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by Cara O'Brien May 03, 2021

Minimize Campfire Impacts: Leave No Trace Behind in the Woods

For any outdoors enthusiasts, the epitome of camping is sitting around some crackling flames. A campfire in the woods has primal, universal appeal, and delivers both atmospheric and practical benefits: from basic warmth against the night chill to an old-school means for cooking and boiling water.

But campfires also have an environmental footprint, and that footprint is all the greater when backpackers, hunters, and other backcountry users don’t practice Leave No Trace ethics. Leave No Trace (LNT) is the concept of minimizing your impact on the landscape to protect ecosystems and avoid detracting from the outdoors experience of others. With outdoor recreation more popular than over, LNT practices are all the more essential.

Campfire Impacts

There are seven core principles defined by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, and one of them is “minimize campfire impacts.” Building and fueling campfires can have big consequences for the landscape, after all. Constructed fire rings and their charred wood, scorched rocks, and (all too often) trash are unsightly and damaging to groundcover. So are common associated impacts such as the beaten-down earth, hacked-at branches and tree trunks, and user paths that often mar a campfire spot’s near radius.

These are, in the words of the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics, examples of “site creep,” where a campsite’s footprint expands beyond the main, heavily used center. Another campfire issue at popular backcountry campsites and camping areas is “firewood mining,” where backpackers’ heavy gathering of wood for campfires depletes the vicinity’s supply of downed logs, branches, and twigs—deadwood that provides both habitat and nutrients.

And then, of course, there’s the very real potential of a campfire getting out of control and sparking an honest-to-goodness wildfire. This may happen when backpackers light a fire during hazardous “fire weather” periods, such as exceptionally dry or windy conditions. It may simply result when you build a fire that’s too large to control or fail to have tools on hand to do so, such as water and a shovel. Often campfires turn into wildfires when campers fail to properly extinguish them and they’re left to smolder. A smoldering campfire may ignite vegetation days after it’s abandoned; it may also spread through duff and cause a root fire, a partly underground blaze that can be very difficult to put out.

Long story short, there are many ways a poorly sited or managed campfire can cause long-lasting ecological impacts—and detract from the experience of other hikers, backpackers, and hunters who might pass by the heavy evidence of your campsite.

Should You Build a Campfire?

The easiest way to minimize campfire impacts? Well, going without a campfire, of course!

Some backcountry users eschew fires altogether out of deference to the LNT philosophy. Many, however, choose to build them occasionally with well-reasoned discretion. (Later in this article, by the way, we’ll talk about alternatives to campfires, so fear not.)

When deciding whether or not to have a fire, here are some important considerations:

  • What is the current fire danger for the location you’re camping in? This often relates to the time of year: Late summer or early fall in much of the American West, for example, is the typical season for maximum fire danger, as much vegetation has “cured” and dry or even drought conditions are common. But unusual weather patterns may promote high fire danger even outside the “normal” window. There’s a locational element here, too: Some places, such as dense brushy woods, are going to be inherently more fire-prone than others, such as sandy washes or beaches.
  • Are there current fire bans or restrictions in place? In periods of high fire danger, land-management agencies often ban the use of campfires. Campfires may also be prohibited in especially sensitive areas, or (as in some national parks) outside of official, designated campsites. Always check with whatever agency or other authority is responsible for the area you’re camping in to see whether fires are allowed.
  • Does the vicinity of your campsite have enough wood that gathering some won’t be noticeable or reduce a scarce, ecologically valuable resource? This may be a reason to eschew a fire in, say, a popular camping area showing signs of firewood mining, or in an ecological setting—say, above timberline or in an arid region—where dead and downed wood is naturally hard to come by.
  • Is there an existing fire ring, or do you have the tools to create a low-impact campfire? We’ll get into this in the next section, but keep in mind that making a fire—especially a traditional, higher-impact campfire—in a “pristine” spot generally has a bigger impact than taking advantage of an in-place fire ring or using a fire pan or other LNT-friendly setup.

How Can Campfire Impact Be Reduced?

Fortunately, you’ve got lots of options for enjoying a campfire guided by LNT sensitivity. Here are a few approaches!

Use Mound Fires

A mound fire is one that’s built insulated from the ground and is easy to clean up with minimal evidence. It gives you the ability to have a fire on bare rock, gravel, sand, and other surfaces not conducive to a traditional fire but much less impacted than vegetated groundcover. (That said, you can build a mound cover over grass or duff if you don’t have another choice, and the method will better protect that vegetation.)

To make a mound fire, lay out a fire-resistant ground cloth and place several inches of mineral soil in a circular, level heap on top. Mineral soil is dirt, sand, grit, or gravel with little organic matter; you can often find it in or under the rootwads of fallen trees or along exposed or dry riverbeds. Use a folding shovel or trowel and a stuff sack to gather and transport the mineral soil.

Make sure your cloth extends beyond the perimeter of your mound, and that your mound, in turn, is significantly broader than the size of the fire you build on top of it. This keeps coals and embers contained on the soil, and makes for easy cleanup.

When your mound fire has burned down to white ash, douse it thoroughly until it’s cool enough to touch. Then disperse the cold ashes widely away from your campsite. Hoist the ground cloth with the mound and return the mineral soil to the area you harvested it from.

Use Existing Fire Rings

Where dispersed campsites with well-used fire rings already exist, favor these as another option for lower-impact campfires. Many backcountry areas include such dispersed sites that have been utilized by backpackers, hunters, climbers, and other users over many years. Building a fire in established fire rings concentrates campsite impacts, reducing the overall human footprint on the landscape, Wildlife may also be less disturbed by this approach, as they may be accustomed to occasional human presence at habitually used dispersed campsites.

Firewood & Cleanup

Only gather dead and downed wood for your campfire. Don’t cut down or remove branches from standing dead trees; these snags provide critical habitat for a host of creatures. Favor small pieces of wood: no larger than wrist-thick. Collect firewood at least 200 feet away from your camp and avoid excessively harvesting from one area. Fetch a little wood from one spot and move on to another.

Allow fires to burn down to white ash, then douse them with plenty of water, sifting the ashes as you do so. Consider a fire out only when it’s cool to the touch and no longer smoking. When you’re leaving a campsite, spread the ashes 200 or more feet from your camp and across a broad area.

Alternatives to Campfires

A fire pan serves as a popular LNT alternative to a traditional campfire or mound fire. These metal containers allow you to build a fire elevated off the ground with no-hassle cleanup. You can purchase specially made fire pans or jury-rig a metal oil pan or garbage-can lid for the purpose. Place the pan atop a scaffold or rocks or on mineral soil to prevent scorching of the ground, and put mineral soil in the fire pan for further insulation. Disperse cold-to-the-touch ashes from your fire pan in the manner we’ve already described, and be sure to return mineral soil or scaffolding rocks to their original location.

A stove is the go-to alternative to a campfire for many backcountry users. Stoves are more efficient for cooking over, after all, and don’t come with the same extractive or visual impacts of a fire.

Safety Tips

Always have a shovel and water ready to hand when enjoying a campfire. Favor smaller fires over big blazes, which not only increase the likelihood of alighting surrounding vegetation but increase the visual impact of your campsite. Use water, not dirt, to douse your fire: Dirt can insulate live coals, and if it’s organic soil it may itself be flammable.

Leave No Trace Principle

The LNT approach lightens the impact of outdoor recreation on physical landscapes and ecological communities. In doing so, it not only protects the appearance and integrity of the wild places we love to explore, but also allows for fuller enjoyment of the backcountry.

When in doubt, err on the LNT side of things. Sometimes that’ll mean going without a campfire. If you’re accustomed to always having a fire, this may take some getting used to, but you’re sure to discover some side benefits of the approach: an earlier, brighter-eyed rise in the morning (more time for climbing that mountain!), an unblemished night sky full of stars, etc.

Be LNT-Savvy When it Comes to Campfires

Outdoor users who familiarize themselves with LNT best practices can enjoy more guilt-free campfires, content they’re lessening their footprint on the land. (If you need a refresher course on building a campfire, by the way, check out our primer!)

Whether you’ve decided to have a fire at a given spot or not, enjoy fast, efficient, and delicious backcountry feasts with Mountain House!

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