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Five Things – The Spotter’s Guide to Cairns

By Dave Roberts   

on December 3, 2014    No ratings yet.

Five Things – The Spotter’s Guide to Cairns

We’ve all seen cairns of different shapes and sizes on the hills, but not until now has there been an official classification. Here’s the cut out and throw away Mud and Routes spotter’s guide to cairns.

The tourist fed monstrosity (AKA The Great Pyramid of [mountain name])... This is where good footpaths go to die. Prime examples can be found on those overly popular trails, where the best/worst examples are so huge that they’ve begun to overflow the track. Often added to by someone who was told in the sixties that it was traditional to do so, and insists that the rest of the group follows suit. Culprit will then bemoan the state of the footpaths and complain that they’re not properly maintained. The pack is included for scale below (it’s actually the pack from this post)


The Stepping Stones – In mist, having a line of cairns can be an essential aid to navigation. Such cairns are found on Glyder Fawr and are useful to help you get across in mist. However, sometimes these cairn builders have been either too keen or someone’s chosen to fill in the gaps with extra cairns which are so close to one another that you can step from one to the next as the rest of the summit plateau is lava. Believed by some to be the missing link between cairns and dry stone walls.


The Waymarkers – a series of cairns spaced just far enough apart to be invisible from one another in thick mist. Otherwise a wonderful aid in order to descend by a somewhat dodgy route (see Rhinog Fawr for prime example)


The Summit Cairn – No need for a clever name for this one. The most common form of all cairns, and the most acceptable. Sometimes a non-descript pile, but can sometimes be a work of art.


The Arty – Clearly put together with effort – usually with elements at a jaunty angle. The more gravity defying it looks, the better. Technically a sub-category of any other type of cairn, with the Arty Summit Cairn being the most common example.


The Rock  – Usually found on grassy summits that lack the natural materials required to produce the Monstrosity. Not to be confused with Dwayne Johnson who you’re highly unlikely to find on Moel Cynghorion’s summit.


The Bowl – These were once huge hilltop cairns that have been hollowed out over time by looters and walkers. Now the most likely treasure to be found is a mouldering banana skin, and provide well earned shelter to hill walkers. Technically just a huge version of the summit cairn.

The Handy – Where’s that descent path? If you’re lucky, it’s marked by a Handy. These are the unsung heroes that mark those important navigational points on the mountain and prevent you from walking off a cliff. Often confused with the random, and impossible to determine if your Handy marks a descent route or a no-go route.


The Custody Battle – This one’s rarer and is only known to those who really know a route. These cairns will usually be discreet, and usually of the Handy variety, marking a descent route. However, they seem to be there on one trip and gone the next, but then back again.

The Random – Just that, a pile of random stones that serves no purpose. Often confused with the Handy with dire consequences. Usually formed of white stone, and much too conspicuous.

The Embedded – This is a close relation to the random, but with one purpose. To conceal what’s beneath it. By definition there’s a hint of what lies beneath, usually in the form of a garland of toilet paper. Not compatible with the curious.


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Dave Roberts

Dave Roberts founded Walk Eryri in 2004, with the aim of providing routes that are off the beaten track. Walk Eryri is now part of Mud and Routes which continues to provide more off beat routes and walks in Snowdonia and beyond. Dave has been exploring the hills of Eryri for over thirty years, and is a qualified Mountain Leader. Dave also established Walk up Snowdon, Walk up Scafell Pike and Walk up Ben Nevis just to mention a few.

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