The word cairn is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can invoke images of faith, purpose and spiritual journeys. In the backcountry, making cairns is a popular trend and it’s simple to understand why people are attracted to these cute little piles of flat rocks which are positioned like child’s building blocks. A hiker who is suffering from aching shoulders and black flying flies buzzing her ears will attempt to select a stone that has the perfect mix of flatness wide, tilt, width, and depth. After a few misses (one too big, one too small) The solitary will select the one which is perfect to fit. The second layer of the Cairn is now complete.
Many people don’t realize that cairn building can create negative environmental impacts particularly when it is done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of a river, lake or pond, they disturb the ecosystem and degrade the habitat for microorganisms which are the backbone of the food chain. Additionally, these rocks may be carried away by erosion to places in which they could cause harm to wildlife or humans.
Cairn construction should be avoided in areas that contain rare or endangered reptiles, mammals, amphibians, or flowers or where the moisture is buried beneath the rocks. If you build your cairn in private land, it may violate state and federal regulations protecting the natural resources of the land and may result in fines or even arrest.