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.