Why Do Hikers Stack Rocks? | Hikers University

You are hiking for the day and come to a stack of rocks. You begin to wonder what they mean. Is it a curse? Is it a marker? Why do hikers stack rocks?

Most popular trails are likely to have a stack of rocks made by hikers by carefully placing and balancing one rock on top of another. But why do hikers take the time to sit and stack rocks?

Cairns or stacked rocks, in hiking language, mean you are going on the right path. They are markers used to identify the trail and help guide hikers back to the trail if it is difficult to navigate along, and there are chances for you to lose your path.

But are all stacks navigation markers? Or do people stack rocks just for fun and to show off their balancing skills. Is there any way to know if a cairn is a genuine marker or just built for fun?

Hiking experts believe that the tradition of stacking rocks has been around for thousands of years. People have been stacking rocks to identify important locations around an area. In hiking, they were used as markers to identify the trail. However, the recent popularity of stacking rocks for social media has caused the essence of cairns to diminish. There are more fake cairns than real ones, and it can be challenging to identify which ones mark the trail and which ones are there just for fun.

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What is a Stack of Rocks?

Stacks of rocks can be seen in all kinds of places. You can find them on hiking trails, beaches, national parks, and most commonly, on Instagram. When hiking a popular trail, these stacks of rocks seem to pop up at every turn you take.  

“Cairn” is the name given to a stack of rocks you often find during hiking. The stack has multiple rocks carefully balanced, one on top of the other. The word cairn comes from the word Carn, which is Scottish Gaelic for a manmade pile of rocks.

Cairns can greatly vary in size. Where most stand from a few inches to a foot or two tall, some colossal constructions around the globe stand over sixteen feet.

What Significance Does A Stack of Rocks Have?

The roots of cairns can be traced back to around Scotland. Some cairns estimated to be over 4,500 years old have been discovered in Wales. These are believed to be made to identify the burial sites for the leaders of the Neolithic tribes.

It has been a centuries-old tradition for the Scottish to carry small rocks from the bottom of a hill and carefully place it on the summit. This was a sign of respect and was also used to identify the top-most part of a hill. When returning from battle, Highlanders would remove a stone from the cairn to indicate their survival.

They have also been used to mark burial sites and memorials in several ancient cultures. They have also become works of art for artists to showcase their talents more recently. In Scandinavia, cairns have long been used to identify pathways. In Peru, they are used to identify holy sites such as shrines.

Archeologists are still trying to figure out a logical reason behind several historical cairns.

Why Do Hikers Stack Rocks?

There is one situation where cairns make sense to us, which is hiking. Stacks of rocks have been constructed by hikers to aid with navigation on the trails. Following the tradition from history, they can also be found on top of the highest peaks in the area.

For hikers, cairns are traditional navigation devices or compasses. Most hiking trails now are well-marked and use signage to guide the hikers. However, the tradition of stacked rocks is still followed and is even more common on unmarked trails.

If you are hiking in barren areas such as boulder fields or tundra regions, and you lose track of the trail, all you have to do is look for a cairn, and you will know you are back on track. If the trail is still unclear at the cairn, you can search for the next one nearby and continue to follow through until you identify the trail or arrive at a destination.

However, these days, people like to stack rocks to show off their art or photography skills on Instagram rather than for actual navigation purposes. They are often so proud of their work of art that they do not demolish it once they are done.

Experts often warn against making cairns for fun because these innocent art pieces can lead other hikers astray. To identify a navigation marker, look for cairns that are more pyramidal in shape, and seem to be sitting there for quite some time. They can be covered with lichen, for instance. If a stack of rocks seems shaky and made recently, it is probably a work of art or made just for fun by a recreational artist.

Harmful Effects of Stacking Rocks

For years, a debate has been going on regarding cairns and if they are bad for the environment. They do not seem harmful even at their worst and can be very aesthetically appealing at their best. Stacking rocks on the beach or seashores is not much of a problem to the ecosystem because the ecosystem changes with the waves. However, inland, environmental experts argue that removing rocks from the soil can harm the ecosystem.

Ecologists claim that removing rocks from the soil exposes it to needless erosion. Wildlife experts believe that these lightly balanced rocks pose a threat to small animals and insects in the wilderness. They can fall and harm or kill small creatures needlessly.

However, the real issue lies in the popularity of recreational cairns. They seem to be everywhere now and only serve as social media posts or photo opportunities. It is true that these cairns look beautiful and can be a great way to show off your balancing skills. But it is best to leave the rocks alone whenever you take on a trail for hiking.


Peter Brooks

Peter Brooks

I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.

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