What is a Cairn?

Rocks on rocks – that’s essentially a cairn. But more than that, they are known to be traditional waymarkers that help guide the way.

Cairns are simply piles of rocks. (Photo: M.Kopp)

Which way do I go?
Piling rocks is a simple, yet effective method of marking a route – and it’s something that is done around the world. The word “cairn”, comes from Scotland, where cairns have marked routes for centuries.

In some areas, hikers rely on cairns to find their way on established trails across talus or scree slopes. They can be found marking routes across open, treeless terrain.

Cairns are often found marking mountain summits. Searching through the rocks, climbers may find a logbook and pen tucked in a waterproof container for recording your ascent.

A word of caution: not all cairns are navigational aids. In some areas, cairns can mark a remote gravesite.

Building, building, building
The downside of cairns is that there are places where people think that if one cairn is good, why not two, or three, or four? A proliferation of cairns pop up and the landscape becomes littered with piles of rock. Leave No Trace principles of take only photos, leave only footprints (or better yet, nothing at all) come into play.

Should you rely on cairns?
No. Plain and simple. In mountainous regions, weather can change seemingly without warning. Whiteouts can come in and obliterate your line of sight. The next cairn is lost. Cairns can be also be built in the wrong location, taking hikers off-route.

Hikers should never count on cairns as a primary source for navigation. With any backcountry outing, carry a map and compass and know how use them.

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