Backcountry Campfires: A Relic of the Past

The following is a guest post courtesy of Paul Magnanti of PMags.com.

rel•ic rĕl′ĭk
n.
Something that has survived the passage of time, especially an object or custom whose original culture has disappeared.
From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

During the recent COVID epidemic, many people took to the wild places to find isolation, solace, and recreation when traditional recreational outlets were closed.

No after-work drinks at the local watering hole, no sportsball at the local arena, and no munching of popcorn and slurping fizzy sugary beverages at the air-conditioned cinema.

But the woods beckoned. And people went.

And various corporations, always eager to make a buck no matter the situation, marketed their goods for the burgeoning outdoor market as lifestyle ads in the typical fashion. The latest SUV parked by a lake with a campfire present, outdoor magazines with barely disguised promotional pieces portrayed people around the campfire with the clothing or gear discussed in the advertorials. In an apt Venn diagram of consumerism, many ads represented camping, vans, and expensive lifestyle goods as simpatico and all part of the outdoor experience.

But while these ads may influence the culture to a certain degree, the ads work because the culture already associates campfires as part of the outdoor experience in many ways.

And it is an association we need to end in the backcountry.

Campfires belong in the past as part of the outdoor culture.


Why do we want to end this once treasured part of the backcountry outdoor experience? There are many reasons we should view campfires in the same way we view burying garbage, cutting down pine boughs for bedding, or trenching around tents – as a relic, something not done and not part of 21st-century backcountry culture.

Among these reasons:

Climate Change

The Pack Creek Fire, as seen from my mailbox about five miles away, was started by an unattended campfire.

The world’s getting hot and drier overall. The Western US currently sees itself gripped in its worst drought in over a thousand years. Such areas as the Pacific Northwest see themselves with its heatwaves and dry conditions, and even ordinarily wet regions of the East Coast see themselves in unprecedented situations. In simple terms, the word’s becoming a tinderbox. One where one stray spark or unattended campfire can, and in some cases already has, caused fires of unprecedented size and strength. Including five miles from my home.

We are not throwing gasoline on the fire. But we are starting fires where they don’t belong.

Simply put, backcountry campfires are typically illegal.

Photo via.

In the Western US, campfire bans typically get put in place every summer and often well into fall. And well-used areas, regardless of location, make starting a backcountry campfire illegal due to population pressure, resource scarcity, the fragility of an ecosystem, or many other reasons.

Despite the illegal nature of these backcountry campfires, it does not stop people from making campfires.

This lack of adherence to the bans is a shame because:

Campfires cause wildfires—a lot.

Photo via.

Despite claims to the contrary about lightning, peer-reviewed articles show that nearly 90% of wildfires get caused by humans as of 2020. Even more sobering, 92% of large fires (1000+ hectares/ 2400+ acres) get started by humans in the Western US as well.

And per the National Interagency Fire Center statistics, nearly 20% of fires caused by humans started as campfires, closer to 30% if you count the burning of garbage. That’s about 700,000 acres, or one Rhode Island, a year.

Highly debatable if a backcountry campfire meets modern LNT ethos.

Escaped illegal campfire ring in San Bernardino National Forest. Photo via.

Though the folks at Leave No Trace (LNT) still talk about minimizing campfire impacts as part of their fifth principle, I think in 2021, LNT and backcountry campfires aren’t compatible concepts. And LNT needs to update the principle as well.

Besides walking in tinderboxes in many places, even on the East Coast more and more, by building a backcountry fire, you scar the ground and ruin the mineral content, blacken rocks, and take wood needed for the local ecosystem.

In high-use areas, every time you grab wood, you increase the browse line. The amount of downed timber gets further and further away from a campsite. You create social paths (erosion) in addition to marring the local ecosystem and promoting localized flooding.

And the fire rings seem to breed garbage. As mentioned, nearly 10% of human-caused fires start with the burning of garbage. Shockingly glass bottles, aluminum cans, foil, and your favorite “EXTREME ENERGY BAR!!!!” wrapper doesn’t magically turn into ashes with the campfire. Partially burnt garbage begets more partially burnt garbage.

The blackened rocks, scarred soil, partially charred wood, eroded social paths, and unsightly trash do not make for a pleasant backcountry aesthetic.

You are very much leaving a trace.

Campfires take up a lot of time.

Building, and then putting out, a fire correctly takes a lot of time. Photo via.

Gathering the wood, lighting it correctly, keeping it stoked, and (crucially) burning the wood to ash, stirring in water, making sure the ash is cold to the touch. Then dismantling the fire ring with the now blackened rocks, placing them away from your campsite, and dispersing the ash means a lot of work. Something very few people want to do correctly based on the many campfire rings, some with still-hot ashes, I often find in the backcountry. And in the desert, besides wood being a scarce item, water ends up deficient for putting out a campfire properly.

Many people seem to like campfires. Many people also seem not to enjoy the work required to have one and put it out correctly.

Campfires aren’t healthy.

Inhaling campfire smoke isn’t healthy. Photo via.

King James I famously wrote about tobacco use in 1604 and stated that it is “a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.”

It sounds like campfires to anyone who yelled: “Red Rover, Red Rover” or similar to shift smoke during camping trips. Some, or many, always get watery eyes, coughing fits, dry throat, etc. Why? Because breathing in smoke and dry air all night ain’t healthy in plain language.

The trope of “HYOH” gets used a lot to justify actions that impact others. When you make a campfire, you often impose your hike on others, especially on popular trails such as the Appalachian or Pacific Crest trails.

The aesthetics of campfires can ruin the backcountry experience in many ways.

Illegal fire ring in San Bernardino National Forest. Photo via.

When you build a campfire, you often block out the natural world. For our distant ancestors, a campfire kept “things that go bump in the night” away.

But we concentrate on the flames and not the natural world by making a campfire. We don’t notice the night sky with its bright stars and the Milky Way above. The brilliant night sky also inspired our distant ancestors. And it’s a sight increasingly rare in our modern times with more and more light pollution. Why ruin this backcountry gift with a campfire?

And, much again like our ancestors, you also tend to pay less attention to the sounds and sights of what is outside the campfire circle. You do not see the moonlight on the mountains and are less likely to hear the coyotes yipping in the distance when your focus is within a small circle.

And, much like campfire smoke, you force others to “Hike my Hike, Damn it!” when you make a campfire and potentially ruin the night sky and other delights of nature for others.

Do campfires even work in an emergency?

Photo via.

By the time you need to make a campfire in an emergency, you are more than likely in some state of the ‘umbles. Will you have the motor control to make a campfire?

More importantly, a campfire does not efficiently put out heat. Old cowboy movies to the contrary, an efficient fire requires more than just building a “tipi” with no way to capture the heat. People well versed in bushcraft build a lean-to or even place their fire in front of a natural rock enclosure for a source of warmth that requires relatively less wood and efficiency.

And the large bonfire you see in many ads? It does create warmth for sure. But it uses wood at a prodigious rate and, again, does not seem environmentally friendly, in addition to challenging to start in an emergency.

Highly trained military special forces, polar explorers, and mountaineers survive and thrive without fires. Backpackers in far less arduous conditions with excellent gear can do the same.

Gear Damage

It’s all fun and games until someone’s tent catches fire. Photo via.

Lastly, there are the practical aspects of why a backcountry campfire does not work well in 2021 – Gear damage. A stray spark from a fire or even a rock that bursts from the heat (notorious with river rocks) can turn your $500 DCF wonder-tent, $300 puffy, or $200 rain jacket into a pile of melted goo or dispersed feathers. Do you want to sit so close to the fire that you might get a little warm at the expense of gear damage no amount of duct tape will fix?

Campfires worked better with the wool and cotton clothing of the John Muir era, not so much with our ultralight wonder gear.

Campfires had their place in the past with different gear, backpacking methods, a lower population base, and a different world altogether from 2021.

If you must have a campfire, make one in an established campfire ring in a front country campground. There is a nostalgic component of campfires that many people enjoy at times, myself included. Sitting in a campground before a backpacking trip, on a comfy camp chair, while enjoying some cold, adult beverage with close friends certainly makes some share of fond memories. But in the backcountry, I can’t make a campfire anymore in good conscience for the reasons I detailed. And I often decline to build one in front areas now, too.

We all evolve in our views and actions. We often take different gear for different trips or goals. And ideas we held at 17 differ from what we carry at 37. As well they should.

In the same way, I hope more of us evolve away from the need for backcountry campfires. We can talk nostalgically about the importance and the ritual of campfires in our outdoor past. But recognize they belong to a different time and circumstances.

Let us look forward to being responsible and appreciate the backcountry conditions we face in 2021. And not continue to do what we have done in the past, but which no longer works in the present. And certainly not in the future.

Let’s get away from backcountry campfires and redefine what’s important about the backcountry experience.

You, others, and the backcountry we all share will appreciate it.

About the Author

Paul Mags in Canyonlands National Park. Photo courtesy of Joan West.

The name’s Paul Magnanti or Paul Mags for short. I’ve done my share of long walks over the years, but my real love is getting out as much as possible here in the Moab area, usually with Joan – my way awesome partner.

When not walking out and about, I inflict my thoughts on the world on the web at PMags.com and via Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and a very mediocre YouTube channel @pmagsco.

Featured image via.

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Comments 32

  • Turtle Man : Jul 12th

    Thanks for this! It consolidates and articulates some similar thoughts i’ve had for a while about “campfires” in the backcountry. Nothing here i disagree with.

    It prompts me to recall a night i spent at a Vermont state park a few years back. Too lazy and/or tired to find an “at large” place to camp after coming off trail, i succumbed to the temptation to just turn into a nearby park. Pulling up to the attendant booth, a dense haze of smoke hung over the area. I inquired if there was a forest fire nearby. “No,” the attendant said, “It’s just campfires.”

    I circled the campsite loop road, and there were only a couple of spaces open. The one i ended up in was surrounded by campfires in all the abutting sites. The flames in the one next to me often surged to head height, and large sprays of sparks occasionally shot up as the campers appeared to be cooking large hunks of unfortunate cattle.

    I eventually coughed myself to sleep. Never thought to include a particulate mask in my packout list. The next morning, the first task for a number of my neighbors appeared to be to re-start their fires. Ugh. Despite washing and airing out on a clothesline, it took many days for the smoke smell to leave my tent, sleeping bag, etc.

    Yes, this is different than fires in more remote areas, but i think it speaks to what seems to be some kind of primal attraction to fire that many folks seem to harbor, perhaps a remnant of our evolutionary, nomadic history.

    Maybe the one exception to a no-campfire ethic might be a small, firebox, stick stove, and then, maybe only in winter. A small pile of sticks would be enough to boil some water and provide some warmth. Much less of a chance of starting a wildfire, and much less demand on deadfall wood.

    Reply
  • Drew Boswell : Jul 13th

    Well said and it needed to be.

    Reply
  • Scott : Jul 13th

    I thought I was reading The Onion. Well done on making me laugh.

    Reply
    • JhonY : Jul 16th

      Reading the Onion? You are an idiot

      Reply
  • Liv : Jul 14th

    Agreed. Very “holier than thou” tone from the author and lots of incorrect information. I would begin with “do campfires even work in an emergency”…that entire section is false and based on nothing more than the authors conjecture. But it isn’t even worth taking the time to contest the dramatic ramblings that constitute this “article”.

    Reply
    • Adrian : Jul 16th

      Yup–thought the same thing!

      Reply
  • Tom : Jul 14th

    Have campfires when risks can be mitigated and supervision can be maintained. Mind your gear around them. Don’t inhale their smoke.. Enjoy the hypnotic flames because the rest of the natural world is pitch black at night.. Make certain they are out. Take an inventory of yourself if you allow a circle of rocks to ruin your backcountry experience..

    Reply
    • Liv : Jul 16th

      Completely agree. “Take an inventory of yourself if you allow a circle of rocks to ruin your backcountry experience”..lol, very well said and so true! What’s next, should cairn’s be a thing of the past too?

      Reply
      • Jeff McWilliams : Jul 19th

        Cairns or rock stacks?

        Cairns serve a useful purpose. They are a navigation aid when it’s otherwise extremely difficult to discern the correct path/route through a rocky area. In some areas, such as the tops of the Adirondacks High Peaks, cairns are permanent structures established and maintained by designated personnel (ADK high peaks summit stewards).

        Rock stacks are a social thing that people do for their artistic aesthetic, or possibly to satisfy a need to indicate that, “I was here”. In some areas, rock stacks can appear by the handful or by the dozen. It additional being a social nuisance, they can destroy habitat. For instance, the Eastern Hellbender can be affected by people moving and shifting rocks in streams and creeks when they create rock stacks.

        Reply
  • Chris : Jul 14th

    Campfires in winter/wet conditions, in summer and dry conditions it’s a no go. I don’t think they will ever be a thing if the past. Campfire are great in the correct environment. What’s need is proper education and discipline. In no way should campfires be eliminated or become a thing of the past.

    Reply
  • Cue : Jul 16th

    No more campfires? Ha. In cases of extreme fire hazard, absolutely not.
    Building and maintaining a campfire is a simple task that any responsible person should be able to execute.
    Here is my CliffNote for backcountry campfire use: Don’t be an idiot.
    Nuff said!

    Reply
    • JhonY : Jul 16th

      Nuff said my ass. You think you are so bright that you should have the final word? Only going to cause more damage. NUFF SAID MY ASS

      Reply
      • Liv : Jul 16th

        And how is it that you seem to think you’re so bright that you should have the final word AND have a right to swear at other people who are respectfully stating their views? You called another poster an idiot in the comments above, I think you should take a step back and do some seriously reflection.

        Reply
        • John : Jul 20th

          Well said Liv. What’s next? No camping/backpacking in the wilderness because some person doesn’t like the flat area your tent leaves> No more hiking poles because they tear up the ground of Mother Earth?

          Reply
  • Josh Johnson : Jul 16th

    So riddled with conjecture and the tone of bitterness, this article had me wondering if it was satire or a genuine proposition. Campfires are not relics, though responsibility may be as much of this information highlights the failure of such and an attitude not respectful towards others or the environment. Fire, and even fire around a camp which is some form of established dwelling area, is one of mankind’s oldest friends and advantages by which we were/are able to thrive and survive. These accusations are hardly the fault of fuel, oxygen and ignition but instead the folly of poorly educated people who perhaps haven’t spent enough time learning about the process and outcomes of fire to be responsible with it. The only concession I’ll give this hit piece is that perhaps more of those people wandered out into this situation than usual due to COVID and have put a spotlight on this issue. It’s no secret that many of us acknowledge that both ourselves and the people around us could put down our electronic devices and connect with nature in a meaningful way and these things often enrich our lives. Fire, campfires, can be a meaningful part of that experience filling our lives with warmth, community, storytelling, dry socks, cooked food and more.

    Reply
    • Adrian : Jul 16th

      Agreed!

      Reply
    • Liv : Jul 16th

      Well said!

      Reply
  • james barta : Jul 16th

    thanks for your opinion..we all know about opinions..stay away from my campsite;i’ll stay away from yours

    Reply
  • Kit : Jul 16th

    Great alternative for a fire pit has been burning wood in my biolite…which I also use to cook or boil water (in less than 5 minutes) AND charge my cell – all in the the size of 1/2 gallon widemouth water bottle weighing ~2 lbs. Works for me.

    Reply
  • Timber Tim : Jul 16th

    I completely disagree with the idea of cancelling campfires. Campfires are a major part of our outdoor DNA. Have them responsibly and enjoy the time spent around them. Let’s not get so sophisticated that we can’t enjoy one of the most enjoyable aspects of camping out.

    Reply
  • Cosmo A Catalano : Jul 17th

    Campfires are great–in the front country with responsibly harvested wood. I love sitting around a crackling fire (dry, small sized wood) with friends. But on busy trails and popular areas (where most of us recreate) they are destructive. Yes, just like many other outdoor practices, there are a few people who know how and take the time to do it right and responsibly limit the permanent impacts–but those people are few and far between.

    I’ve been a volunteer and hiker on the AT for almost 25 years. The difference between overnight sites that permit campfires and those that don’t is immediately apparent. The surrounding woods are stripped bare, oversized (and often green, unburnable) limbs are laid over the fire pit and smolder, unattended, in sites that permit fires–and this is typical at nearly every AT site where fires are permitted–and occasionally where they aren’t. The fire pit itself is a magnet for trash (that has to be removed by volunteers).

    It’s time to wake up and realize that as 21st century visitors to the outdoors we need to act responsibly and protect the natural resources we enjoy. This is not 1960. we don’t wear ragg wool socks and Limmers. We don’t carry canned food. We don’t (most of us) use external frame packs. We don’t sleep under actual canvas. Time upgrade our thinking as well as our gear.

    And Tom, the night is rarely pitch black. Put out the fire and let your eyes adjust and you’d be surprised at what you can see (and hear).

    Reply
  • GroundHog : Jul 17th

    Once on the AT I had a stove breakdown, for five days I cooked breakfast and dinner on small twiggy fires in either existing fireplaces, dry creeks, or sandy spots below high water.
    My experience was quite the opposite of Paul’s but I don’t suggest one of us is right and the other is wrong; but that the situations and circumstances are different.
    Cooking on a fire made me SLOW DOWN in a way my heart & soul we’re craving to do. Campsite selection took on a whole new dimension, and my interactions with others deepened, became more real, more human, as I explained my predicament.
    As my clothes got smokier I stopped getting bitten by bugs, by day three I gave away my bug juice to someone who’d been royally bitten and was beyond frazzled.
    I’m inclined to think that “Here, you need this more than I do.” is perhaps the ultimate LNT life skill. One that our world’s political leaders seem to have most regrettably abandoned.
    As I write these words, close to two billion people are dependent on wood, charcoal, or coal for cooking their food every single day. I now have a better understanding of what that might be like because my stove broke on the AT and for five days I had to cook by fire or not eat.
    In some small but meaningful way…. I think that experience has now made me a kinder more understanding person.
    GroundHog

    Reply
  • Traillium (Mark) : Jul 17th

    I fully agree with Mags — campfires are a thing of the past.
    I spent 30 years paddling in Northern Ontario and elsewhere, leading trips, taking family out, and on my own with my wife and paddling partner. After about 20 years, we stopped cooking over wood fires.
    On trigger occurred after leaving a small island in the middle of Quetico and being told by a following party that the island was burning underground a week later. (They alerted the park staff who flew in a crew to completely soak the island.) We had noticed a distinct smell of smoke when we were on the island overnight, but were not aware of any hot spots in the ground. We also had used a small stove on that particular island because we were late getting to the campsite after a long day of paddling into the wind, and had to get up and leave early to beat the wind the next day.
    Another realization of the misuse of campfires came after two decades of guiding trips (and taking family trips) in the wonderful but thinly-forested Killarney Provincial Park near Sudbury, Ontario. Seeing campsite after campsite having gone to being denuded for 50 metres and more around the fire-site in just 20 years forced us to reevaluate how our own wood-burning was so unsustainable. We switched to small Colman stoves, and have never looked back. Our packs were lighter, since we no longer carried a small axe and a folding saw. Our campsites were left in better shape. The surrounding woods were given a chance to recover.
    I’d like to see research that demonstrates how much wood is used over the 3-4 months summer season around a campsite. I know from gathering wood for small groups of six people that we brought in multiple relatively large armloads of wood, even for small well-controlled cooking fires — amounts that were certainly not being replaced by the area around the campsite.
    We loved cooking over campfires. We miss that, for sure. But we also get more time to go out for an evening paddle after supper, or to just sit on the shoreline and watch the bats sweep up mozzies out over the lake and to hear the loons sending each other sunset messages. Stoves rule! (I now use a highly efficient alcohol stove — quite safe in our eastern forests.)
    Mags is spot-on on all points. Thanks for publishing this!

    Reply
    • Traillium (Mark) : Jul 17th

      In this reply to myself, I should stress that my opinions and experiences as stated above specifically apply to the areas where I have paddled and backpacked in this neck of the woods.
      They make general sense to me across most parts of the world that I have travelled, but that’s another discussion.

      Reply
  • MH : Jul 19th

    I haven’t lit a fire when I’m backpacking in years. The fire is for the kids or socializing. I have a couple of firelighters so I could start one if I had to, but that’s never happened.

    Reply
  • Stephen Keire : Jul 19th

    Right with you on this, Mr. Paul. Fire season is one more wild card added to scheduling a “through” hike in the West as if the weather window isn’t constraint enough. I see Sierra Pacific has closed their lands adjacent to the PCT to fires, stoves and camping, and in NorCal active fires have closed the PCT in two places. Fuel moisture levels in my neck of the woods in September are going to be very low. Check the NOAA drought outlook map, that should warn anyone away from making a fire on purpose in the woods along the spine of the Cascades and Sierra.

    Reply
  • James : Jul 21st

    Why is the younger generation always jumps right to controlling someone instead of educating them and mentoring them. Why don’t we concentrate on educating folks who have no idea of LNT and the issues of fires FIRST. If fire rings are an issue how about the shelters on the AT and various trails. Doesn’t that interfere with your wilderness experience? I’ve never seen a campfire so bright in the back country that it blocked out my view of the stars. Go over the next hill if standing next to the fire prevents you from seeing the stars. I don’t personally build a fire when in the backcountry because I’m too tired, but if someone else wants to, I enjoy the chance to sit around and socialize, then listen to the crackling as it puts me to sleep. Lets first educate newbies who are starting their exploration of God’s creation before we try and control them with more government regs or YOUR regs.

    Reply
    • Darren : Jul 21st

      Well said!

      Reply

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