Updated: Aug 16, 2022
While hiking you may end up stumbling across small rock piles called cairns, these small stacks can often cover some trails and be added to by each hiker or traveller who passes by but there are several things that make adding to these seemingly ‘harmless’ rock piles problematic.
So what are Cairns?
Well put plainly, Cairns are small man-made rock stacks which have the intension of leading you along the trail as a kind of collaborative trail marking system. The more popular the trail, the more likely you are to see these piles and are sometimes considered to be part of the history of a trail, telling you who has hiked this place previously.
So why are they problematic?
Well they sound harmless enough, right? Well think again because these unofficial trail markers are problematic for multiple reasons. One of these reasons is that these small ‘harmless’ rock piles can actually cause habitat destruction, this may sound improbable but is actually a large problems within national parks and requires a lot of work from park rangers to prevent. In some places, hikers have taken large amounts of rock from rivers and streams to build huge cairns which removes these much needed rocks from the local environment and further hurts endangered species. This habitat destruction is both a cost on the environment and park management who need to deconstruct these cairns and then place the rocks back to help restore the local environment. This costs money, money which could have been invested in new trails and trail upkeep which most hikers would agree is something they would want to see more of.
Another frustration for some hikers with these little rock piles is that it removes something that a lot of hikers enjoy which is self-guided navigation. One thing some people love about hiking is the ability to be free to go wherever you like and to be challenged not only physically but also mentally through the navigation of the track. Having some of these piles is fine but on most popular trails you will find them everywhere, directing you at every turn and allowing no room for you to find your own path through the bush.
What can I do to fix it?
So how can we fix this issue? Well it's simple, just leave the rocks alone, if you see a cairn it is best to just leave it standing and not add to it because knocking it over improves the environment no more than what leaving it alone would have done but can make the job of rangers much harder. By not contributing to their creation or destruction but rather letting them be, you can help make sure our parks and wildlife remain wild and need less human intervention to maintain the viability of local habitats.
So hopefully now you have a better understanding of what a cairn is and why they can be problematic for nature and wildlife throughout our parks, avoiding contributing to these small stacks is a small thing you can do to help maintain the huge ecosystem we walk into every time we hike.
Written by Josh Welch