Making Mealtime Meaningful: See How We’re Giving Back with the New 12 Tomatoes Cares Program →

Hopefully by now we all know that you should never remove things from a national park. But, for many people the act of stacking stones when they go hiking is seen as harmless. Now there is a growing movement that urges people to never build these small cairns in the first place. Then on the 3rd hand there are many park rangers that advocate for making cairns. So is it ok or is it wrong to stack some stones when you’re in wilderness?

stacked stones on larger rock
Via: Sean Stratton/Unsplash

There are many people who admire the look of stacked stones and the act of stacking them can be seen as a meditation. Many a photographer has made a cairn just for the picture, though. Beyond looking neat, these little formations can have real purpose. In the old days a particular cairn would have been a prime trail maker. This is less of a concern today since many US parks have clear trail markings of their own, but in remote areas it’s still a way to keep track of where you’ve been.

For this reason there are still some national parks where cairns are still used by rangers. But, these are often the remotest of areas where an open landscape can easily confuse people who aren’t familiar with the terrain. And, visitors can be punished for making cairns under the same US laws aimed at those who steal objects or animals from parks.

small cairn at Joshua Tree Park
Stacked stones at Joshua Tree National Park, a place notoriously vandalized in recent years. Via: Nick Tong/Unsplash

Rangers are said to use cairns as trail IDs at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico and at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, both having plenty of rocks and being very secluded from the outside world.

So, if rangers use them then how can the little stacks of stones be bad? According to opponents of the trend- which took off in 2014- stacking stones violates the “no trace left behind” ethos that many hikers, campers, and nature lovers have come to embrace. Rather than attempting to leave the park or trail in the condition it was found, hikers are now altering the environment. And, when it becomes a global trend that’s a lot of upturned stones that can potentially disrupt wildlife.

hiker with walking sticks aside a small cairn
Via: Sébastien Goldberg/Unsplash

There is also an argument that stacking stones is culturally insensitive. This practice is traditional to various groups in parts of Asia, Eurasia, Europe, Africa, Polynesia, and South America for burial or for spiritual ceremonies.

Furthermore, hiker-made cairns can confuse people who might have been looking for the aforementioned ranger cairns. And, one final vote in the “nay” column is that it’s simply not a normal part of the scenery and can impact the sense of calm and nature that people are seeking these trails out to enjoy.

Bryce Canyon cairn
Via: Casey Schackow/Unsplash

In short, the polite and safe thing to do is to not stack stones when you go hiking.

Subscribe to 12 Tomatoes