the trails! Why wander around trying to find a trail that is supposed to be easily followed?
Lastly, if you are hiking on a manmade trail and complaining about a manmade cairn, aren't you being a little bit hypocritical? Thoughts?
My Impressions? After writing this article I now understand why I hadn't considered this controversy sooner. The fact is that I don't actually find this topic controversial. If cairns destroy your wilderness experience... then I worry about the fragility of your experience. If you are building hundreds of cairns that don't aid in navigation... cut it out. Think about it, discuss it with your friends, or write on an outhouse door about it, but don't get too carried away.