Navigation Walk: Cairns

All throughout Iceland are heaps of stones perched on mountains or peppered along vast plains. They are called steinvarða (cairns). Cairns were typically built as landmarks along hiking paths, and were important for people to find their way through Iceland’s diverse landscapes long before the age of GPS.

The practice of building cairns goes back centuries; the first Icelandic settlers from the 9th and 10th centuries used cairns to mark their way on expeditions around the country. The history of the cairn is similar to the Indigenous practice (from Greenland to Alaska) of building Inuksuk for navigation, or to mark fishing places, hunting grounds or important places on the land.

In recent years hikers have begun to build new cairns on mountaintops or hills for ‘fun.’ While this has become a common practice, the Icelandic Environmental Agency has asked people to stop doing it for two reasons: firstly, building new cairns can confuse travelers; and secondly, removing rocks to build cairns for fun disturbs the landscape for no reason.

WalkingLab recently walked along a cairn route near Myvatn, in Northern Iceland. The cairns mark the way across somewhat desolate yet beautiful landscape full of the remains of lava fields complete with lava ropes swirled on the ground.