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.

LNT: Dispose of waste properly

Loo with a view

This is part 3 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The third principle, dispose of waste properly, refers to food waste, human waste and garbage. Knowing how to deal with each of these before your trip will help you make responsible decisions about waste in the backcountry.

Why dispose of waste properly?

From a personal experience perspective, it’s disgusting to see trash and human waste on the trail. It takes away from the experience. I have seen it all, from human feces, toilet paper, water bottles, food wrappers, orange peels, dog waste bags, broken tents, the list goes on and on. I even came across a backcountry campsite that had piles of lemon and lime halves all over the ground, like they had a margarita party and left their waste behind! It is unsightly and inconsiderate to leave waste behind.

From an environmental perspective, human and pet waste can contaminate water supplies. Food scraps can train wild animals to come to rely on humans for food or even make them sick. Products like sunscreen, soap, and insect repellent don’t readily biodegrade and can linger in the soil and water. There are many reasons to be mindful of what you may leave behind on a hiking or camping trip.

As the saying goes: “pack it in, pack it out.” And also, “Your mother doesn’t live here. Clean up after yourself.”

How to dispose of waste properly?

In order to manage waste in the backcountry there are some simple things you can do.

Minimize the trash you generate. Carry what you need. Repackage food into zipper bags or reusable containers. Choose reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic. and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact.

Carry a trash bag and use it. I often re-use the Ziploc bag from my lunch to haul out trash in. Trash includes fruit peels, nut shells, apple cores and other organic matter. Those pistachio shells you just threw on the trail won’t break down for several years. Imagine how cluttered the trail would be if everyone tossed their shells on the ground!

Picking up other people’s trash

Pick up trash you see while out hiking. Take a hint from the Swedes, who turned “plogging“—picking up trash while jogging—into a fitness craze. Since you’ve already got a trash bag in your pack (see the tip above!) it’s easy to grab litter you see along the trail. If you’re concerned about sanitation, like if you see some TP or bandaids on the trail, put on a pair of latex gloves or use the bag as a barrier between your skin and the discarded item. People are less likely to litter in a clean area than an already trashed one.

Wash your dishes at least 200 feet from streams or lakes. Use biodegradable soap, like Dr. Bronner’s, if any. Take the resulting “gray water” from your dishwashing chore and throw it over a wide area. This prevents concentrating human food waste in a small area, which will attract critters.

Pack out Fido’s poo. Dog poop carries viruses, bacteria and worms that can be spread to humans or wildlife. Due to the processed foods pet owners typically feed dogs, their poo takes much longer to biodegrade than the feces of wild animals who are eating a natural diet. There are a number of reasons why packing our pets’ waste out is really important. Read more on the lnt.org blog: There is no dog poop fairy. And those little poop bags you use to collect the poo in? Carry it out. Don’t set it on the side of the trail for later. I’ve seen some dog owners tie the bags to their dog’s collar or doggie backpack. It can be done!

Dispose of human waste properly. This warrants a longer discussion, which follows…

What to do with your poo

You can read entire books on bathroom hygiene in the backcountry. Actually, I recommend you do! How to Shit in the Woods is a great primer on strategies for dealing with waste in a wide range of situations, including multi-day group camping excursions. But here are a few basic principles and strategies to keep in mind.

Urine is much easier to manage than feces. You can pee in the woods just about anywhere. Try to stay 200 feet away from your camp and water sources whenever possible.

Poop can be a messy problem, but only if you’re not thinking ahead. If you’ll be hiking in a forest where there are opportunities to dig a hole and go, you’re in the best possible situation. Pack a trowel for digging a 6-12″ cathole. Poo in the hole, fill it with soil, cover it up and get on your way. If you choose to use toilet paper, bury it deep in the hole or (ideally) pack it out. There are plenty of alternatives to TP: moss, leaves, rocks and snow can do a great job too!

To make your life a bit more comfortable, always carry a hygiene bag in your backpack: Inside a resealable bag, carry some hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and another resealable bag or two. If you use toilet paper you can pack it into a ziploc bag and then use some hand sanitizer once you’re finished. Simple!

In some areas, like popular alpine hiking and climbing areas, there are rules requiring people to pack out their poop. Some agencies will provide a waste kit or blue bag for you to use. Check the local regulations before embarking on such a trip. You can carry your own hard-sided container to transport your used poo bags during your trip. An old Pringles can or plastic container with a lid works just fine. Be sure to label that container clearly!

Feminine hygiene products should always be packed out. Alternatives to disposable products, like the Diva Cup, help to minimize single-use waste in the backcountry.

And one more thing. If you forget your trowel, if you have no waste kit, and you’ve just got to go, please do us all a favor. Find an out-of-the-way place in which to do your business! Nothing drives me crazier than seeing poop right off the side of the trail or piles of TP near a forest campsite. It’s unsanitary, it’s disgusting, it’s thoughtless. Walk off the trail a bit, to a non-desirable location. Scratch a hole in the ground with a stick. Do your thing. Cover it up with leaves, rocks, dirt, whatever you can. And walk back to the trail, reminding yourself to prepare better next time.

If you have questions about how to handle waste in the outdoors, please ask below! Share your stories and strategies. And leave it better than you found it.

LNT: Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces

This is part 2 of a 7 part series exploring the why’s and how’s of practicing the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

The second principle, travel and camp on durable surfaces, provides guidelines for choosing campsites and walking paths.

Why travel and camp on durable surfaces?

All people who recreate in the outdoors leave a mark on the landscape. Animals do, too. However, people tend to recreate in very large numbers in specific areas. We congregate around streams, meadows and lakes. We tend not to stray too far from access points like parking lots. We move in groups. All those footfalls make an impact, but the impact is greater on some surfaces than others.

According to lnt.org, “Travel damage occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond recovery. ” Alpine meadows and cryptobiotic soil are not very resistant to disturbance. It doesn’t take much to damage the habitat and once disturbed, it can take years or decades to recover. Rock, snow and sand are typically very resistant to disturbance. You can take huge groups of people hiking across these surfaces and leave hardly any impact.

It is especially important to consider surface durability when camping. Think about your behavior once you set up camp. You set your tent on the ground and spent probably 8 hours per night laying on the ground there. During the morning and evening, you walk all over the terrain surrounding your tent, trampling the vegetation over and over again. Once you establish a new campsite, it could remain disturbed for a long time to come. Each subsequent camper will continue to impact that area, making it nearly impossible to recover. Once established, it is best to continue using that site instead of creating new ones.

How to travel and camp on durable surfaces?

First, understand what surfaces are durable. Trails are created to minimize the impact on a landscape by hikers. They are designed to withstand erosive forces and provide a route through a natural space that receives a lot of visitation. If you stick to the trail, you reduce your impact by restraining your impact to a designated area. Imagine a popular place like Yellowstone National Park. If everyone who pulled up to the parking lot walked off in a different direction, the entire landscape surrounding the visitor center would be trampled and barren. Instead, trails and fences are put in place to concentrate the impact. While trails themselves are an impact on the land, they enable large volumes of people to visit and enjoy an area in a more natural state.

Follow the switchbacks!

Does that mean you should always stay on the trail? No! In places that receive high visitation, or where you specifically see “stay on trail” signs, it’s important to walk on the trail. It’s also important to avoid cutting switchbacks. Switchbacks and other trail design features are used to reduce erosion. Yes, you may shave 30 seconds off your hike time, but you are likely contributing to that trail needing more maintenance in the future. Stick to the trail in high use areas!

Off-trail hiking at its finest.

If you like to hike off-trail, as I do, there are different principles to consider. Where it is allowed, hike off-trail in areas where there are not lots of people. If you are hiking off-trail in a group, try not to walk single-file. Repetitive footsteps in the same line will create a trail of convenience, not design. Unofficial trails can cause damage to the landscape. However, if you’re walking on a durable surface like snow or gravel, you need to be less concerned about dispersing use. The bottom line is: consider the degree of impact you (and your group) is making in that particular area.  Then, make decisions that will both help you achieve your goal and minimize disturbance in an area.

Choosing a campsite that considers this Leave No Trace Principle can be challenging in certain environments. First, check the rules and regulations for the area in which you are planning to camp (see: LNT Principle 1). If there are already designated or obvious campsites, these should be your first choice. Unfortunately, some people choose to make campsites in places where they shouldn’t be, so just because  a site is disturbed doesn’t mean you should camp there. Making camp on durable surfaces is a no-brainer; do this whenever possible. Rock slabs, snowy fields and sandy beaches above high tide line are excellent choices.

A previously disturbed campsite on a durable surface.

In addition, try to use established cooking areas, fire rings and walking routes whenever possible (instead of creating new ones). When you break camp, be sure to clean up all signs that you were there and do your best to naturalize areas you disturbed. Camp like a ninja: make the site look like you were never there…

By traveling and camping on durable surfaces, we can all minimize our impact by concentrating it in high-use areas and dispersing it in low-use areas. What strategies do you use to assess surfaces and reduce your impact?