LNT: Minimize campfire impacts

This is part 5 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The fifth principle, minimize campfire impacts, outlines ways you can still enjoy a fire in the woods without causing a forest fire or depleting fragile landscapes of limited resources.

Why minimize campfire impacts?

The Pole Creek Fire in 2012

There is something very primal about building a fire. For many people, camping without a fire is simply not camping at all. But with modern lightweight, portable camp stoves, having a campfire is not as essential as it used to be. But, what’s wrong with campfires?

First, campfires require wood as a source of fuel. In some places, dead and downed wood is plentiful. In others, it is scarce. If the area you’re backpacking in has a generous supply of wood then it’s perfectly reasonable to have a fire. But if you’re in a backcountry campsite with limited access to wood, it is not appropriate to have a campfire.

Second, campfires can cause forest fires. According to the National Park Service, up to 90% of wildfires are human-caused. As we have seen with the recent wildfires in California, these fires can be utterly devastating to not only the forest but to surrounding communities. Preventing wildfire is another important reason to think carefully about whether or not to have a campfire.

Finally, campfires negatively impact the soil. The heat from a campfire kills off the organisms living in the soil beneath the actual fire. The surrounding soil becomes compacted by people congregating around the fire. Vegetation may be unable to grow there for a long time to come.

Whether or not you have  a fire in the backcountry, you can minimize your impact by following a few suggestions that align with Leave No Trace.

No downed wood, no fire!

How to minimize campfire impacts?

If you’re like me, you enjoy having a campfire for warmth, light and comfort in the backcountry. There are ways to responsibly use fire in the woods as people have for eons. But first, do your research. Make sure there is no fire ban where you’re headed. In addition, find out if there are rules about specific locations you’re not allowed to have a fire, such as within a certain distance from a lake or above a specific elevation. If you’re not sure what the regulations are in the area you’re visiting, call the ranger station or land manager to learn more about if and how you can build a fire on your trip. Armed with that knowledge, here are some best practices for building campfires on your next backpacking excursion.

  1. Use existing fire rings. In the spirit of leaving minimal impact, choose to use already disturbed areas instead of create a new one. Keep your fire small. Collect dead wood with a diameter no larger than your wrist. Never cut down live tree branches. And please clean up the remains of your fire after putting it out. Do not leave a pile of trash in the middle of the fire ring. Pack it in, pack it out.
  2. Build a mound fire. To build a mound fire, lay down a fire-resistant cloth on the ground. Ideally, locate your fire on top of rocky soil and not in the middle of a lush meadow. Gather mineral soil from a previously disturbed area, such as beneath the root mass of a fallen tree or in a dry streambed. Mineral soil is soil that does not contain a lot of organic matter. Create a 3-5″ high mound on top of the ground cloth and flatten out the top. Build your fire on the mound. After enjoying your fire, completely extinguish it and scatter the ashes away from your campsite. Try to make it look like no one had a fire there.
  3. Use a fire pan. If you’ve got the space, carry a fire pan with you into the forest.¬† The fire pan’s sides should be at least 3 inches high. Adding a mound of soil to the pan as described above will help insulate the ground from the heat of the fire. As before, fully extinguish your fire and scatter the ashes.
  4. For more tips on building a Leave No Trace compatible fire, download this informative .pdf from the Forest Service.
An unnecessarily large fire ring.

Oh, and one more thing: always completely extinguish your fire before leaving it! It’s the most important thing you can do to minimize your potential impact on the land and people.

In case of emergency

If you are stranded overnight, cold, lost and in an emergency situation, then build a fire! Consider your health and safety as well as the health of the environment. Of course, be mindful that your fire doesn’t set off a forest fire, but if you need to create a fire ring on a previously undisturbed area to get through the night, by all means do that. Keep in mind that Plan Ahead and Prepare is the first LNT principle, and that should prevent you from needing to spend an unexpected night in the woods in most cases.

Questions about anything you read? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear more about how you practice Leave No Trace.