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Cairns: A Natural Alternative to Trail Marking

While paint and plastic trail markers work well to indicate where your trails are, they also betray a human presence. If you want a more natural look to your trails, consider using cairns—small piles of stones—as trail markers. Not only are cairns more environmentally friendly than paint or plastic, they’re also fun for kids and grandkids to build.

What's a cairn?


Cairns (pronounced “kerns”) are human-made piles of stones. They can be small and simple or big and elaborate. Humans have used cairns since prehistory as navigation guides, landmark indicators, and monuments.

How do I build cairns along my trails?

cairn 2

The best way to build cairns is to do so over time. Whenever someone hikes a trail, that person takes a stone from the area and adds it to the cairn. As you, your family, and your friends travel your trails more, your cairns will become bigger and more visible. The stones don’t need to be large, so this is a great way to get your kids or grandkids involved with your land.

How many cairns do I need to build?

To be effective trail markers, space cairns so that each is within sight of the one before and after it.


  1. Cairns are built using stones you find yourself. If your woodlot is in the Catskills or Lower Hudson regions of New York State, chances are there will be plenty of local rocks you can use. But if your property isn’t rocky, cairns may not be a good option for you.
  2. DON'T take rocks from streams to make your cairns. Many species of wildlife depend on rocks in streams for their homes.
  3. Cairns aren’t just for trails! Consider placing them in other parts of your woodlot too. They work well as monuments and markers for important places. One of the earliest uses for cairns was to mark the highest elevation in an area, such as a hilltop.

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