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Rock cairns: meaning and history of the ubiquitous trail feature

A hiker in a red jacket places rock on a rock cairn on a moor
Cairns are man-made rock piles that are used for navigational purposes in hiking (Image credit: Ingunn B. Haslekaas)

Stacks of stones, everywhere. On the hiking trail up above treeline, in National Parks, at the beach and perhaps most of all, on Instagram. Stone stacks, or rock cairns as they are more traditionally known, seem to be cropping up at every turn. If you've seen them, you may have wondered about them. Who put them there and what are they for? In this article, we take a look at rock cairns, their meaning and history to illuminate this ubiquitous fixture on the hiking trails. 

What are rock cairns? 

two hikers

Rock cairns range in size from the small ones you might see when you’re hiking that are just a foot or two high to hulking constructions such as the Brown Willy Summit Cairn in Cornwall (Image credit: Getty)

Cairns are man-made rock piles. The word “cairn” is a Scottish Gaelic word literally meaning “heap of stones” but while they are a common sight in rural Scotland, rock cairns are also  found on every continent across the globe. 

Rock cairns range in size from the small ones you might see when you’re hiking that are just a foot or two high to hulking constructions such as the Brown Willy Summit Cairn in Cornwall, England which towers at over 16 feet tall. 

They are used as navigational tools in hiking, burial sites in many ancient cultures and more recently are being constructed as a form of artistic expression, or even a competitive game like a game of Jenga in the wild.

What is the history of rock cairns? 

A series of rock cairns on a moor

These are some of a series of cairns on the Mallerstang edge of Wild Boar Fell, they are around 500m from the actual summit. They are of unknown age and origin. (Image credit: Peter Meade)

Rock cairns have been built since prehistoric times and are used across many different cultures as landmarks, burial sites and trail markers. The Aberystruth Archaeological Society in Wales recently revealed ancient cairns dating back 4,500 years that they believe were used to bury the leaders of neolithic tribes.

In Scotland, it is traditional to bring a rock with you when you climb a mountain to place 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 they’ve been used to mark gravesites, while in Scandinavia they were historically 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.

Finally, there are many rock cairns across the world that archaeologists still haven’t uncovered a meaning to.

How do I use rock cairns in hiking? 

A rock cairn on a mountain with hills in the background

Today, rock cairns are most often constructed and used for navigation in the wilderness, and even form part of the national survey grid in some countries, (Image credit: Westend61)

One setting where we do understand the meaning of rock cairns is in hiking. Today, rock cairns are most often constructed and used for navigation in the wilderness, and even form part of the national survey grid in some countries, placed at the highest peaks across the land.

For hikers, they’re basically the original compass or GPS device. Though states like Colorado and Montana are known for their well-marked trails, rock cairns are particularly useful and common in places like Scotland, where trails are a little less well-established, and in barren areas of mountainous states, such as in alpine tundra zones, or boulder fields on your way up a 14er. In such areas, if you lose the trail you can stop and search for a cairn to take you in the right direction. When you arrive at that cairn, if the trail is still unclear, look for the next one and follow them like that until you either find the trail again or arrive at your destination. 

The one caveat to this is that in recent years, people have taken to building rock cairns for artistic, rather than navigational, purposes. These may appear like harmless outdoor fun, but experts warn they can be dangerous on the trails as they might unintentionally lead unsuspecting hikers astray. To ensure this doesn’t happen to you, look for rock piles that are pyramid-shaped and appear as though they’ve been there a while (they may be covered in lichen, for example). If a pile of stones appears precarious and looks like it’s recently been stacked, it’s probably just the recreational endeavour of a modern day stone-stacking enthusiast.

Are rock cairns bad for the environment? 

Stones stacked on a beach with sunset in the background

Stacking stones at the ocean's edge isn't a problem since that ecosystem changes with the tides, but inland the activity may pose a problem (Image credit: Alexander Spatari)

This brings us to an increasingly common topic of debate: are rock cairns bad for the environment? They seem benign at worst and aesthetically pleasing at best, however while stacking stones at the ocean's edge isn't a problem since that ecosystem changes with the tides, inland the activity may pose a problem. 

Some opponents argue that cairns fly in the face of the Leave No Trace rule of recreating in the outdoors, while ecologists suggest that stacking stones disturbs the natural ecosystem of the landscape and exposes soil to unnecessary erosion. Some wildlife experts even argue that precarious piles of rocks can pose the danger of falling and harming insects and animals.

The real problem seems to lie in the recent explosion of creating rock piles everywhere, seemingly for photo opportunities and social media posts. Ultimately, the common sense message seems to be that true rock cairns on hiking trails have been there a long time and serve an important purpose, but any time you head out in your hiking boots, you should leave the rocks alone. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Adventure.com. She is an author, mountain enthusiast and yoga teacher who loves heading uphill on foot, ski, bike and belay. She recently returned to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland after 20 years living in the USA, 11 of which were spent in the rocky mountains of Vail, Colorado where she owned a boutique yoga studio and explored the west's famous peaks and rivers. She is a champion for enjoying the outdoors sustainably as well as maintaining balance through rest and meditation, which she explores in her book Restorative Yoga for Beginners, a beginner's path to healing with deep relaxation. She enjoys writing about the outdoors, yoga, wellness and travel. In her previous lives, she has also been a radio presenter, music promoter, university teacher and winemaker.