The Controversy of Cairns

Ramblings (Outdoorsy Stuff)Lloyd Vogel

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.

 

Ramblings (outdoorsy stuff)

19 comments

Vance Terry

Vance Terry

As long as you don’t destroy the homes of insects, birds, fish or small mammals, build all the cairns you like. They will either stand or fall based on their engineering or aesthetics. For crying out loud, people, humans have been expressing themselves by stacking rocks for well over half a million years, now. I find the form vastly superior to graffiti, trash, graded pathways, scarred trees, and dowsed ashpits.

Michael Girardot

Michael Girardot

I’ve been in situations where a true Cairn has led me in the right direction, thankfully. But to come across a sea of false cairns just makes me wonder what kind of person feels the need to STACK ROCKS! YOU ARE STACKING ROCKS!!!
If this is your best attempt to express yourself artistically, maybe you should take a watercoloring or pottery class at your local community college.
Yes, I’ve built a couple Cairns myself to help find my way home, but I’ve always disassembled them after they’ve served their purpose.

Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints… Amen!

Jiao Liu

Jiao Liu

I kick them down too.

Angel

Angel

I have always hated cairns with a passion. I always kick them down.

Tom

Tom

In locations I’ve been, if I see a cairn I know I haven’t been far enough. When in the remotest regions with only compass and map, no trails, no signs of modern visitors (meaning within the last century) and I come across an overgrown with weeds, tree roots or weathered in place cairn, I camp there—- and in quite reflection ponder who built this small monument of their passing thru. Who were they, where from, where were they going and why. I pay homage to that intrepid explorer(s) and hope to live up to their same expectations. I am 67 years old.

Luke Bakken

Luke Bakken

I use the term “rock pile” to distinguish from a cairn. Cairns have actual navigation purpose while rock piles are graffiti.

Rock piles disturb the landscape and can disturb insects and other wildlife living under them (especially in waterways).

Don’t build one, and if you do, knock it down when you are done. If you leave it there, it is an egotistic signal to other people who visit the same place. It isn’t “art”, it is you leaving yet another stain on the natural world. Our day-to-day lifestyle does enough of that, don’t do it in the wilderness.

People visit wilderness areas to get away from the signs of our human occupation of this planet and rock piles defeat that purpose.

Matthew

Matthew

have never met a cairn that has not led me astray, so now totally ignore them. Although a pile of stones, sure beats bits of fluro plastic tape tied to every tree /post on the trail that leads you astray as well)

Tony

Tony

Rock Cairns! Where I live many tracks and trails are marked with steel poles with an orange plastic top! otheres with wooden poles with trail identification decals. I would love them to be replaced with nice simple rock cairns that are in harmony with my environment

Chuck

Chuck

Mosey through the Karakorams and you will see cairns all over, and no they aren’t trail markers.
Experienced trekers consider them as high mountain graffiti.

My thought was that they were put up as watchers , considering the religious affiliations of the area (we were on our way to K2 Basecamp), and considering that there is a VERY THIN overlay of Islam on top of the OLD native animism this could be an explanation…..
They WERE quite interesting and dang ubiquitous.

Eliza

Eliza

As someone who has traveled in remote arctic areas, I will say that finding cairns can be really exciting. But here’s the thing: those rock structures were often very old, and built by First Nations when they used the rivers as trade routes etc.
As a white person I would have to say I do not have a full understanding of the cultural significance of these structures and would not want to leave my own (though I have built them and taken them down before I move on)

Dane

Dane

There have been times on the PCT I was glad a very few, well spaced cairns were there. There have been other times I wished someone had put one in. But, when I see them in unnecessary abundance, just for the hell of it, they are obtrusive, at the very least. If you need to be artistic, please do it at home. And, it looks like I’ll have to rethink my appreciation for cairns at safe river crossings, as well!

Brad

Brad

As an avid cairn constructor, I’m surprised some people would be offend by there prescience. Ecologically it makes sense to limit the use in certain areas. One of the magical parts about building a rock column is the temporary nature of there exaistence. Unlike carving a name in a tree, a wind gust or passing hiker can easily return the rocks to the ground they came from like the tide taking a sand castle back to its origins. I view them as a temporary work of art to pleasantly suprise a future passer by. If a viewer looks past the energy and skill it took to create the stunning rock balance and instead sees it as an intrusion into their experience then perhaps they have greater life issues and could benefit from an improved life outlook… Perhaps the rest of their time in nature will help.

ER

ER

I generally agree with your conclusion and would consider myself “pro-cairn.” I find them helpful and not disruptive to the experience.

Your 3rd pro-cairn point is weak, however. Those without any basic navigational skills (simple map reading, awareness of environment/directions, topographical awareness) have no business being in the woods without a guide or a willingness to improve their skills. You don’t have to be a NOLS guide to go a hike, but you should be knowledgeable enough to complete the trip or do what you can to get out of navigational jam if there are no other aids.

KT

KT

I think it depends on the place and the method constructed.
In the Adirondacks for example, there is (was?) a sign in the parking lot at one of the more popular trailheads to carry a rock or two up with you to the peak. There was a place at the top to leave them. Then, volunteers use them to create a “trail” on the bald peaks to preserve the alpine flora, and cairns to mark where to go in bad weather. I’ve definitely been up there where I couldn’t see anything, and just ran from cairn to cairn in hurricane-like conditions. In this example, its part of a broader goal to protect fragile plants: the cairns guide you along the trail even when you can’t see in front of you.

Laura G

Laura G

Cairns. First of all, I agree with your conclusion. I’d like to add that in most instances they are marking a trail that is difficult to discern and are certainly helpful. Rarely have I seen the over abundance of them (other than on the edge of Angel’s Landing/Zion) and for the most part, most of them have been there for years. The beauty of the experience far outweighs the appearance of an occasional pile of rocks. To be truly honest, if you are lucky enough to be on a trail with the need for some guidance so you won’t get lost, consider yourself lucky. You are most likely somewhere amazing.

Liz

Liz

I found this article via pinterest and it had never occurred to me that there would be controversy over these. I have actually found them to be quite useful on all the trails that I have been on, using them as indicators as to where I came from.

I can see how a ton of them in one spot could be obtrusive, but I have to agree that if this is a huge point of anger for people on the trails, they need to reevaluate their experience out in the wild.

Charlie

Charlie

I, like yourself had never given much thought to the cairns. I never minded them and on a few occasions was dammed glad to see one!

Rurik

Rurik

I just happened upon this Articel for what ever reasons. I think that the whole cairns thing is just a matter of them being used poorly. In the right spot they are helpful and not a bad option as some other things. However stacking hundreds of them for the sake of it is pretty dumb as is the habit of building or adding to cairns when you summit a hill just so you can leave your mark.

In short used properly for a decent purpose (navigation aid) is ok but just stacking them for the sake of it is dumb.

Appgirl

Appgirl

I am a student and work in an ecology lab with birds but several of my friends work with salamanders. I live in North Carolina where hellbenders, a large type of salamander are being threatened. Our work has shown that lift and moving rocks disturbs the breeding ground for them and we have actually started putting signs in several places that ask the public to refrain from moving rocks because of the hellbenders. So in streams, cairns aren’t a good thing and while they look pretty cool I hope with proper teaching people will understand that in some places, like rivers and streams, building cairns is detrimental to the water ecology.

Leave a comment

Most Read Articles

  1. 8 Pieces of Ultralight Gear Under $5
  2. The Controversy of Cairns
  3. Joe Chocolate Co Coffee Caffeine Thru-Hiking Backpacking Snacks Food