Photo credit: Michael Grab (aka Gravity Glue)

Rules of Ethical Stone Stacking

I generally agree with the code of conduct when interacting with the outdoors that goes, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” It is the best policy to follow whenever interacting with any public outdoor space because public outdoor spaces are exactly that, public. People come to enjoy themselves and to interact with nature in as raw a form as possible. And by many accounts, encountering stone stacks can spoil that experience, not to mention that moving/removing stones from the spots that they’re found can damage the environment and disturb the local wildlife.

Rule #1 — Avoid stacking near trails in remote locations.

Stone stacks or cairns have been used in many cultures and situations throughout history for various purposes such as marking water sources in deserts, honoring the dead, and as guide markers for trails that can be hard to follow. Making stone stacks in remote locations is a potential safety concern because of their ability to lead people off course in areas where rescue could be difficult. So keeping one’s stone stacking to well-traveled areas is an important practice to adhere to.

Rule #2 — Use the right stones

The “right stones” are (a) loose so you don’t have to dig them out, (b) not part of a riprap, or © stones that you have to disturb local wildlife or damage vegetation to use. Looking for areas where there are many loose stones that don’t have things like salamanders or arthropods living under them and/or aren’t covered by vegetation is important for reducing any environmental impact you might have. And not using stones that have been purposefully placed as part of a riprap to prevent erosion is simply common sense: These are usually stones that are piled that don’t look like the local natural stone.

Rule #3 — Your stack should not endure.

The lowest level of following this rule is being able to create a stack that is delicate enough that it will fall over due to a stiff breeze. The highest level is knocking the stack over yourself or inviting someone else to do it for you before you leave the area. Sometimes, I enjoy using the stack as a timer and simply leave when the stack falls.

  • If the stack is a form of art or vanity project either take a picture and follow the rule or go somewhere where stacking is permitted, such as the Patapsco River in Old Ellicott City, Maryland near the Teddy J. Betts monument.

Rule #4 — Stack safely.

Stones are heavy and stone stacks fall over. Make sure that you’re not stacking in places where they could fall on someone, like the edge of a cliff, on a bridge, or in a tree. And if you’re making a stack taller than a child, make sure to watch out for them and yourself while you’re stacking.

This is an 7-foot tall stack I made in the summer of 2017 during a rock stacking event in Ellicott City, Maryland.

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