Cairns on the hiking trails are good, in fact

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Hiking is not just a hobby, it is a way of life. Maggie Slepian discusses backpacking life – and all the joys, problems, arguments and quirks that come with it – in her column.

It was early fall 2008, and I was hiking New Hampshire with my dad and brother. As we approached tree line on Mount Monroe the infamous White Mountain weather blew away and we were completely absorbed within minutes of leaving the protection of the krummholz. The wind was so strong that I couldn’t catch my breath and the visibility was so bad that I immediately lost sight of my brother and father. I followed their voices as we stumbled from cairn to cairn, the only way we knew we were on the right track.

On this trip, the cairns were a lifeline, and not just for me. When I called my father to verify this memory, the first thing he brought up was the relief to see every pile of stones appear out of the swirling clouds as we made our way over the rocks. The cairns on the side of Mount Monroe were our markers all the way to the top, then back down to the protection of the trees.

Cairns have been my landmarks for more miles than I can remember. They led me in the right direction over tree line and on desert roads through pristine rocky expanses. Like the comfort of seeing a fire or a trail sign, a cairn reassures you that you are on the right track. This is especially true on terrains where cairns are needed, as those sections unsigned by default are more confusing.

If I am following a marked cairns route, that means there is no marked path or beaten path to follow. I’ll also use a GPS or a map and compass to make sure I’m heading in the right direction, but looking towards the horizon and seeing the next cairns is the most relief.

I really didn’t think cairns were controversial until I had dinner last year with a hiker who had a lot of social media followers. “I always kick cairns when I see them,” he said, claiming he also recorded knocking them down for his YouTube channel.

A cairn on top of a mountain.

I was really puzzled. It was the first time I had heard any argument against the cairns. To me, cairns are what I used to find on a route when there was no place to put up a sign, or a tree or rock to blaze. (I’m talking about real boating cairns here, not the decorative rock piles that pop up beside rivers and along busy hiking trails.) Me like AT peel blazes out of the bark.

There are several main arguments I have heard against cairns. The first argument is that cairns do not conform to Leave No Trace, as piles are created by taking natural objects and rearranging them into man-made “structures”. I also appreciate the as pristine backcountry as it gets, but if you make that point you also need to include markers, signs, fires, campfire rings, and the flattened bare ground of the scattered campsites. In this context, a pile of stones does not seem to be a big problem.

The second argument is that since cairns are not regulated like other road signs, anyone can create one, whether their location is correct or not. Personally, I have never known a cairn that took me off the right path. While I’m sure this has happened, the benefits of using cairns for route finding far outweigh the risk of having one in the wrong place. The times I take the wrong route is when I mistakenly find myself on a game trail, or the (incorrect) path of least resistance worn out by hikers before me.

The third argument against the cairns, indicated in this roomis that cairns make it easier to find routes in the hinterland. I also understand this point. Itinerary finding is an engaging and stimulating aspect for advanced backcountry travelers. Anyone attempting advanced routes must have enough backcountry navigation experience and skills to find a route, but that doesn’t mean the safety net of the markup cairns, resulting in fewer rescues in the back. -country, should be eliminated. There are still plenty of places to explore that don’t have markers or cairns. Why would you want to make an already difficult and cairn-marked route more dangerous and confusing?

One of my goals in the outside media is to help people get into the hinterland by lowering the barriers to entry. People knocking over cairns make the routes more intimidating and challenging for those new to exploring this type of terrain. Who does it hurt to have the occasional pile of rocks to guide hikers along the safest path over boulder fields or to the right desert canyon? Whatever impact it has on the environment, it’s certainly less than the damage hikers do with their steps, especially when they get lost and wander off the trails.

Thousands of hands have built the cairns that have helped me trip over steep-sided peaks, or through miles of pristine slickrock where a wrong turn could have fatal consequences. I followed cairns through boulder fields to the summit of the Colorado 14’ers and along the sides of desert canyons where the safest route to the top would otherwise be indistinguishable.

Cairns are also a symbol of community effort. While road signs and markers are placed by trail organizations and trail crews, cairns are a collective effort of hikers communicating with each other. Similar to comments on navigation apps updating other hikers on trail conditions or water levels, we place cairns to help guide other hikers through confusing or unmarked areas. It’s a quiet way to lend a hand to the people who follow us along the trail.