Yes, I know. Sitting around a campfire can be nice. You can stare into the fire, tell stories, drink a little bit and if you are lucky, get everyone to go to bed before they start singing. We’ve done it many times with pleasure—in car campgrounds.
But if you truly believe in the philosophy of Leave No Trace in the backcountry, then one of the items you’ll need to take off your list is the evening campfire. There is no way you can have a fire in the wilderness and not leave a trace—even if it is only the barren dirt around your campsite, where you collected all the wood to burn.
We have all seen these campsites: a large fire ring, a few logs and large stones around the ring for sitting, and not a scrap of anything remotely flammable (twigs, leaves, pine cones, etc.) within 100 yards. Every tree denuded of its branches up to well over head height, where campers have broken off (and even sawed off) the limbs for their fires.
That’s not Leave No Trace. The only differences between these campsites and those in a car campground are the lack of a picnic table, and a place to park your car. It’s even worse when you make a new fire ring and blacken rocks that were perfectly untouched the day before.
And given the extreme drought and fire danger we’re facing these days in the Sierra Nevada, making a fire is no longer something we can support. The risks are too high. Last year, we lost something over 400 squares miles of forest and $1.8 Billion in damage in the Rim Fire near Yosemite—started by a backcountry hunter who didn’t manage his fire properly. And this year the King Fire alone has burned another 100 square miles.
Sure, you say. But we are very careful. Except that in a recent poll of backpacker magazine, a huge majority of those readers (and they are, after all, serious backpackers) admitted that they usually just leave the embers of fire in place to burn out after they go to sleep.
And if a breeze pipes up and blows some of the ashes off the embers, and blows the sparks into the forest? We’ve got another Rim Fire, thank you very much.
So we’d like to suggest a new version of that opening paragraph above:
Sitting out under the stars can be nice. You can stare into the sky, watch for shooting stars, tell stories, drink a little bit, and if you are lucky get everyone to go to bed before they start singing.
Well any debate on "leave no trace" you quickly conclude that leave no trace means leave minimal trace. The environment is able to handle some impact from humans. Sure there are places that are scorched from campfires and trees are stripped bear, but there are other places that you could have a fire in an existing fire ring and no one would notice the missing downed branches that got burned up in a small fire.
How do you know if a fire would leave an acceptable amount of human impact? In my opinion, rangers spend a considerable amount of time thinking about these questions... considering they are often on the frontlines of these fires and have dedicated their lives to protecting our natural resources. I often take their advice. There are many regulations (that change throughout the year) on what campfire policies are acceptable and which are not. If they say NO FIRE, then to me that means no fire. If the rangers say fires are ok, then in my mind it is acceptable. The regs are their for a reason. If I got to an area and it was quite a bit drier or more stripped than what I feel the regs were written for, then I would hold off.
In my mind LNT means follow the regulations and don't participate in wanton destruction that skirts the regulations.
Although I don't like and don't build fires (too much like work - and I enjoy letting night fall around me), I agree that there are times when it sort-of doesn't matter.
A fire makes an impact. It burns (sterilizes) the top layer of soil. It sends smoke into your eyes (I tend to be a human left-handed smoke shifter: if you want the smoke to blow the other way, send me to stand on the other side of the fire.)
But, here in the heavily-traveled east, you'd be right: it doesn't really add to the impact in an established camping area. That area has already been trampled bare and hard, and fires rings are established. The area has been sacrificed to hopefully preserve other areas by being an "inviting" campsite to less discriminating forest travelers. So, unless it's too dry or the rangers have determined that it's a No Fires period, light up - just keep it small.
But, if you want to camp in that truly secluded spot, or up on that inviting ridge or open cliff face, save the fire for another day. Never build a new fire ring - if you absolutely can't camp without a fire, then restrict yourself to the established sites, and leave those unharmed gems to the rest of us.
Fires and backpacking don't always go together. It is kinda like what Glen was saying....too much work. After hiking with a pack all day, I just want to sit and relax. And, I want to go to bed when I feel like it. For a fire, I have to find dry wood, break it up, start it, keep it fueled, and then wait until it dies out. And, then I have to haul water to douse it.
I don't hike in the Sierras. I did a long time ago. The big question to ask is fire load. Campfire reduce the fire load of the forest. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I've taken a vow of poverty. To annoy me, send money.
The Sierra is a very large mountain range - some places have tons of downed wood for fires and during many times, fire danger is low. There are regulations of where and when campfires are allowed. Between obeying the regulations and using good judgment I see no problem with campfires if done properly. As for the work involved, it depends on what you feel is work. For people who really enjoy a campfire, the "work" does not really seem like work. It is an enjoyable activity. Some folks hate the smell of smoke; for others it is a sweet smell with reminders of good times. If you do not like campfires, fine. But I do resent the "holier than thou" attitude that your way is the only way and the belief that all campfires are environmentally bad.
Loc: Nacogdoches, TX, USA
I agree WD. There seems to be a huge variety in philosophies about what's okay and what isn't. For example, I remember reading how a mountain biker was horrified and offended about the ruts worn into the rock on a ridge north of LA by wagons in the 1800s. But that doesn't bother me at all; to me it just adds to the history of the place and makes it more interesting. I don't think a little bit of blackening on rocks would bother me at all. After all, fires do happen naturally too.
I draw the line at leaving intact fire rings, or trash, or exposed soil, or burning when it's dry and unsafe/illegal to do so, etc.
Loc: Portland, OR
When I first started backpacking I built campfires. After several years I stopped. It was a personal choice. I was seeing too much damage done in too many places as a result of people mishandling fires or inappropriately gathering wood or just chopping at living trees for no discernible reason. I saw my own mistakes with fire, too. They scared me.
I finally decided that no fire was usually the safest choice. Since then I have only built one fire in the backcountry. I was caught by a sudden turn of the weather that I was ill-equipped for and I felt that a fire was safer than no fire in that situation. So I built one and felt no guilt about it.
I have heard that native americans in my locality considered it very bad manners to kill a porcupine. They considered them to be an emergency food supply that should be reserved only for times when one's survival was at stake. In places where wood is scarce (certainly not everywhere) I think it's more prudent to leave firewood in place for fires that are truly necessary, as opposed to recreational. I understand that many people would disagree with me about this. As I say, it is a personal choice.
I've had lots of campfires in the Sierras. Never depend on starting a campfire, always carry a stove or something, but there are lots of sandy places and bare rock in the Sierras where a fire has little impact.
People have to take into account the ruggedness of the Sierras before getting all moralistic about fires there. Here in central oregon we worry about starting forest fires fires and people are pretty good about burying fires. We have so much wood here - about a billion pine trees - that we burn what other people call "habitat" to keep our homes warm. Unless theres a fire ban we just wait till we find the right spot to camp near a stream on rocks or sand and build a fire. WE DO NOT NEED FIRE PERMITS IN OREGON!!!!! That should say all that nees be said. The Sierras are in the peoples state of California where wierdness prevails and political correctness extends to camping, or at least to writing about camping. Jim
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
One of the things I find sort of funny in conversations and opinions on campfires is the "I hate the smell of smoke" line.
There are so many kinds of wood, and variables in how damp, dry, and aged it is that make up the scent of burning wood that this statement is akin to saying "I hate the smell of flowers".
I actually choose wood based on the scent it will give off for my campfires, and especially when I'm cooking with it. Smoking meats and other foods is an art here in the Ozarks and no one that knows a thing about it would, for example, ever choose Cedar to smoke anything they'd be eating, but lots of people love the smell of it and Ozark Cedar is shipped all over the world because of the aroma it gives off. I love the scent of Cedar, but I never burn it in a campfire, though I will use it on occasion to start one because it works great for that.
Red Oak smells like old socks when it burns, and aged White Oak has a wonderful, sweet spicy aroma that makes it a great choice for smoking meats and campfires. Mimosa is just awful and gets stuck in your throat, I try not to burn any of that.
Old, blackened and moss covered White Oak and/or Hickory is what I use for cooking when backpacking or camping. It's what I use for smoking our Thanksgiving Turkeys and Hams.
Lucky for me, my wife loves the smell of smoke. I get extra kisses when I come home smelling of it
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Originally Posted By 4evrplan
My wife doesn't like the smell of any smoke, regardless of the wood.
I know a lot of people like that, and some women who really don't like it. I think they associate with dirty scruffy men, which is fair enough.
I love smoked meats though, and camping, so that's what I associate it with. Most of the women who've grown up here are like my wife and that's kind of how they think about it. Most of the women I knew out in LA or Chicago or most any city didn't like it.
Oddly, tobacco is one of the more common scents I catch whiffs of in perfumes. When I bring it up most men or women don't detect it, or recognize it, but it's used in stuff sold to both sexes.
It's great you have so many choices. In the western mountains once you're above the foothills the choices are all softwoods that in themselves don't lend a distinctive flavor and in the case of pitch-wood, can give an off-taste.
Farther down the hill are oaks, so hardwood cooking is possible. Same in the coast ranges (but will guess it's pretty picked over in the popular spots).
In Scouts our standard camping area had alder and cedar and while we weren't sophisticated enough to do cedar-plank salmon (hard to keep the hotdogs from rolling off) the alder was wonderful for cooking. Usually wet though, since this was western Washington.
I wonder why fresh smoke outdoors smells so good, and yet smoke soaked clothing, quickly become stale and smell bad?
I think the pitch burning from some pine wood smells unpleasant. I do not like a smoky fire - and if built right, you should not have excessive smoke. I think smoke may be one of those things that a little is good, but too much of a good thing can quickly go bad.
By the way, backpack clothing smells pretty bad with or without smoke!
Loc: Nacogdoches, TX, USA
Originally Posted By Gershon
Sometimes I wonder if one of the ecological functions of humans is to move from place to place clearing underbrush to make fires.
I think probably so, yes. But, with the advent of large scale farming, cheap energy (oil), and the resulting industrial revolution and population explosion, it's hard to know just where our place is and how to manage the environment. There's a happy medium between turning everything into a mowed lawn and completely denying access.