Updated: May 8
Before modern technology allowed us to navigate the world with ease, people had to find other ways of getting around. During these times, horses were used instead of cars and physical maps replaced GPS devices. In a country like Iceland, where huge lava fields have few distinguishing features, trail marking was essential.
Iceland, like many other countries, developed a system to help travelers find their way. People getting lost en route to their destination wasn’t good for anyone, so a collective effort was made to solve the problem. This is cairns in Iceland explained.
Since Iceland is still developing its long-distance transport, you’ll need a car or van to get around. Hire your chosen vehicle at Campervan Reykjavik.
What is a Cairn?
A cairn is an artificial pile of stones, raised to perform a function. The function and appearance of a cairn depends on their location in the world. They have been used to mark burial sites or other significant locations such as mountain summits. Another purpose they were used for was to mark trails, before paved roads were commonplace.
Adding a stone to a cairn when passing it is common practice found in some regions, with the purpose of bringing good luck. They were sometimes built at the beginnings of great passages, believing that by doing so, safe passage was more likely.
The origin of cairns
The use of cairns goes back thousands of years, and cairn history is as varied as the countries they’re found in. The word is derived from the Scots language, and its spelling and pronunciation differ in various parts of the UK.
Cairns have been found plain and decorated, and vary greatly in size. While some are less than a meter, others are several meters tall. One particularly famous shape is that found in Canada, built by the Inuit people. Their cairns loosely resemble a person, boasting four limbs and a head.
The meaning of cairns
So what does a cairn symbolize in Iceland? Mostly, they were used to mark a trail, assuring a traveler that they were going in the right direction. Their locations were chosen with great care, even at points when it would have been easy to stray off the path. Many Iceland cairns are centuries old; some are believed to be Viking Age cairns, dating back to the settlement.
Authentic cairns in Iceland are generally over 1.5 meters tall and are wider at the base than the top. They can even be as big as small hills, with hundreds of stones being used to create them. The Icelandic word for cairn is “varða” (pronounced (var-tha).
Why you should never remove cairns in Iceland
There are many reasons why you should never remove any cairn that you find. Even though many are no longer used as trail markers, they are still historically significant because the trails themselves have disappeared. These cairns represent important sites in Iceland’s history, and therefore should be respected as cultural landmarks, not to be altered.
Many of Iceland’s cairns are still in use as trail markers, and so they should not be tampered with. Much of Iceland remains uninhabited for most of the year, and is only visited by hikers in the summer. As such, these cairns which are found throughout the remoter parts of the country are essential, especially considering that cell service is not available everywhere.
Another reason not to remove cairns is that rocks in Iceland have significant ties to the country’s cultural beliefs. The rock cairns may be home to Iceland’s elves, since elves, or Huldufólk (Hidden people) generally live in rocks. The idea that half of Icelanders still believe in elves is (mostly) a myth, but that doesn’t mean cultural heritage isn’t important.
Why you should never build your own Viking cairns
In addition to not removing cairns, you should also never build any of your own. Mixing unofficial cairns with official ones can confuse tourists, even if it is normally easy to tell the difference. Visitors to Iceland who aren’t familiar with cairns may take the amateur cairns as real trail markers and get lost. After all, Google maps is designed for roads, not hiking trails.
Shifting rocks around or removing them is generally never a good idea in the Land of Fire and Ice. As well as disrupting the aforementioned elf homes, this action also could damage the ecosystem. You’ll notice that a large part of Iceland is covered with bright green moss; this moss is extremely delicate and can be killed easily by being stepped on or crushed.
It’s best to leave Iceland’s rocks where they are and observe existing cairns with respect rather than adding to them. Try to follow the ideal of “leave no trace” when it comes to traveling. This means taking nothing but pictures, and leaving nothing but footprints. Do your part to keep Iceland pristine for the next generation of Icelanders and tourists.
Where to find cairns in Iceland?
Here are the spots where you can find the best examples of cairns in Iceland.
Fimmvörðuháls: The “Five Cairns Pass”
If you want to see an example of Iceland’s cairns in action, you should hike the Fimmvörðuháls trail. This is one of the most popular hiking routes in Iceland, covering 22 km (14 miles) and climbing over 1000 meters. It either begins or ends in the highlands, Iceland’s uninhabited interior, and can be completed over one or two days.
You’ll no longer need the cairns to find your way along Fimmvörðuháls, as the path is well marked. Nevertheless, keep an eye out for them, as they’re a great showcase of Iceland’s cairns. The trail can be fairly challenging in places, with uneven terrain and possibly mounds of snow.
The start/end points of Fimmvörðuháls are Skógafoss waterfall on the south coast and the Þórsmörk region in the highlands. But keep in mind that the trail is only accessible in summer, from June to September. If you want an extra challenge, combine Fimmvörðuháls with another famous hike, the Laugavegur Trail, which is twice as long.
Laufskálavarða: “Laufskálar Cairn”
Laufskálavarða, on the south coast, is a site famous for its hundreds of cairns spread across a large distance. The reason for the cairns in this spot is that it’s the beginning of the crossing of the Mýrdalssandur desert. Travelers crossing the desert for the first time believed that if they built a cairn, they’d have safe passage through.
Laufskálar is the name of a farm that was once in the area, destroyed by a volcanic eruption. The eruption left behind a lava mound, which came to be known as Laufskálavarða. Since journeying through a barren lava field is still dangerous today, it’s no wonder the travelers wanted extra luck.
The practice of piling stones up for good luck led to the creation of many cairns on Mýrdalssandur’s edge. They vary in size and age, some small and fairly recent, others large and decades old. Feel free to take a look, just please avoid stepping on the moss.
Cairn rocks in Iceland
Now you know all about cairns in Iceland, and don’t have to wander around wondering what the random rock piles could possibly be. Cairns look great in pictures, so take as many photos as you like, but remember to leave them undisturbed. One of Iceland’s best features is that, despite experiencing a huge tourism boom, it remains pristine. Let’s try out best to keep it that way.
See how many cairns you can spot in your journey around the Land of Fire and Ice. Lock in your camper rental today for an adventure; fortunately, you won’t need cairns to show you where to drive.