Have you ever been wandering through the dense woods or scrambling up a mountainside wondering where the hell you were and then...you spot a cairn!
The outdoor term of the week this week is a technical term for those piles of rocks you see on the side of a trail. Yes, those random trail markers you see in the backcountry have a name: cairn.
The term "cairn" can be found dating back to ancient times, the word specifically taken from the Scottish Gaelic. There are cairns scattered on trails throughout the world and a cairn has become a universal sign for, "the trail is here."
On modern trails, a cairn is usually created by a courteous hiker who was there before you that may have realized it is a tricky part of the trail. Or they may have gotten lost themselves, wandered around for a few hours and cursing the fact that a cairn was nowhere to be found, so they made one.
A cairn can be as simple as a few rocks piled onto each other to painted works of art. The hiker should make sure it actually is a man-made marker though, and not a natural rock pile that could send you the wrong way.
Some backcountry purists don't believe in the cairn because it is technically disturbing the natural condition of the woods and violates the "Leave No Trace" ethic. But I can tell you from personal experience that when you have been wandering around a granite slab for half an hour, a towering cairn in the distance marking the trail is a welcome sight.