Campfires are one of my favorite parts of camping. Like most people, I think there’s nothing better than curling up by a fire after a long day of hiking or climbing. However, regardless of how we feel, campfires have a significant impact on the environment that lasts long after we leave. With a few key practices, you can start minimizing campfire impacts on your next mountain camping trip. Here’s an explanation of the ways campfires affect the environment, along with nine tips fo minimizing campfire impacts in the mountains.
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How do campfires negatively impact natural resources?
Campfires impact the environment both directly and indirectly. For example, the fire directly scorches and sterilizes the soil and rock where it burns, killing microbes that make plant growth possible. It can take decades to centuries for sterilized soil to recover. They can also cause wildfires when left unattended or not put out correctly.
Indirectly, campfires in busy areas can lead to forests stripped of deadwood vital to wildlife and nutrition cycles. This is often the main cause for campfire bans – allowing the wood to regrow where it has been mostly lost to fires. Lastly, campfires scars are an eyesore, a stark visible reminder that others have been there, and often a source of garbage and waste. Following good campfire practices doesn’t just protect nature – it leaves the environment cleaner for people to enjoy as well.
Nine tips for minimizing campfire impacts in the mountains
We can all help protect the peaks we love by minimizing campfire impacts while we’re recreating outdoors. These nine tips are a good way to get started following leave no trace ethics while using campfires in the mountains. Do you have another tip I should add to the list? Post a comment with your suggestion below and I might add it in my next update!
1. When possible, skip a campfire and use a stove
While we all love campfires while camping, simply cutting back on them can do a lot when it comes to minimizing campfire impacts. When you’re on a quick overnight trip or camping alone, consider using a cooking stove for your needs instead of a full campfire. You avoid all the indirect and direct impacts of fire and reduce the risk of a wildfire considerably. This isn’t always possible, even a 30% reduction in the number of fires you have can make a big impact over time.
2. Research local fire regulations before you burn
Never start a campfire in the mountains unless you have first checked the local conditions and regulations. With droughts widespread across the west, historic wildfires have burned millions of acres over the past few years. Campfire bans are now relatively common in much of the American west for much of the year. Research whether a ban is in place in the area you plan to camp in. Usually, the county website or national forest website are good places to look for information.
3. Use established fire rings whenever they exist
Whether you’re camping in a campground or using a dispersed site on public lands, stick to established campfire rings whenever possible. Building a new ring will sterilize another section of soil, increase wildfire risks, and create another eyesore that will never go away. If you need to build a campfire ring, find another campsite with an established ring, or skip a campfire and use a cooking stove instead.
4. Keep fires small and use sticks you can break by hand
A larger fire sterilizes more soil, is more likely to grow out of control, and consumes more wood. Keep your fires small to avoid all three of these issues. The best rule of thumb is to only burn sticks you can break by hand. These burn quickly enough that you will want to keep your campfire small to avoid going through your entire supply quickly. If you can’t find small wood, don’t resort to cutting down sticks or using larger fuel. It’s time to move to a different area or skip a campfire that night.
5. Never use a campfire to burn garbage or waste
Campfires are not trash bins and should not be treated as such. As the popular phrase goes – ‘pack it in, pack it out.’ Don’t use your campfire to burn your garbage. It can produce poisonous chemicals in the air, and typically leaves small bits of unburnt garbage for others to come across, ruining an otherwise clean and pristine campsite. Bits of food or packaging can also attract pests or bears to your campsite. Bring a garbage bag and pack out all of your garbage.
6. Only burn dead wood gathered locally off of the ground
Dead, rotting trees may seem unimportant, but they are actually a critical part of the mountain ecosystem. Large dead logs and their branches provide habitat for numerous different species and contribute nutrients back to the soil as they decompose over time. Leave all standing dead trees alone, along with large downed logs. Stick to collecting and burning small sticks that is dead and already on the ground to reduce your impact on the environment.
7. Burn your fire down completely to ash
It is not considered respectful to leave a campfire ring full of large half-burned logs. Not only is it an eyesore, but people usually remove the log and throw it into the surrounding area, leaving it for years to come. Stop adding anymore wood to your campfire 45 minutes before you wish to go to bed. This should supply enough time for it to turn completely to ash, so long as you are keeping your fire and fuel small as well.
8. Ensure your fire is cold to the touch before leaving it
When your fire has died down, make sure you put it out completely to prevent wildfires. This starts with water – a lot of water – added directly to the fire. Don’t rely on dirt or soil to smother your fire – this often leaves it smoldering below the soil leaving flareups possible. Mix the water into the ring and continue adding more and mixing until the campfire bed is cold to the touch. This may take significantly more water than you expect, so plan ahead about how you will put your fire out before the time comes.
9. Consider building a mound fire to reduce your impact
If you need to start a fire in a place where there is not already an established ring, a mound fire can be an effective solution. Take a tarp and lay it down and add a layer of soil from already disturbed areas to create a mound. You can buy aluminum shielding to add for extra protection. Build your fire on the mound, and then bury the ash and dirt where you retrieved it from. When done properly, the mound will prevent the fire from scaring or sterilizing the soil, leaving no trace you were ever there.
Minimizing campfire impacts: Now You Know!
As you can see, minimizing campfire impacts is easy to do with the right preparation, knowledge, and gear. While we all love campfires while camping, they definitely can leave a mark on the mountains and other natural areas. These nine tips are a solid way to ensure you’re doing your part to care for the mountains we love. If you’re looking for more information about minimizing campfire impacts, consider the resources below, which have more details on the topics. Safe travels on the trail!