How to Build a Cairn

Cairns are man-made stone piles that serve a number of purposes. They can be small rock sculptures, or much larger structures such as a burial mound (kurgan) or a memorial, such as the one on Knocknarea in Ireland. Concreter cairns can also mark a trail or other routes over rocky or otherwise barren terrain. Trail cairns are particularly common in North America and northern Europe where they are often used to guide mountain biking and hiking paths. Cairns can also be used to mark notable points on a hiker’s route such as a summit or other landmark.

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A cairn is traditionally built to honor a dead person or animal and as such they are sometimes also called grave stones or headstones. A more modern usage is to commemorate a wilderness experience or as navigational markers in the backcountry of North America and Europe. In national parks from Acadia to Yosemite there has been a proliferation of cairns in recent years as people build them for personal reasons. These can be controversial with some people viewing them as offensive rock grafitti or a lack of respect for the wilderness experience.

When building a cairn the best starting point is to look at examples of real ones online and take photos for reference. The next step is to gather rocks and start to build up a heap. It is a good idea to use flat rocks rather than round ones and triangular rather than square shapes as these are more stable. As the heap gets bigger it is important to ensure that all of the stones have at least three points of contact and bridge each other. This prevents unseemly and destabilizing “stone wiggle”.

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