Hiking Cairns: The Good, the Bad, and the Leave No Trace Approach

Hiking Cairns: The Good, the Bad, and the Leave No Trace Approach

Hiking season is upon us! As we hit the trails, it’s a great time to talk about cairns. Did you know there are essentially two types of cairns? They can be broken down into these categories: authorized (directional cairns) and unauthorized (hiker-made cairns). Let’s dive into both.


Image by David Clod 

Unauthorized Cairns

As seen in this pic of Gnara Social Media Manager @sarah.chase.fountain, the cairn is unauthorized (not built by trail crew) and unnecessary (it’s huge!). Hundreds of hikers have added rocks just for fun, but it’s actually altering the landscape, crushing the delicate alpine ecosystem, and causing erosion.

Basically, that’s a bad cairn. It’s okay, we all have our faults.

Why Unauthorized Cairns Are Harmful:

  • Ecosystem Disruption: Unauthorized cairns can crush delicate alpine vegetation, disrupting the ecosystem.
  • Erosion: Moving rocks exposes the soil underneath, which can wash away and thin soil cover for native plants.
  • Wildlife Impact: Rocks provide homes for insects and small mammals. Disturbing these rocks can displace these animals.

The Directional Cairn

Directional cairns are authorized by trail crews and are necessary for navigation. These cairns are moderate in size and intentionally placed on durable surfaces. Hikers rely on these for navigating non-engineered trails, so it’s best not to mess with them. If you see a good cairn, let her chill. She’s doing a great job, and she told us she’s not looking for any remodeling.

The Importance of Directional Cairns:

  • Navigation Aid: They help hikers find their way on non-engineered trails, ensuring safety and proper trail use.
  • Minimal Impact: Placed on durable surfaces, these cairns are designed to have minimal impact on the environment.

Leave No Trace and Cairns

From the experts at National Trails NPS: “Moving rocks increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, allowing it to wash away and thin soil cover for native plants. Every time a rock is disturbed, an animal loses a potential home, since many insects and mammals burrow under rocks for protection and reproduction."

How to Practice Leave No Trace with Cairns:

  1. Respect Authorized Cairns: Do not disturb or add to directional cairns placed by trail crews.
  2. Avoid Building Unauthorized Cairns: Refrain from stacking rocks unnecessarily, as it can harm the environment.
  3. Educate Others: Spread the word about the importance of leaving no trace and the impacts of unauthorized cairns.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or new to the trails, understanding the difference between authorized and unauthorized cairns is essential for practicing Leave No Trace principles. By respecting directional cairns and avoiding the creation of unauthorized ones, we can protect the beauty and integrity of our natural landscapes. Have fun and pee freely

hiking cairns

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