If you’re an avid hiker, the odds are good you’ve passed by a stack of rocks a time or two. No, it's not some ancient ritual to ward off demi-goblins or something crazy like that. The truth is, there is more than one reason why people stack rocks on trails.

If you come across a stack of rocks on the trail, it's either from land managers to help them navigate or from other hikers who have previously hiked the same trail. Some people stack them for spiritual reasons, and others stack them because they’re located in an energy vortex.

Some of the above reasons are far more common than others, but we will have to unpack these one at a time, especially the latter two reasons. They have nothing to do with land navigation, after all.

History of stacking rocks

four brown rocks stacked on top of each other

Most people attribute our weird desire to stack cool-looking rocks on top of one another to the Scots. Not the Scots in Scotland today but the Scots of thousands of years ago, well into the BC era.

It's not hard to imagine why. There are ancient stone stacks all over Scotland. It's like the island’s ancestors were just obsessed with rock stacking. Some of the rock stacks in Scotland today were put in place over 4,000 years ago.

Most experts believe that the stacks served either of two purposes. The first was simply for religious reasons. The second was for much the same reason we do it today—to help fellow Scots navigate their way across the hills.

The Scots didn’t play around either. Some of those stacks of stones are 10’ high. The Scots weren’t the only ones to do it, even though we get the name “cairn” from them. Ancient stacked rocks are found all over the planet. Most of them seemed to serve a similar purpose for those who lived during those times.

Of course, ancient stone stacks are usually marked as historical sites, and you either can’t get too close, or you could be in quite a bit of trouble if you mess with them.

The meaning behind stacking rocks

stacked rocks with mountains in the background

The above meanings are the primary reasons for stacking rocks in the wilderness. However, they aren’t the only reasons behind it. People have been stacking rocks since before they learned how to finger paint on cave walls.

In the past centuries, stacking stones (cairns as they’re also known) was a way to mark a gravesite or help travelers navigate. It's also a meditation technique, though you probably shouldn’t stop to meditate on a heavily used hiking trail.

When they are used as markers for energy vortexes, they are known as medicine wheels. Whatever their meaning and whatever the reason someone stacked them, they are not an uncommon site on hiking trails.

There are really three reasons why people stack rocks:

  1. Stacking rocks to help navigate a given perimeter
  2. Stacking rocks to harness energy from vortexes
  3. Stacking rocks for other spiritual reasons

1. Stacking rocks to help navigate a given perimeter

This is the most common reason used for stacking rocks. Nine times out of ten, when you come across stacked rocks on the trail, it's to let you know that you haven’t wandered from the right path.

Most park officials will tell you there is a distinct difference between rock stacks and rock cairns. The rock cairns are there for professionals who work in the park and land managers to use for land navigation.

Rock stacks, while they may be there for a variety of reasons, are frowned upon in most state and federal parks. In fact, park rangers will often kick them over and spread the rocks out if they come across one that is clearly not a cairn.

Only cairns that are authorized by park rangers and staff are allowed to remain intact. The main reason is that additional cairns could potentially cause someone to leave the trail. It's also considered to be destructive to native wildlife habitats.

You can usually tell if a cairn has been constructed for overland navigation because they will be above the tree line. You will see them at the top of hills, outcroppings, on the side of slopes, and anywhere along a trail that is at a high enough elevation that it can be seen from a lower elevation a good distance away.

2. Stacking rocks to harness energy from vortexes

Not everyone has to believe in energy vortexes to know why some people stack rocks in specific locations. The thing is, these vortexes are often out in the wilderness. This means that, from time to time, these placement areas are going to correlate with hiking trails.

Stacking stones at supposed energy vortexes in parks, state parks, and federal parks is strongly discouraged. It's not that the park officials don’t believe in the use of energy vortexes. It's because rock stacks may confuse hikers, and it is too easy to get lost in some parks.

According to those who travel to these mysterious places of power and stack rocks there, energy vortexes are a part of an esoteric belief system. These spots are special because they are places where powerful, invisible forces are concentrated.

An energy vortex in nature is supposed to have positive effects on those who venture into the area, including improvements in physical and mental health or well-being. When a potential energy vortex is discovered, or on the location of a known one, people will stack rocks to mark the area visually and from a distance.

3. Stacking rocks for other spiritual reasons

Many people enjoy the stacking of rocks as a sort of spiritual commune. Others practice rock stacking as a form of meditation, becoming more in touch with their inner selves or nature.

There are several reasons why people practice stacking rocks in nature for spiritual purposes:

  • Create a sense of balance
  • Learn patience
  • As a symbol or message of strength
  • Find a sense of peace
  • As a metaphor for growth

Unfortunately, those who practice stacking stones for these reasons are the ones who irritate park rangers the most. That’s because it's randomly done and often without the forethought that it could lead hikers astray.

If you like stacking rocks in a state or national park, you should know that it's probably going to be kicked over and spread out. Not only that, but it is also harmful to the local wildlife and environment.

Why stacking rocks endangers the natural environment

stacked rocks in front of a small river

Stacking rocks among nature enthusiasts, hikers, spiritual-seeking people, and finders of energy vortexes are becoming more and more popular and widespread. It's even becoming a social media thing. Unfortunately, that’s also a problem.

For one, it destroys the visual appeal of the area. When you look out on nature, your eyes will be immediately drawn to something unnatural. It visually robs you of what should be an otherwise unbroken, natural beauty of the area.

There are three main problems related to stacking rocks:

  1. The ecological problem
  2. The geological problem
  3. The aesthetic problem

1. The ecological problem

Many forest animals use rocks as homes. Since the majority of creatures that scamper under or remain under rocks exist as a class of prey, removing their defensive roof may be a death sentence. In most cases, park rangers and even ecologists don’t have a problem with stacked rocks for navigation and landmarks.

However, stacking rocks so you can take a million selfies for your Instagram account is different and completely unnecessary.

2. The geological problem

Moving rocks so you can seek fame and viral posts on your social media account also exacerbates the natural rate of erosion in the area. The soil beneath the displaced rock is exposed to weathering, shifting the geological erosion rate of the area.

3. The aesthetic problem

We already briefly mentioned this earlier, but it really does a lot to destroy the natural view of the area. A pile of rocks is so out of place that anyone trying to appreciate the view while hiking the trail will be visually drawn to it.

Should you stack rocks on the trail?

It's probably not the best idea in the world, especially if there are already stacks of rocks on the trail. If you are hiking and you feel like there are particular areas on the trail that could be confusing for other hikers, talk to a park ranger about it.

You’ll find that most people are pretty reasonable, and a park ranger will be the best-informed person when it comes to the park rules and the nature of the hiking trails throughout the parks.

If you are on a hiking trail that doesn’t belong to any agency, give it some serious thought before you start throwing rocks together. Make sure it's a very reasonable and useful navigation spot before you commit.

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If you're about to embark on a hike in hot weather, consider reading our article 12 Tips on What to Wear on a Hot Weather Hike.

Final thoughts

There are a lot of reasons why people stack rocks, the most important of which are for navigation purposes. As far as the rest of it goes, it's becoming a problem across the world as kids stack them just to catch a selfie for their profile pics or something equally ridiculous.

Stacking rocks should be for land navigation or as a marker for safety purposes and little else. If you find yourself with a rock in your hand and nothing better to do with it, just put it back and finish your hike.