Fires versus Stoves
The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth, is steeped in history and tradition. Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Campfire building is also an important skill for every camper. Yet, the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. The development of efficient, lightweight camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire. Stoves have become essential equipment for minimum-impact camping. They are fast, flexible, efficient, reliable, and clean burning, and they eliminate the need for firewood. Stoves operate in almost any weather condition, and they leave no trace.
Should You Build a Fire?
The most important consideration to be made when deciding to use a fire is the potential damage to the backcountry.
- What is the fire danger for the time of year and the location you have selected?
- Are there restrictions from the land managing agency?
- Is there sufficient wood so its removal will not be noticeable?
- Does the harshness of alpine and desert growing conditions for trees and shrubs mean that the regeneration of wood sources cannot keep pace with the demand for firewood?
- Do group members possess the skill to build a campfire that will leave no trace?
Lessening Impacts When Campfires Are Used
If building a fire cannot be avoided, camp in areas where wood is abundant. Choose not to have a fire in areas where there is little wood—at higher elevations, in heavily used areas, or in desert settings. A true Leave No Trace fire shows no evidence of its use.
Existing Fire Rings
The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring in a well-placed campsite. Keep the fire small and burning only for the time you are using it. Allow wood to burn completely to ash. Put out fires with water, not dirt. Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years.
Construction of a mound fire can be accomplished by using simple tools: a garden trowel, large stuff sack, and a ground cloth or plastic garbage bag. To build this type of fire:
- Collect some mineral soil, sand, or gravel from an already disturbed source. The root hole of a toppled tree or sand from a dry riverbed are possible sources.
- Lay a ground cloth on the fire site and then spread the soil into a circular, flat-topped mound at least 6 inches thick.
The thickness of the mound is critical to insulate the ground from the heat of the fire. The ground cloth or garbage bag is important only in that it makes cleaning up the fire much easier. The circumference of the mound should be larger than the size of the fire to allow for the inevitable spreading of coals. The advantage of the mound fire is that it can be built on flat, exposed rock or on an organic surface such as litter, duff, or grass.
Use of fire pans is a good alternative for fire building. Metal oil drain pans and some backyard barbecue grills make effective and inexpensive fire pans. The pan should have at least 3-inch-high sides. Elevate the pan on rocks or line it with mineral soil so the heat will not scorch the ground.
Firewood and Cleanup
- Standing trees, dead or alive, are home to birds and insects, so leave them intact. Fallen trees also provide bird and animal shelter, increase water-holding capacity of the soil, and recycle nutrients back into the environment through decomposition. Stripping branches from standing or fallen trees also detracts from an area's natural appearance.
- Avoid using hatchets and saws or breaking branches off standing or downed trees. Use dead and downed wood, which burns easily and is easy to collect.
- Use small pieces of wood—no larger than the diameter of an adult wrist—that can be broken with your hands. This practice avoids having to use a saw or hatchet, and the wood readily burns to ash.
- Gather wood over a wide area away from camp to avoid depleting the wood supply and to let nutrients return to the soil. Along rivers and seashores, use dry driftwood.
- Stop adding new fuel to a fire near the end of its use and toss in burned ends of wood. Allow the coals to burn to white ash, thoroughly soak with water, and scatter the remains over a large area away from camp. In river corridors, ashes may have to be packed out.
- When cleaning up a mound or pan fire, replace soil where you found it.
- Scatter unused wood to keep the area looking as natural as possible.
- Pack out any campfire litter. Trash should not be burned, especially plastic items and foil-lined wrappers, the remains of which stay in the firelay.
Certain safety precautions should be followed when handling fire:
- When using stoves or fires, follow safety procedures for supervision of young people.
- Follow all manufacturer's product and safety labels for stoves.
- Use only approved containers for fuel.
- Build campfires well away from tents or tarps.
- Never leave a fire unattended.
- Keep wood and other fuel sources away from fire.
- Thoroughly extinguish all fires.