Of the many things invented by prehistoric humans –– shoes, clothes, the wheel –– hardly any of those things have avoided some technological progress. Bark sandals became premium leather uppers stitched into Vibram soles, animal skins became Gore-Tex, and wooden wheels became magnesium alloy rims with high-performance rubber tires. But cairns –– simple stacks of found rocks to mark trails or points of interest –– have remained virtually unchanged, both in function and construction, since people first started stacking up some rocks on some other rocks around 15,000 years ago.

Unstan Chambered Cairn
Unstan Chambered Cairn, Scotland. Built between 3400 - 2800 B.C.

Cairns range in size from a single stack of a few small rocks, to large piles visible from long distances, and also range in significance from those of ancient indigenous people to mark graves or sacred places, to meaningless random piles stacked by kids. However, the most common and important use for cairns today is navigation. In the jagged coastlines of the North Atlantic, from Eastern Canada to Scandinavia, large painted cairns are used to mark land, like simple unmanned lighthouses. And throughout the National Park System of the United States, cairns are used to mark trails in places where lack of vegetation makes trails almost invisible, like the deserts of New Mexico and the lava fields of Hawaii.

Multiple Cairns in Pond

In the deep wilderness of Maine’s Acadia National Park, one of the most rugged and wild places in the country, backcountry hikers find some of the most iconic cairns on Earth. Known as “Bates cairns,” named for the 19th Century Mainer Waldron Bates who designed and first built them, each one is made of a small two-column base, bridged by a long, flat rock, which is then topped by a small rock. The elegant design is also functional, as it makes them more resilient to wind and weather than conical cairns, as well as more visually striking for potentially wayward hikers.

Multiple Cairns in Pond
Our Cairn Tee in Light Umber. Made in Canada and available in Light Olive and Heather Grey.

While thousands of years of technology have delivered maps, compasses, and GPS systems, the fact that cairns are still useful navigational beacons is a good reminder that there are still parts of the world wild enough to connect us with our earliest ancestors, wandering through nature and keeping an eye out for the most simple reminder that we’re on the right track.