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LNT: Minimize Campfire Impact

Posted by Sharon Harrington on

Everything you do in the backwoods has an impact on the environment, but campfires have the potential to have the biggest impact the fastest if not watched carefully. Even when a fire is properly extinguished, it can still have a massive impact on the environment if it is not built in the correct location or if it is constructed improperly. Consider using a stove for cooking and carrying enough gear and first aid do that you don’t need a fire for warmth. However, if you’d still like to enjoy a fire at camp, know how to build a leave no trace campfire.

Before you ever build a fire you need to know if it will cause damage to the area. Know if the woods are too dry and will easily catch fire. Know if there is enough wood so that you’re not removing too much. Know if the wood you remove will be replaced, or if the environment is too harsh for regrowth. And, know what the restrictions are in the area you’re camping. Even in conditions that seem perfect for fires, they may be prohibited

The best place to build a campfire is in an existing fire ring, but a fire pan is another option. You can make a fire pan from a metal oil drain pan or an old grill. To prevent the spread of a fire, the sides of the container should be at least three inches. Never build a fire directly on the ground. A fire pan can be placed upon rocks or lined with mineral soil. A great alternative to a fire ring or pan is a mound fire, which is built atop a ground cloth or garbage bag for easy, leave-no-trace cleanup. Spread mineral soil three to five inches deep across the ground covering, in an area bigger than what your fire will be, and build your fire in the middle of the soil.

Never bring wood from home to burn in your campfire. It is important to either purchase local wood or gather it directly at your campsite. This will prevent the spread of tree diseases. When gathering fuel for your fire, never use any part of standing trees, even if they’re dead, as they still provide homes for animals and are an important part of the soil’s well-being. Look for dead, fallen tree pieces that are no bigger around than an adult’s wrist. Don’t take all the wood from one area, instead gather it from a vast area to minimize the impact, and when you’re done, spread out any unused wood instead of keeping it in a pile for the next camper. Only burn the fire when you are actively using it, don’t just let it go overnight, and use a minimal amount of wood, so that it can all be burned to ash. Never try to burn trash, even paper or food but especially plastic and aluminum foil. Be sure the fire is out by further grinding small coals with your hands (wear gloves!) and finally using water to completely extinguish any remaining cinder. Unless it’s required that you pack them out, scatter the ashes over a large area away from camp and replace any mineral soil where you found it.

Campfires can be a place to cook, a source of warmth and a entertaining piece of nostalgia, but they must be done correctly to minimize their impact on the environment. If you make a fire, be sure that it leaves no trace by following these guidelines. Contact a local LNT advocate to teach you how to build an acceptable fire. Remember, when you build a fire, you are responsible to prevent any fire damage, no matter how big or small it may seem!