On a long, unfamiliar trail, when a hiker comes across a little heap of stones called a cairn, you might hear him breathe a sigh of relief. “Oh, someone has been this way before,” he thinks. “I’m not lost.”
Cairn traditions range from culture to culture and country to country. In some places, a cairn traditionally indicated a burial or religious site. Along coastlines, cairns (sometimes painted white) were once used as primitive markers for the shoreline. In Korea, you can add a pebble to a cairn for good luck when hiking. Some climbers carry a stone from the bottom of a mountain to add to a cairn at the summit.
In barren, treeless places, cairns are sometimes used to mark trails or signal dangers like a sudden drop-off. Cairns are sometimes called “ducks,” especially those stacks where the top stone is larger and points in the direction of the trail.
Creating a cairn of your own can feel like planting your flag on a newly discovered outpost—although you may want to refrain from adding a new cairn in a place where hikers depend on cairns to stay on a path. If you’re hiking in a national park, pay attention to any rules against building cairns.
Whether they’re on a beach, a mountain summit, at a sacred site or even in your own garden, cairns are whimsical pieces of impromptu sculpture; sturdy evidence that humankind has seen and appreciated the beauty of a