After a day on the trail, the thought of building a bright, crackling fire is incredibly appealing: the warmth, the light, the s’mores. Yet a campfire, even a small one, can mar the landscape, so it’s crucial to consider your impact. Whether in front- or backcountry settings, practice Leave No Trace (LNT) principles to minimize campfire impacts.
NEED VERSUS WANT
Alex DeLucia, AMC trails volunteer programs manager and LNT program manager, points out that campfires have become less essential and more aesthetic as cooking gear and nonperishable, lightweight backpacking foods have evolved. “Ask yourself why you need the fire,” he says. “Are you planning to cook your meals on it? What’s the benefit, aside from cooking?” Doing without a fire by using a camp stove—which you should plan for in the backcountry, where fires may be prohibited or fuel scarce—ensures near-zero impact on your surroundings.
A campfire can serve as a communal source of light, but DeLucia offers alternatives: Bring candles or create a colorful centerpiece of empty water bottles, with headlamps inside. “Or just go dark,” he says. “How often are you in real darkness? You are making this effort to experience this [public land], and it gets dark. That’s a cool thing.”
If, however, a fire is essential to your experience, there’s a little homework to do beforehand.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
“Every unit of public land is managed differently,” DeLucia says. “Part of every trip is knowing where you’re going and what the local regulations are related to fire.”
Here’s a quick checklist of things to research:
• What agency is managing the public land you will camp on? What are the rules regarding campfires? In the backcountry, DeLucia says, “There are fewer and fewer established fire rings in public-area campsites or shelter sites,” and he expects this trend to continue.
• If privately owned, what is the campground’s policy on fires?
• What is the posted fire danger? A recent rainfall may not counteract the risk from strong winds.
• In the front country, know state laws regarding where to source your firewood. New Hampshire and New York, like other states in the East, ban all out-of-state firewood (unless it’s “heat-treated”) to reduce the spread of invasive insects deadly to native tree species. New York also limits the transportation of untreated firewood to within 50 miles of its source.
As you arrive at the campsite, drop your gear and take stock. Be sure there is an established fire ring. If it’s a singular ring in a group camping area and it’s in use, DeLucia says, “Either make friends or do without. Making your own is not an option.” A fire built on unprotected ground damages the soil’s nutrients. Mound fires or fire pans can be good alternatives, but be sure to read up on how to build these safely and with minimal impact.
Before you strike a match or flick a lighter, build your fire with these best practices in mind:
• “Tinder material should not be harvested on site, if you can prevent it,” DeLucia says. There are many ignitable items from home to pack, like newspaper, sawdust and paraffin, dryer lint, waxy cardboard, and Vaseline-coated cotton balls.
• To avoid adding to the “human browse line,” where the lower trunks of trees are limbless and the ground devoid of forest litter, scavenge far and wide for your firewood. In the backcountry, DeLucia suggests collecting wood during the last hour of your hike.
• Leave standing trees untouched. Even dead ones provide habitat for plants and animals.
• To build a small fire, the wood you collect should be no thicker than your wrist. Camp-store wood often consists of large, split logs, resulting in a longer burn time that can be good for cooking. Just be sure you’re ready to stay up until the fire is fully out.
• As tempting as it is to toss a granola wrapper into the fire, don’t do it. Unburned pieces of trash can attract scavenging wildlife and are an unwelcome greeting for the next camper.
As the fire ebbs, the stars brighten, and you look longingly toward your tent, be sure all the wood burns to white ash by pouring water over the coals and grinding large chunks with gloved hands or the heel of your boot. Before turning in, take a cue from DeLucia and pause to revel in the sublime darkness of your temporary home.