Illustration of a hiker knocking down a stack of rocks
(Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Is It OK to Teach My Kids to Knock Over Cairns?

Outside’s ethics columnist weighs in on the great cairn debate

Illustration of a hiker knocking down a stack of rocks
Liam Eisenberg

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Dear Sundog: For many years I’ve been in the practice of knocking down cairns while hiking. I dislike them because they turn a natural landscape unnatural. And I love route-finding, which is ruined by someone else showing me the route. Now that I’m introducing my sons to hiking, I’m passing on to them the practice of knocking over someone else’s obnoxious piles of rock, telling them they are improving these places for the next visitor. Am I right? —King Cairnage

Dear Cairnage: First some definitions. Frequently confused with a white lady who asks to see your manager, a cairn—not a Karen—is a stack of rocks that shows you where the trail goes. They can be as simple as three small stones, as monumental as the two-legged towers of Acadia National Park, or as whimsical as the imagination of the stoners who spend hours balancing unlikely objects: picture Dr. Seuss’ Horton the elephant perched on a tiny egg on a nest on a tree.

Cairns can be immensely helpful in keeping us on track, especially on rock and sand where there is no discernible trail. And to many, such as yourself, they can be immensely annoying, yet one more sign of humanity’s inability to chill the F out, stop making and altering things, and just let Earth be Earth.

As for deliberately destroying them, you have to ask the cairns’ purpose, and what happens if you knock them down. The answer varies widely by location. If you’re in a National Park, the short answer is no, you should not knock down cairns. They are put there by people who know what the hell they’re doing, such as rangers and trail crew, and they are part of a plan to manage a jillion visitors with as few as possible of them getting lost or forging a brand new trail. (You should also not build new cairns in National Parks.)

But there are plenty of other types of public lands: national forests, national monuments, national conservation lands, wilderness and wilderness study areas, and so on. You’re probably in the right knocking down cairns in wilderness, as these places are meant to be devoid of signs of humanity such as roads, toilets, and motors. You also should consider level of use: a popular trail near a big city is similar to a National Park in that a cairned trail prevents regular, expensive search-and-rescue operations. Lastly you need to think about the durability of the terrain: in grasslands or forest, it doesn’t really matter if people wander off trail: things will grow back. But in the canyon country where Sundog parks his singlewide, the soils take decades to recover from footprints, and when each hiker “finds” his own route it leaves a spider-web of trails, a worse impact than a single cairned path.

Exhausted yet? What I’m saying is that to obtain the ethical ground to knock over cairns, you have to do your homework, and indeed become an expert on the place you’re hiking—and probably a local. Consider the alternatives. You knock down a cairn and people get lost and get hurt or require rescue. Or taxpayers pay to have them all put back up. Or you cause a bunch a people to stray off trail and degrade the place. It is not assured that your actions are improving the experience of those who follow.

And what about rocks stacked for no practical purpose but merely for . . . art? A decade ago these precarious sculptures enjoyed a moment of insta-fame, recalling the lovely ephemeral “land art” of Andy Goldsworthy. A chorus of scolds rose in condemnation: surely these trifles have no place in pure wilderness. Rock stackers do not expect their work to outlast monuments; indeed many of them knock them over themselves after taking a photo. So are there ethical qualms about kicking them back into a “natural” state?


But that doesn’t mean you should do it. Here your question opens a larger philosophical debate as to what nature is. The most prominent American take, from the likes of Thoreau and Muir and Abbey, is that nature is a virgin paradise unspoiled by the corruptions of humanity, where we go for solace and connection with the infinite. Sundog himself subscribed to this idea for decades of his youth as he ambled through remote canyons and deserts.

But what if we thought of the natural world as, instead, a place where humans have dwelled, farmed, and hunted for tens of thousands of years, and that only appeared “empty” to European settlers because the Native people had been driven off the land with guns, germs, and stealing. When the likes of Lewis and Clark and Daniel Boone came West, the reason they found unpeopled land wasn’t because God gave it to them for their spiritual rejuvenation, but because 90 percent of Indians had already died from the diseases carried across the Atlantic.

What does this have to do with your cairns? Changing my ideas about wilderness changed my expectations of what I was supposed—or entitled—to do there. Once we accept that none of this continent is “virgin,” then perhaps our passion to erase all signs of humanity might waver. Would anyone knock down street signs in New York City in order to find their own route, the way Giovanni da Verrazzano did in 1524? Often the fight to preserve the land just as it was feels impossible; because it is impossible.

I’m not suggesting we abandon “wilderness” as a legal designation to protect places from roads, mines, and drilling. Rather, I advocate for a shift in thinking, a realization that the fantasy of finding one’s way through untouched terrain is just that: fantasy. Instead of expending our energy to preserve the illusion of Eden, we might work to return the land to its legal owners, and honor the treaties signed with tribal nations by the United States Congress. Purity is an impossible standard to attain; we should aspire instead to truth.

Got a question of your own? Send it to