There was the fire, snapping and crackling and promising life with every dancing flame.” – Jack London, To build a fire
As with many backcountry people, I went through a phase where I loved to make a campfire.
Is there anything better than a crisp fall evening, the crackling of wood, the soft glow of a fire, and perhaps passing around a flask with a bit of “something-something?”
I even wrote an article about these romantic aspects of the backcountry campfire quite a few years ago.
But outdoors people and their practices change. As well they should: We don’t bury garbage, we no longer make trenches for tents, and many years have passed since any responsible person advocated cutting down pine boughs for bedding.
All practices once standard practice but (rightfully) frowned upon by responsible outdoor users.
And to that practice, I’ll add backcountry campfires. Backcountry campfires should go the way of the do-do—something we should make extinct among backcountry users overall.
Written Oct 2020, Updated June 2021
Why end this practice that seems so ingrained into our backcountry psyche?
Here’s why I think so:
- Fire bans!
Look around if you live in the West. Or if in between news about COVID, Presidential Royal Rumbles, the crashing economy, flooding, and so on, you might notice large swaths of America are up in flames. Government agencies ban fires; you can’t have them in simple terms. Even the Eastern Woodlands have their share of issues, now, too. Just look at the 2016 Smokies fire that burnt over 15k acres, caused almost as many evacuations and three deaths.
But more than that, in our increasingly hot and dry environment, is it responsible for having a fire to begin with? No. Or to translate into my native dialect of non-Corporate English – “F*** no! Are you stupid?”
- Resource scarcity
Every time you camp and grab wood, you end up going further and further to grab the wood – You increase the browse line.
Even in the wetter Eastern woodlands, the impact of all this wood gathering becomes obvious. A dense population means more strain on the resources.
You are taking downed wood needed for wildlife, the environment in general and ruin the aesthetics with the ruined soil and black rocks—all for something that, frankly, you don’t need and is of questionable effectiveness.
Though having a certain charm and some undeniable culinary delights, cooking on a campfire is not as efficient as using a stove.
More importantly, to adhere to the best LNT practices concerning campfires, you need a lot of water and time to make sure you have cold ashes. Not lukewarm, and indeed not hot, but cold. And no charred wood left behind, too. Then there is the effort for wood gathering and maintaining the fire in the first place. Not to mention the act of creating a fire damages the soil you build it upon, too.
Speaking of smoke, as many people newly aware of the AQI can state, taking in that much smoke even for an evening does not strike me as optimum for the health. Smoke inhalation makes you cough, the eyes water, some people get irritated or dry skin due to the heat and smoke. Is that worth it?
- Aesthetics and potential gear damage
When around a campfire, the focus is not on the outside world but on fire. I can not deny the atavistic feeling of sitting around the fire that harkens far into our cultural DNA.
But we find ourselves in the year 2020. We know that what’s outside the perceived circle of fire safety does not mean us direct harm overall.
We miss looking at the stars above, seeing the mountains in the stark relief of the moonlight, and seeing the shimmering water reflecting the Milky Way. The night sky makes for an increasingly rare delight for many. Why ruin this display with a fire?
And, as noted in the comments below, your fire can ruin the aesthetics for others. Smoke, light pollution, etc., may impact others’ experiences. Your right to do what you want ends where my nose begins an old saw that applies literally in this case.
Additionally, our modern nylon, polyester, and similar gear and clothing can easily damage versus the wool and cotton fibers of years past. Is it worth having clothes smell of smoke at best or ruining a $200 down puffy for the negligible warmth of a campfire?
Though fires provide warmth, how much warmth versus warm and dry layers while in a shelter and sipping hot tea is open to debate, if you look at people who create efficient fires for warmth, they combine the fires with shelters that capture the warmth ala a lean-to or similar vs. a massive fire putting out heat with limited effectiveness.
Eight people standing around a fire in the drizzle certainly provides a social outlet. But warmth? Again, give me my warm quilt, a dry shelter, some tea, and a book, and I’ll find myself warmer than standing around the fire in wet and cold. Or even the dry cold.
I realize it is not as social to spend time in a shelter as around the campfire. But I don’t find getting wet and cold in a group particularly social, either.
Ah, the old caveat about how fires will save you in an emergency. How it will warm you up, dry out your clothes, and so on.
But how effective is a campfire in emergencies?
There’s the simple practicality that when you are in an emergency where you need a fire, you are invariably in some stage of the “umbles” and losing motor control of your fingers. Will you honestly be able to create fire to dry yourself out and your clothes? The clothes made out of nylon and polyester that easily melts, no less?
Experienced polar explorers and mountaineers, going through far more dangerous situations than any person I know, seem to do well by having their gear, technique, and experience dialed in correctly. Is prevention and perhaps other emergency equipment more effective and safer than trying to make a campfire? Works for these more adventurous explorers than backpackers in any case. EDIT: And for among the most highly trained military personnel in the world, too.
The effectiveness of fires seems more psychological than physiologically valuable for how most people use them overall.
One person I know said that they had to create fire to dry out in some damp and cold conditions. They also admitted to not having the appropriate gear due to a mixture of hubris and inexperience. Is it a better lesson to create campfires or take the lesson from experience and take the proper clothing? I know what lesson I learned from similar follies. If still making more new mistakes than I like to admit. 😉
Yes, there are stories of “Real Life Gnarly Adventures,” where people built a fire to save themselves and presumably civilization from an alien invasion. But the “True Story of a person who took a wool sweater and good rain gear to have a tough but ultimately non-eventful hike” makes for some boring copy. And ultimately, a more numerous example in reality.
For every one of those “Real Life Adventure Stories,” I see a bunch of cold and wet people around a feeble fire when they might enjoy a warm and dry shelter instead.
But I am sure their bushcraft skills are good…
What to do instead?
Campfires won’t go away any time soon. In front country areas with well-established, maintained, and safe fire rings, they have their place. Purchase wood locally adheres to any fire restrictions, and enjoy a campfire in the campground safely. I think they should stay out of the backcountry. If someone wants to practice their woodcraft skills for emergency purposes, a car campground allows a safe place to practice this skill, too.
UPDATE JUNE 2021 – And with Stage 1 fire bans in Utah, a fire in my backyard more or less, and similar bans in nearby western Colorado, I’ve become even more stringent with my views. The Pack Creek Fire (story still developing as of this writing) started in a campground, from what I understand!
…and definitely a campfire:
#PackCreekFire update: The fire has been determined to be human caused, by an unattended campfire. The fire is burning with active fire behavior today. There is a Red Flag Warning in effect a tonight until 10 pm. For public and firefighter safety, please avoid the area. #usfsss
— Utah Fire Info (@UtahWildfire) June 10, 2021
As I wrote someone:
I really think campfires should go the way of burying garbage, cutting down pine boughs, trenching tents, and other out-moded practices that used to get accepted as normal outdoor habits. Perhaps ONLY have campfires at one designated communal firepit for ranger talks or similar. If at all.
As reader Travis B. stated –
“ Here’s a peer-reviewed study about how humans caused 92% of large wildfires (>1000 HA = 2400 acres) in the West. The large fires are the destructive ones and the ones that cause nearly all of the problems.
For the backcountry, Luci Lights offer a safe, portable, inexpensive alternative at only 4 oz and provide a warm glow that gives many of the same social and psychological effects of a campfire in a far safer manner. I know a person who guided rafting trips along the Colorado River, and he used similar lights instead of firepans for many reasons I gave above. And people enjoyed the effect of the lights quite a bit.
For cold and dry conditions, pack a heavier down jacket and some puffy pants if you want to socialize at night comfortably. And cold and wet? Again, I agree with everyone when I am warm, dry, and comfortable in my shelter vs. shivering around a feeble fire. 🙂
Our backcountry ethics and practices change over the years and as we gain experience. For example, I once loved to make backcountry campfires. But I have not made one in years, partially because I’m lazy, mainly because I don’t see the reason to make backcountry campfires at this point.
When so much of our public lands are burning, and there are more effective, less expensive, and more practical ways of providing the cooking, warmth, and psychological effects that campfires supplied in the past, why have one?
Not having a backcountry campfire makes sense. And it is the right thing to do.