Writing Messages in Stone "Cairns: Messengers in Stone"

Have you ever wanted to wander off the beaten path to find new and exciting hikes but worried you wouldn’t be able to find your way back? It sounds like you should learn how to make a cairn. For thousands of years people have used rock piles to mark their paths and find their way home. Today, those rock piles are known as cairns and can be found all over the world as trail markers and landmarks.

In Cairns: Messengers in Stone, David B. Williams covers everything from the history of cairns to their geology and ecology in nature. He also offers some useful pointers on how to make a cairn that will withstand the forces of nature while standing tall and remaining visible.

If you ever find yourself at a split in the path or traveling away from the visible trail, make a cairn to mark your location and indicate the correct direction to take on your travel back. Having those physical indicators can save you from getting turned around in the forest and can also help any late members of your hiking party discern the direction you headed if you took a specific route. Cairns are useful forms of communication for yourself and for others if used properly, so if you ever find yourself in need of a reliable trail marker, here are the directions on how and where to build it.

  1. The best place to make a cairn is in a flat, open area sparse of trees and vegetation. Always make sure your trail marker is visible and clear; remember, the higher the cairn, the better. Even placed atop a slight hill or knoll will make your rock piles much easier to spot.
  2. When building a cairn use rocks that contrast with the surrounding terrain. Light-colored rocks will stand out nicely against a backdrop of ponderosa pines or crowds of blackberry bushes.
  3. Once you’ve found prime real estate for your trail marker, gather large, flat rocks to form the base. When you make a cairn, the stability of the foundation will dictate how tall you can build your rock pile. As your trail marker rises, each added rock should have a slight tilt, or batter, inward to increase stability.
  4. After your cairn is complete check for any wobbles and fill the troublesome spaces with smaller rocks or wedges. Now step back and appreciate what you’ve just built, a landmark that will bring a sigh of relief to a weary hiker or a silent hello to any passerby.
  5. If you build a cairn to mark your trail or a specific location, don’t forget that certain responsibilities come along with creating rock piles outdoors. Cairns can convey many messages to travelers but they are commonly interpreted as trail markers. Misplaced cairns can lead hikers astray and leave them lost and disgruntled after discovering it is a dead end.
  6. Remember to respect your surroundings and only build trail markers when and where they are necessary. Building unnecessary cairns may result in unwanted foot traffic across delicate terrain, which can cause significant damage to the surrounding ecosystem. These rock piles have such potential of harming the natural environment that it is now prohibited to disturb rocks or create cairns in all national parks.

Cairns paint a beautiful history of human connection and communication from all around the globe. From marking expeditions to burial sites every rock pile tells a story of their own. If you’re interested in the history of cairns and would like to learn more, be sure to check out Cairns: Messengers in Stone.

Created By
Casea Peterson

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