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Thread: cairns on mountain paths

  1. #1
    jp's Avatar
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    cairns on mountain paths

    Does anyone else find these annoying when not used to mark an important location? Seems like every popular hiking trail has an unnatural abundance of them; clusters of them in many cases.

    I'm sure most of them are built by well meaning artistic folk waiting for their fellow hikers to catch their breath or finish a snack. I think it's only slightly more sophisticated than a dog taking a leak every 100 yards on it's walk.

    I am thinking about returning to Katahdin to make some more photos of the tablelands and most of the pictures I find online of it have a cairn in them. I'm not really going for that look. Many of them are probably trail markers, but probably less than half.

  2. #2
    Resident Heretic Bruce Watson's Avatar
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    Quote Originally Posted by jp498 View Post
    Does anyone else find these annoying when not used to mark an important location?
    Yes. Ranks right up there with defacing trees with knives as far as I'm concerned, but at least most unnecessary cairns can be remedied with careful placement of a boot. Trees aren't so easily repaired.

    Bruce Watson

  3. #3

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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    I think I can understand your dislike for them. Me, personally, haven't given them much more than a passing thought.

  4. #4
    Photographer
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    I kick them over.
    Keith Pitman

  5. #5
    Terence
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    Tough to say. What appears to be an unnecessary cairn in the summer, can be very valuable in winter, especially on less traveled paths, after a snow storm. Many times I've been thankful for a string of cairns in a less forested area when confronted with a field of snow.

    Are there useless cairns made by bored folk? Absolutely. But before you kick one over, picture the area with 8" of snow and see if the path would be so obvious without the cairn. There are plenty of us crazy people who prefer winter hiking to sultry summer hiking.

  6. #6
    Michael E. Gordon
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    In the eastern US and UK, they seem to really like them. In the western US, I destroy every single one of them (so do my friends). One who needs to rely on cairns for movement may eventually end up being rescued.

  7. #7

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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    I leave them alone. I'd worry about the "angry-spirit-of-a-cairn-builder" retaliating by kicking over a leg of my tripod.

  8. #8
    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    Cairns, when unnecessary, are annoying indeed, but those I’ve left undisturbed are in places where – even if they have little purpose beyond someone’s vanity – can make a difference when conditions are different.

    More than once, even the most “useless” cairns have made it easier for me to follow dangerous areas after a surprise snow shower, or during autumn when new-fallen leaves conceal the terrain. And I’m referring to “vanity” cairns, not directional ones.

    But any type of cairn certainly reduces the delight of an unmediated experience in the woods. Of course, trails do that too. That’s one reason why I enjoy cross-country hiking so much. Map & compass in hand, I leave human trails and human cairns behind – sometimes increasing personal risk, but always increasing the personal decisions I get to make. (Psychology note: I’ve so conditioned myself to dislike human cairns, that even when I come across natural ones, I sometimes grimace!)

    BTW, what I find even more annoying – very often in the desert SW – are those bright-orange ribbons tied, for example, on Tamaracks and Cottonwoods. They catch (disturb) one’s attention from so far away! I feel an urge to remove them as I pass by – but remember that hikers who placed them there rely on them to “find their way back.” Most of these hikers are conscientious enough to remove them on their return, if not conscientious enough to recognize the ribbon's effect on others.

  9. #9
    Claudio Santambrogio
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    Cairns are mostly used to mark a path, and when moving in an area with very few people those cairns can be a very good reference point. People should not build cairns "just for the fun of it", they are way markers - but so people should not destroy them "just because they would be in their shot". If you don't like cairns, go somewhere where there aren't any - there is enough wilderness even in Europe to hike without cairns in sight… (been there, done that). If you don't like cairns, it is likely you don't like paths either, and those two mostly go together.

  10. #10
    Terence
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    Re: cairns on mountain paths

    Quote Originally Posted by Michael Gordon View Post
    In the eastern US and UK, they seem to really like them. In the western US, I destroy every single one of them (so do my friends). One who needs to rely on cairns for movement may eventually end up being rescued.
    While there's certainly an element of truth to that, the same argument can be made for removing street signs. One who doesn't know what street he's on has no business being there. The street signs are just more visual clutter. Personally, I'd prefer if we cut down every powerline too. They get in the way of my photos a LOT more than cairns.

    If the argument is that the cairns are a hazard, maybe we should restrict people from using trails as well? They are certainly a bigger visual blight, and crutch to inexperienced hikers.

    My experience out west is that the terrain and trails tend to be much more defined, and there are far fewer trails.

    Many of the parks in the east are flat and heavily forested. Sure I can use a compass and map, hunting for a clear spot to sight a landmark, or I could go the GPS route, but a cairn or two in a flat field of rock is (to me) fairly unobtrusive. Not any worse than the ubiquitous trail blazes on trees. But then, maybe you'd paint over those or scrape the bark off the tree too.

    Also, there are very few wilderness/backcountry areas in the east, and park usage is much heavier due to population density. The risk of requiring "rescue" outside a handful of parks is darn near nil. Half the trails of my nearest "big" park (Harriman SP) overlook a nuclear power plant.

    So while my map-reading skills and GPS-map skills are more than adequate even out west, for a simple afternoon of snowshoeing, a cairn or two really doesn't bother me.

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