Why you shouldn’t pile rocks on hikes and what to do if you see them

Picture the scene: you’ve huffed and puffed your way to the top of the local trig point as part of your New Year’s resolution. While the view from the top is worth the effort, the top of the footpath is also covered in masses of stacked rocks or cairns. The word “cairn” comes from the Scottish Gaelic word meaning “heap of stones”. Despite being on all the hot-girl-walk Instagram accounts, what are they and why are they there?

Usually, this type of stone cairn is built to show hikers the way on particularly imprecise routes; you can find them scattered throughout famous paths such as the Camino de Santiago. However, cairns have recently appeared all over hiking trails, often in groups, usually at special functions or rest stops.

Cairns can foster a sense of community between those on the same path, and even help those with a less-than-stellar sense of direction find the right route. However, the National Park Service suggests that the decorations can confuse those unfamiliar with the area and often lead people down the wrong path. The practice of building cairns goes against a central principle of being out in nature: Leave no trace.

If you move a rock from one place to another, you may have inadvertently disturbed the home of a small animal that lives beneath it. Moving rocks can also contribute to soil erosion or destroy the delicate microhabitats that plants and animals need to survive. Also, moving a rock to add to the top of a cairn can cause the whole thing to fall, rather defeating the object.

Those on the other side of the coin suggest cairns are beneficial, as they keep walkers on track, preventing people from getting lost and trampling over protected areas. However, the number of unauthorized cairns has increased so much that the National Parks department suggests hikers are being confused by the upcoming navigation signs. Those who plan to do a lot of hiking should always carry wayfinding tools such as GPS or maps to navigate.

Cairns is believed to have been started by Waldron Bates, who was the main author of an island trail map published in 1896. He was devoted to the maintenance of hiking trails and wrote a handbook to establish standards for how things should be done. He also established how cairns were to be built in a style now known as the Bates cairn, quite different from the simple stacks we see today.

An example of a Bates cairn. Image credit: Monika Salvan/Shutterstock

While you may think that building a rock cairn is harmless fun, consider that national parks across America received over 297 million recreational visitors in 2021—that’s a huge potential for harm even if each visitor were to move just one rock.

So what should you do if you see a cairn? Well, the advice from the National Parks Service is to leave them alone, without tampering, building or adding to existing ones. Don’t be tempted to kick them over you either. If that won’t convince you, maybe the law will: the practice of moving the stones can be seen as vandalism which is illegal.

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