Opinion: It’s Time to Ditch the Campfire

This post first appeared here two years ago this month. This has been a particularly explosive week for wildfire in California, and across the West, and that in mind, here’s an opinion piece arguing that campfires aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be, wildfires or no. Should go without saying, but so often it doesn’t, opinion pieces are not necessarily the opinions held by the editors. – Ed.

In 1972, Grand Canyon National Park outlawed campfires in the backcountry. Backpackers like me considered this an outrage. After all, the only people who carried those fancy little stoves back then were people incapable of building a fire. I bring this up because we are living through another explosive fire season in the West.

Of course, popular campsites back then looked a lot like parking lots. No downed wood, no dead (or live) grasses, no bushes, no bark on the trees as far up as you could reach. When a dozen people a night are building campfires, anything burnable vanishes pretty quickly.

Note: Fires denude the camping area.

I had a stove. I remember setting up my tiny SVEA, putting the pot on to boil, and turning to organize my sleeping place, because when cooking on a wood fire, it takes forever for the pot to boil.

But my pot boileth over, more quickly than I expected.

Note: Stoves are more efficient than wood fires.

A fire is convivial, although I usually don’t sit next to it: I spend a lot of time skulking around to avoid smoke. Said smoke also fills the whole camping area. I can see and smell a campfire from a mile away.

Note: Fires stink.

Fires are a survival tool. Everyone who goes into the backcountry knows to carry waxed matches, so that in an emergency, you may bask in the warmth of a fire. I once spent the night at 10,000 feet in midwinter and 14 feet of snow, huddled near a fire, but not basking. I would much rather have had my down parka. The wood kept burning up, and someone, usually me, had to stumble around in the snow gathering new fuel.

Note: Even survival experts admit that the value of a survival fire is mostly psychological.

One day, I found myself hiking in the mountains right at tree level. It was a lovely meadow with delicate alpine flowers–a verdant hanging valley. I pictured myself dragging the weathered wood into a ring, starting a fire, killing the fragile plants underneath, and then, in the morning, dealing with the debris and blackened soil.

“No one would mind, would they,” I asked my fellow backpackers, “if we didn’t have a fire tonight?” No one would, and that was the beginning of the end of my fascination with campfires.

I became notorious for my refusal to let my companions build an illegal fire at the bottom of Grand Canyon. And then, to let them build a fire anywhere. We had a stove; we had warm clothing. Why did we want to destroy old wood and leave an unholy mess? We didn’t, everyone decided.

There is a person in the Sierra Club (who shall remain nameless) who is still not speaking to me because I would not let him build a fire on an overnight trip, and he had not brought a stove. I volunteered the use of my stove, but no, he had to have a fire, and I wasn’t going to build one. He ate cold, dry food for three days.

I discovered that if one is not blinded by a fire, there are stars. Small animals creep about. There is a distinct lack of stench in clothing –well, it smells like a sweaty human body, but not combined with stale smoke.

Soon, I began to clean out abandoned campfire rings, realizing that there is a persistent belief that anything thrown into a campfire will vanish. It doesn’t. Cans don’t burn. Nor does glass, plastic, leather, clothing, or leftover food. The doused fire itself contains charcoal that will last for thousands of years.

I have carried the remnants of countless discarded campfires out of the Grand Canyon. This requires a frame pack, a shovel, work gloves and several high-grade garbage bags.

It is, of course, possible to build a leave-no-trace fire. It takes a fireproof blanket spread on cleared ground covered with a mound of mineral soil. This shields the soil from being sterilized. A small fire built from wood no larger than the size of one’s finger is allowed to burn to ash. As soon as you leave, any pieces of charcoal must be crushed to powder and scattered to the winds. For light, it is far easier to use a solar lantern, or a candle.

I spent a week car camping in Yellowstone with a friend, and we–well, me–chose not to waste money purchasing firewood. There was some grumbling, but I rose above it.

At the end of the week, my friend said, “I did kind of miss a fire, but when you aren’t looking for wood and tending the fire, and staying out of the smoke, and cleaning up after the fire, you sure have a lot of spare time.” Indeed.

This story originally appeared in High Country News. Photo by Courtnie Tosana.



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