The Dark Side of Backpacking Campfires

 

With fire comes responsibility. There is an old saying that "fire is a good servant but a bad master". Fire is a useful tool while camping when it is fully under control, but very dangerous if it ever gets out of control. If you build campfires it is your responsibility to keep it safe and it is also up to you to follow all rules and regulations for the public lands where you build your fire. And cleaning up your fire area afterwards is good stewardship.


Problems and Dangers Associated with Campfires:


Problem:

illegal tree damage
  • Illegal damage to trees on public lands for firewood.
    • Firewood scarcity in popular camping areas causes some irresponsible campers to disregard forest regulations and illegally damage live trees by breaking, sawing, or chopping off dead or live branches.
    • In extreme cases people chop down entire trees for firewood which severely impacts the natural beauty of a campsite.
    • Tree removal causes campsites to expand and become more park-like than natural forest.
    • Natural recovery can take decades and in heavily abused areas recovery may never happen unless campfire bans are enacted or sites are closed for revegetation.

Solution:

  • Use a backpacking stove for cooking.
  • Keep fires small.
  • Star fires allow you to conserve firewood.
  • Leave your axe and saw at home and use dead and downed wood only.
  • Gather wood away from established campsites.
  • Do you even really need a campfire?
  • Report abusers to the appropriate authorities.



Problem:

no fires sign
  • Having open fires in areas that don't allow them.
    • Some areas don't allow open fires, or only allow fires in officially designated metal fire rings.
    • Some areas have banned open fires because of a few irresponsible campers that left behind litter and damaged standing trees.

Solution:

  • Know the rules and regulations for the area you will be visiting.
  • Check with the local land managers for any campfire restrictions and report any campers breaking the rules.



ground fire

Problem:

  • Campfires can ignite peat or roots under the surface causing a smoldering underground fire.
    • Peat and root fires can smolder uncontrolled for months underground.
    • If conditions are right these fires can spring to the surface a distance away from the original campfire causing a larger forest fire.
    • These fires may burn until a heavy rainfall extinguishes them.


Solution:

fire pan
  • Skip the campfire in areas that may have peat deposits.
  • Avoid building a fire directly on top of tree root systems.
  • Make sure fires are completely out by dousing them with plenty of water.
  • Use a backpacking fire pan.



Problem:

  • Wood smoke causes air pollution and is not healthy to breathe in.
    • Campfire smoke contains some major air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matters (PM10 and PM2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
    • Any trash that is burned in the campfire increases the levels of many harmful air pollutants and also causes toxic residues to be left behind in the ashes which have the potential to end up in water sources.

Solution:

  • Keep fires small and don't burn green wood to limit campfire smoke.
  • Limit campfire use.
  • Pack out your trash instead of burning it.



Problem:

fire ring eyesore
  • Campfires leave behind unsightly fire scars and blackened rocks.
    • Fires sterilize the soil underneath preventing any vegetation from regrowing for many years.
    • When campers make fires that are too big they often don't burn the coals down to white ash, leaving behind ugly mounds of charred wood.
    • Rocks blackened from use in a fire ring are an eyesore and remain that way for years.

Solution:

  • Where legal use existing fire areas instead of making new ones.
  • Make smaller fires that burn down to white ash.
  • Remove any evidence of your campfire by discretely spreading any leftover charcoals, dismantling rock fire rings, and naturalizing the affected area.
  • Small fires don't need rocks for fire rings if at least a 5 foot radius is cleared of flammable leaf litter or if a fire pan is used.



Problem:

  • Campfires can damage expensive outdoor gear and reduce its performance.
    • Smoke can negatively impact the DWR of your outdoor clothing and reduce its performance and breathability.
    • Unexpected sparks from your fire can burn holes in your clothing.
    • Charcoal and fire blackened soil can permanently stain your clothing.

Solution:

  • Keep your waterproof breathable gear away from any campfire smoke.
  • Keep gear and yourself a safe distance from the fire.



Problem:

  • Campfires aren't exactly "Leave No Trace".
    • Unsightly fire rings often "litter" the landscape with piles of coals and unfortunately some lazy hikers use them as makeshift trash cans.
    • Smoke from fires can be seen or smelled from long distances which impacts visitors seeking solitude.
    • Light from fires can be seen for miles and can cause other nearby campers to feel crowded when they may have been otherwise unaware of your presence.

Solution:

  • Limit your use of campfires.



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