Leave No Trace: Minimize Campfire Impacts

September 18, 2020
Paula ChampagneKnowing if, when, and how to start a campfire is a key component of Leave No Trace.

Historically, the campfire was a necessity for warmth and cooking, while today it’s become culturally synonymous with the outdoor experience. But the proliferation of lightweight and high-quality camp stoves, combined with deeper knowledge about the ecological impacts fires have on natural spaces and the environment, mean that fires are no longer a necessity in most cases and in some cases, should be avoided. Before you go, plan ahead so you’re not caught camping out in the cold somewhere fires are discouraged or harmful.

“AMC does not have any managed fire rings at any hut or backcountry campsite,” says Alex DeLucia, Leave No Trace programs manager for AMC. “We encourage people to bring head lamps, cook meals on camp stoves, and enjoy the evening sights and sounds without the impacts and potential risks of fires.”

 

Campfire consequences

DeLucia says campfires, if built and maintained improperly, can leave lasting scars on the earth. For one, campers and hikers collecting kindling and firewood have in many heavily trafficked backcountry locations cleared all branches and twigs within arms’ reach, depriving birds and wildlife of needed nest-making materials. Once a fire is roaring, DeLucia says it super-heats and effectively sterilizes the ground below, sometimes preventing vegetation form growing back for some time. He adds that many visitors will attempt to burn trash, creating litter or noxious fumes, or select wood that is too large and never fully burns to ash, which is easiest to dispose of. Add to that the risk of sparking a forest fire and contribution burning wood makes to carbon emissions, and you have quite a list of impacts. For these reasons, many outdoor spaces have banned fires; that hasn’t stopped some from building them anyway, DeLucia says.

“There are countless sites across the Northeast where I have seen the evidence of fire where there should not have been—on summits, viewpoints, along rivers and ponds, or along the trails where you might find multiple campfire scars,” DeLucia says.

 

Paula ChampagneWhen fire rings are not present in a camp site, a mound or pan fire can limit the environmental impacts of a traditional campfire.

Clean campfires

First, research whether campfires are allowed where you plan to travel. In White Mountain National Forest, for instance, no campfires are allowed within a quarter-mile radius of any hut or backcountry campsite, or above treeline. (Learn more about LNT Principle 1, “Plan and Prepare.”)

“Going without a fire is the best option to cause the least impacts,” DeLucia says, especially in winter, when small twigs and branches are difficult to find and the visual impact of fire and ash on snow can last for months. But DeLucia adds that when they’re allowed, lower impact campfires are possible in other seasons with preparation and proper maintenance.

Fire pan: One option is to pack along a fire pan that can fully contain the fire and ash, DeLucia says. The pan can be placed on some stones to keep it off the ground. Collect dead twigs and branches from the ground instead of cutting branches from a living tree, and make sure none are larger than your wrist. These will create plenty of flame and be more likely to fully burn out to ash, DeLucia says.

Mound fire: No fire pan? Find an already disturbed source of mineral soil—forest sand and gravel—like an uprooted tree. Scoop the mineral soil onto a heavy-duty tarp and form it into a circular, flat-topped mound, 3 to 5 inches thick. Build the fire on top of the mound, fully burning the fuel to ash so the small twigs and branches, once fully cooled, can be incorporated back into the mineral soil and returned to where it was found. This type of fire also insulates the ground below from super-heating.

Put fires out with water, not dirt, as embers can remain hot even when buried. Burn logs down to white ash, scattering the cool ash across a wide area or packing ashes out with you, rather than leaving partially burned logs.

 

Paula ChampagneAMC recommends using packable and lightweight camp stoves for cooking instead of building a campfire, in most cases.

Fire alternatives

Lightweight, inexpensive camp stoves have revolutionized outdoor cooking and reduced the need for wood fires. Packing enough layers and stove-heating water to fill bottles are both ways to avoid building a fire for warmth. For the aesthetic feel of sitting around a campfire, light a candle or place headlamps inside colored water bottles. Better yet, according to DeLucia, once the stove-cooked meal is cleaned up, sit and enjoy the rare beauty of backcountry darkness.


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Steve Holt

Steve Holt is the associate editor of AMC Outdoors and edits AMC's Running Wild blog.