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Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts

Leave No Trace Priniciple 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts
A campfire along the Buffalo National River is shown with wood firewood that was bought there

This is the fifth in a series where we are discussing the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics seven principles. In these blog posts, we are really diving deep into each principle in order to gain a better understanding and learn ways to be better stewards of the land. Today’s blog is about Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts.

Campfires that are not managed properly are a growing problem, not just for outdoor enthusiasts but for towns and cities nearby. In California more and more wildland fires are consuming communities. Many of them are started by campfires left smoldering or by campers not maintaining them properly.

I, personally, am not a big campfire builder for two reasons. The first and biggest reason is that I’m just plain lazy. The ambiance of the campfire to me is not worth the effort of gathering the wood and taking the time to start and maintain the fire. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good campfire, as long as someone else builds it. The second reason is that the smoke really bothers me and will clog up my sinuses for days after the camping trip.

However, I learned many ways to help minimize campfire impacts at my Leave No Trace Trainer Course at the Buffalo National River.

Leave No Trace Priniciple 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts

But I realize I am different and not everyone is like me. A campfire is a wonderful addition to a camping trip. We love to sit around the campfire because it is a gathering place where we eat and socialize. There is something wonderful about mindlessly staring into a campfire while visiting with others.

But with that said, campfires cause an impact to the precious lands we love so much. Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts shows us how we can minimize that impact as much as possible in order to preserve the wild spaces we love so much.

Ask yourself if you really want or need a campfire.

One sure-fire (pun intended 😉 ) way you can minimize your impact is by not having a fire at all, that is if you really don’t need or want one. Sometime when you get to camp, you simply are too tired to gather wood and build one. If you are going to be just as happy curling up in your tent with a good book or just going to sleep, then you might want to skip the campfire part.

Unless you are going ultralight, then you probably have a lightweight stove to cook dinner, heat water, or fulfill your needs.

Also be sure to see if you are allowed to have campfires. Some parks will only let you have a fire in a stove, like parks in arid environments or in places above the treeline. Sometime the campfire ban is seasonal when the weather is not cooperating. So you’ll really want to put Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – into practice here. Research to see what the park or forest regulations on campfires are.

Where to build your campfire

If you decide that you do need a campfire, the best place to build one is in a preexisting spot. For example in the frontcoutnry, you will have campfire rings or pits. And fires are generally discouraged anywhere outside that specific area.

And some backcountry campgrounds will have designated backcountry campsites with fire rings.

Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts
Build a ring of rocks around your fire to help contain it.

But if you are not going to a designated spot in the backcountry or frontcountry, then you will want to look for places where someone has already built a campfire. This is a good way to practice Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts – because you do not cause more impact to the area by creating a new campfire spot.

Leaving a fire ring made of stones or any evidence of a campsite actually goes against Leave No Trace principles. In some places, however, I tend to look for campsites with a preexisting fire ring. (Again, I’m lazy and I don’t want to move rocks.)

Be sure to contain you campfire

This leads me my next bit of advice. Be sure to contain your campfire. Creating a ring around your fire of medium-sized rocks keeps the fire from crawling and spreading out beyond what you can manage.

You also want to make sure all vegetation and leaf litter is removed around your rock ring so there is no fuel to feed the fire incase it escapes.

Campfires on mounds

A way to have a campfire and not scorch the ground and vegetation underneath is to build a mound campfire. To build a mound campfire, take a stuff sack and fill it with dirt, gravel, or sand from a mineral-rich area that is free of vegetation. Lay the stuff sack or ground cloth down and then pile up the soil, creating a flat concave top.

The mound should be 2 feet in diameter and 8 inches thick to properly insulate the ground from the fire.

Fire pans

A metal fire pan placed on some stones is another great way to minimize your campfire impact. These contain the fire to your metal pan and keep the heat off the ground by placing them on the stones.

Metal fire pans, barbecue grills, or metal oil drainage pans can all be used. You want to elevate the pan 4-5 inches off the ground and clear of vegetation.

Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts by drowning them completely

No matter how you have a campfire, I cannot emphasize it enough to drown your campfire when you are finished with it.

A smoldering campfire, even one you cannot see smoldering, can spread and cause damage if the conditions are right.

To drown your campfire, pour water over it. Stir the ash around and then pour some more water over it. This way you know there are no smoldering embers left to cause a problem

Always, always, always, drown your campfire. And do not leave the fire unattended.

Only burn wood in campfires

It is important to only burn wood in your campfires. Burning food or trash can attract animals and habituate them to humans. Trash will also release toxic chemicals that you don’t want to breath or put in the atmosphere.

When gathering firewood it is important to gather the right kind. Use the five Ds – down, dead, dry, dinky, and distant – as an easy way to remember what is the right kind of wood.

Use the five Ds when collecting firewood
A campfire by the lake is especially nice

You don’t want to cut down any live vegetation for firewood. And you want to make sure what you gather is dead and dry as well. Live vegetation is not dry and will not burn well anyway.

A good way to measure dinky is to not gather anything that is larger than your wrist. And you want to gather it away from the campsite or a good distance so yo do not clear the area of usable firewood. This is especially important in the frontcountry or in popular backcountry spots where numerous people gather firewood.

To really practice Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts – you do not want to bring any firewood into a new area. Transporting firewood even across county lines can spread insects and diseases to native trees.

Leave a clean fire area

When you have finished with your campsite, clean out the ash into a trash bag in the frontcountry or scatter it in the backcountry. You really want to make sure the ash is completely extinguished!

If you have leftover firewood, neatly stack it for the next users. They will thank you for leaving them with less gathering duties.

When you are dispersed or, “pristine camping,” tear down your fire ring and leave no evidence that you were there.

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Leave No Trace Principle 5 – Minimize Campfire Impacts tells us ways we can help prevent disaster as well as our impact to the wild spaces we love.

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