Rock piles/gardens

10:00 a.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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I've been noticing these rock piles (usually 1 rock stacked on another like one might see in a rock garden or incorporated in the landscape of somebodys yard) on a number of the trails that I hike on through out the week. I started to get curious to see if I'm missing out on something, or if a number of people are making these piles while resting on the trail. If anybody knows of any significance I'd appreciate it, otherwise I guess a number of people were just passing the time on the trail :-)

11:51 a.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Do you mean a cairn to mark the trail, like so?

12:26 p.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Cairns are basically rock piles to mark something - trail, direction to go, peak, etc. Decades ago, there was a "language" to cairns that was well known to all backcountry travellers. The number and arrangement of the rocks conveyed a particular meaning. For example, a small pile of rocks stacked one on top of another, 3 or 4 high (to distinguish it from a random natural pile, but maybe higher in rocky terrain, such as on a moraine) meant "this is the trail", with the next cairn visible under normal conditions. A cairn 3 or 4 high with another rock on one side meant "turn here" in the direction of the rock on the side, usually in a location where the turn might not be obvious, or at a location where you would depart from a well-worn trail. Tall cairns meant peaks, camping spots, or other significant gathering spots. Lest you think a peak would be obvious, in the Appalachians and other places with thick woods, sometimes the visibility is only 10 or 20 feet, so you can't readily tell when you are at the peak. Other configurations were used to mark stream and river fords.

I have a couple of books that give a "dictionary" of trail markings, including blazes (no longer used because of the damage to the trees, plus no one carries an ax anymore, with the prevalence of fossil fuel stoves). You still see blazes in the Rockies, Sierra, Cascades, and even in parts of the Smokies, usually on very old trees as a scar and often well off the current trail.

Big problem with cairns (aka "ducks") is that in many areas, you don't know that the person who placed them was going the same place you intend to go. I know a number of places in the Sierra and Rockies where you can stand at one duck and see 3 or 4 in different directions ("Lessee now, is that the one for Loon Lake, Goose Pond, Duck Creek, or Bear Hollow?"). These days, a lot of hardcore LNT types disassemble the ducks to reduce the confusion (and traces of human visitation).

2:04 p.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Alicia - Yep that is exactly what I meant. It was this picture that jogged my memory of seeing a number of them.

Bill S - Thanks for the info, that does make sense with the location of where I've been seeing them.

4:20 p.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Very interesting! We have quite a lot of them in the S. Appalachians.

When going off trail I often mark my route with flagging tape temporarily, then on the way out I remove the tape and make cairns.

That's about all I know about them though, we've just always done it.

In my region you can usually find a rock shaped any way you want one, and most times I find a long slender one for a pointer.

I would welcome more info about the 'proper' way to make them though.

4:33 p.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Very interesting! We have quite a lot of them in the S. Appalachians.

When going off trail I often mark my route with flagging tape temporarily, then on the way out I remove the tape and make cairns.

That's about all I know about them though, we've just always done it.

In my region you can usually find a rock shaped any way you want one, and most times I find a long slender one for a pointer.

I would welcome more info about the 'proper' way to make them though.

If you can find an old Boy Scout Manual -- my old copy was first published in around 1960 -- they have some information about this. They do not go into great detail, but the basics are there. Also how to use other items like branches for the same purpose. How glad I am I got to grow up when that stuff was common knowledge. Old Boy Scout manuals make mighty entertaining reading, and I don't mean that ironically in the least. We have better gear, and of course practices have had to change, but those old manuals encompass knowledge that was earned the hard way by Boone, Kenton, the Boers, Native Americans, and many other sources.

5:07 p.m. on October 16, 2009 (EDT)
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Brerarnold,

I agree with what i think you are saying, the old ways are worth preserving.

No one knows for sure that it will not be needed again someday.

I used to have an old BSA manual, can't find it though.

12:18 p.m. on October 20, 2009 (EDT)
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The old Field Books (prior to about 1960) had more information. I keep one around, even though they command a hefty price on the collectors' market. My old Red Ryder Handbook (long since disappeared) had a lot of this too, and it was truly pocket-sized. Here is one reference by Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of BSA (click on the diagrams to be able to read them). And another by Dan Beard, another of the founders of a pre-BSA program that became part of BSA. Both of these sites have links to other information on trail markings.

But as I posted earlier, in many areas there are so many piles of rock and tree blazes that they don't help much. One thing discussed in the LNT community has been that it might be better to just knock the ducks over, because there are so many that you can't tell which is really the correct trail. That's one reason that in some places, like the Presidentials and parts of the Rockies, the trail associations went to paint marks ("follow the orange trail to the ridgeline, then ...")

6:15 p.m. on October 20, 2009 (EDT)
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Thanks Bill,

I certainly understand how to many cairns could be confusing, and why an official blaze system would be more reliable for established trail systems.

I think my interest is mostly for my own personal use on 'secret trails', and just because I find that kind of knowledge interesting.

I will use the links you posted.

October 23, 2014
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