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Reader Poll: Campfires in the Backcountry

A Campfire
A Campfire

I am not a fan of campfires when I go on hiking trips.

  • I don’t appreciate it when people build them outside of pre-established fire rings because they scar the ground
  • They’re usually accompanied by drunken or noisy campers
  • I think they’re very  dangerous in high risk fire conditions
  • I don’t like having all my gear smell like smoke the next day
  • I don’t understand why every trip with children requires a campfire

Sure, knowing how to build a fire is an important survival skill, but I think more emphasis should be placed on how to avoid needing a camp fire in the first place. Am I just a curmudgeon?

What do you think about Campfires in the Backcountry?

Please leave a comment with your thoughts.

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38 comments

  1. Well, I like a camp fire but unfortunately what you write isn't wrong either. I tend to use a hobo stove now which does not scar the ground, uses very little wood and contains the fire well so that the fire risk is only marginally bigger than using, say, an alcohol stove. For me this works: fire-feeling without the disadvantages (mostly).

  2. I am surprised. Fires need not be large. A small fire will deliver most of the benefits of a large fire. I don' often need one in the summer, but fall and spring it is needed. Else I carry an extra pound of clothing for camp(usually a sweater.) Most years I avoid the woods in summer…too many people in the woods. The smoke deters bugs pretty well in spring. Early nights means that it can be difficult to see without a fire. So, it conserves batteries, besides the more obvious cooking chores which saves fuel. Scattering the ashes is good for the soils in most areas(a primative fertilizer.) Lots more… though I have seen a black bear wander through a camp site with the fire burning…it does NOT scare away animals.

    In some areas I have seen them abused. At Silver Lake some people let a ground fire do some real damage to the forest floor. Sometimes wood is scarce and people chop down trees. This year, I was informed that one of the lean too's had been burned down. Yes, fires can be destructive, too.

    Do not be afraid to use a fire just because. Like so many things, it is a resource to be used gently and with responsibility. Sometimes it is NOT appropriate to build a fire. Sometimes you do not need one. Sometimes you do. Think about it, first.

  3. I think they are fine… As long as I am the one maintaining said campfire.

  4. Curmudgeon away! It’s fine and I understand and respect your concerns. I personally enjoy both(without the drunken noisemakers and irresponsibility). I’ll build a fire, but in an established ring and all legal and appropriately sized. I’ll also take 30-40 minutes to *completely* erase an illegal/inappropriate fire ring. Once one is there it gives some sort of weird ‘permission’ for others to build one as well.

    I’m 67% luddite and I feel like something has been lost to us with all this modern living. Despite all our gear, proximity to cities etc, sitting by a fire on a cold night gives me a sense of what humans have been doing for *millennia*. This is valuable to me.

  5. I don’t appreciate fires outside of existing rings either, but I have been known to make them and then clean the site. No need for a bonfire, a small fire are can be cleaned well if it burns well. Drunken campers? That’s up the the campers. You can certainly get drunk without a fire. Dangerous in high fire conditions? Duh. So is playing on the street when its full of traffic, yet its safe when there is no traffic. Conditions are conditions. Safe fires are safe fires, unsafe fires are unsafe fires. If ALL your gear smells like smoke, I suggest you move your gear away from the fire. You are making absolute statements when they are unnecessary. You do have choices. Small, well tended fires, not drrrrrinking, keeping your gear away from a fire. Kids like marshmallows and hotdogs, its traditional. Don’t be such a fire snob. There are times when its perfectly fine and times when its not fine. Enjoy a fire now and then, its part of your heritage, but keep it safe!

  6. I realize I'm probably outside the norm…thought I'd ask to see how far out I am. All the emphasis put on fires at the scouts got me wondering. I way well start by using a wood stove in a few weeks, which appeals to me more in terms of a limited burn for a specific purpose, although I can see the appeal of a fire for it's entertainment value too. Still I am interested in what people have to say on this topic. There seem to be many opinions and approaches and it's fun to drain a swamp like this.

  7. In Southern California campfires are heavily regulated. Every year a PCT hiker starts a forest fire in Southern California. I think that campfires while backpacking are not worth the time because I go to bed right after it gets dark anyways. Plus a campfire makes it difficult to stargaze. I have only made a campfire a handful of times when backpacking because I felt I needed it, whether is was to dry clothes out or warm myself up. Also in Southern California there just isn't much dead wood from trees to gather because there aren't nearly as many trees as back east. Instead Southern California has lots of combustible brush. When I car camp I do like to have campfires, if they are even permitted.

  8. Fires for me are for camping. When I am backpacking I almost never have one, too much work at the end of a long day (to take care, clean up, really put it out). I will say if I am at an established site and someone else starts one I may hang out at it, I will also make sure I am not camping near by because I also hate the smell of smoke :) so I again am in the middle for this issue.

  9. I guess I fall into the curmudgeon camp on this one. I don't ever start a fire in the backcountry, but usually enjoy them at established campsites (like AT shelter sites). It amazes me how many fire rings are in the wilderness, miles away from a water source. Last year in SW Virginia RevLee and I saw a number of them on "stealth" sites just off the trail, nowhere near any water. One was still smoldering mid-day in a tinder dry area of the woods, which we took care of. I can’t imagine how much damage that fire would have caused if it had flared unattended.

    I do think the “Ray Jardine” style of small cook fires is appropriate if you have the skills to truly “Leave No Trace” but I opt to use a stove to cook and clothes to keep me warm. No small fire is every going to add much to your warmth- and a big one is too damaging to the backcountry.

    We have made it a point to destroy "inappropriate" rings in the woods, especially when hiking with the scouts. A ring just invites others to use the spot- getting rid of the ring at least challenges them to build it again. On one hike near Signal Knob two years ago we took apart 4 or 5 rings in less than a mile- all in an area I think was marked "no camping". It is a good reminder for the scouts when it is appropriate to have a fire- and when it isn’t.

    And we have solved the drunken camper issue with a "stumble rule"- we don't camp anywhere that it is easy to get to from a road carrying beer. A mile or more off the road and a lot of elevation gain tends to get rid of the folks that are out to have a party.

  10. Glad to see your post, I thought I was the only one. I feel exactly the same way about campfires, I really don't see the need.

  11. I don't like to have campfires in the backcountry. Firstly because of fire danger and secondly because of the wasted resource. My response probably has to do with growing up and living all my life in California and having to live with the reality of wildfire and that danger. I would light a fire if necessary for safety of course but not in other situations. My experience with others I have encountered in the backcountry is that it is the folks who live in or grew up in other states (with greener grass and higher humidity year around) that are those most likely to want fires. And the most likely to leave a fire smoldering when they go to bed. Yikes!

  12. I understand what you're saying and I don't disagree, however I do enjoy a campfire. Last summer when I did a long section hike o the AT I carried a Trail Designs Ti-Tri ULC for cooking, after supper I could feed small wood into and have a small fire for as long as I wanted, this really satisfied my wants for a campfire, and with only a small amount of ash to scatter I could LNT. Anytime I use a fire ring I make a strong effort to burn any leftover end pieces of wood from the previous fire, I guess this is my way of leaving the site cleaner than I found it. The thing that bothers me the most about fire rings is the amount of trash people leave behind.

  13. yup, DON'T like fires. for allthe reasons you gave and I can think of more!

  14. I actually like fires in the backcountry, provided there is a low risk of forest fire. I do a lot of kayak camping, and it is a wet endeavor, so a fire is a welcomed treat after a long day's paddle. I don't think you need one every night, but it sure helps break up the evenings. Native Americans built fires in the backcountry for centuries, and maybe they learned how not to scar the ground and build an efficient fire that doesn't put out a lot of smoke. Some of your points hold water, while others focus too much on the bad in people, instead of the good.

  15. I enjoy a fire, mostly when car camping, but haven't used one in a long time. With the grandkiddos in a state park, if there isn't a burn ban in the county, I'll make a small one in the fire ring, usually using a section of a fire log. They can roast marshmallows to their bodies' hyperglycemia limit. The fire log keeps me from having to gather firewood. It also has pretty much continual flame rather than quickly burning to embers.

    The last time I used a camp fire while backpacking was about seven years ago when my brother and I hiked 47 miles on the CDT in Montana. We cooked over a campfire just about every meal. On that hike, we met Geertje Francois, who was hiking the length of the CDT with about a third our pack weight on his back. We grilled him, but not for breakfast, and completely changed our gear and philosophy. I bought a Sierra Zip stove, which my brother and I use for extended hikes. On shorter ones, I use a JetBoil or alcohol stove.

  16. Three season backpacking for me is hike, eat, sleep, repeat. There is not time for a fire. But in the winter its different. In Minnesota we have real cold. Its dark at six pm and a fire has a positive psychological effect. The warmth and light is nice too. Cooking over a folding grill is far more elaborate than in the summer and with all the hours of darkness there is no hurry. Forrest fires are not an issue and leave no trace is easier on a lake. In the winter a campfire = wilderness TV.

  17. I have an issue with established fire rings. Who decides they are to be established. In the UK fires are a non starter. Yet fire rings appear in the outdoors sadly.

    I see lots of fires in videos of Alaska trips and assume they are the norm there for many reasons. I reckon if you need to make one it is best on a gravel bank by a river and when the next flood comes it washes the remains away.

  18. i'm with Kevin on this one, as well as some of the other comments in favor of small fires.

    For me, having the smell of wood fire smoke on my clothing and gear is a big part of the appeal of a fire, as well as the aid in reducing mosquitos clouds…

  19. Even car camping fires are a pain unless you have a group campout. Since I live in a city, I have to buy $10 worth of bundles per campfire to get a good one going. Backpacking, never. If I had a hobo stove or something that would be different, but burning anything bigger than twigs is bad news.

  20. Philip,

    Thank you for your thoughts regarding campfires. It confirms what I have felt for a long time. It is strange how mystically hypnotic a fire was to me when I was a scout but when backpacking, I have not built a fire in probably thirty years or more. If leave no trace practices are followed and conditions are absolutely safe, I do not object to them by others. But I have no need for the ambience, work, or smell.

  21. I'm with you, because I don't like the smell of smoke on everything, but a fire makes a nice social centerpiece to any campsite. What I don't like is multiple fire "rings" on beaches. Eventually, the waves will wash them away, but if there's already a ring, then why not use the same one?

    I'm curious about your statement that there should be more emphasis on not needed a fire in the first place. Where would you emphasize this? With the Boy Scouts?

  22. Doing it with Boy Scouts would be a star – since that organization is built around campfires. Being able to make fires is no substitute for dressing properly in wet or cold weather. The boy scouts could help this out by teaching people not to wear cotton on hikes, and sending anyone who shows up in it, home. But the same holds for any outdoor school or organization sponsoring hikes.

  23. Both the fire question and the cotton question have the same answer: It depends. When I'm backpacking in a soggy boreal forest up north in the shoulder seasons, I'll certainly have a fire. Fire ring or not. When I'm hiking in the Arizona desert, I'll certainly be wearing cotton, long sleeves no less. But I also know enough to dismantle and obliterate the fire completely, and to carry synthetics in my backpack just in case. So … just go hiking far away from parking lots or ATV trails. The kind of situations that you describe are in my experience mostly contained to places that can be easily reached by vehicle.

  24. Ok, here is my longer in depth take on the matter. I really do not mind a good fire at the shelter areas. What I do mind is upon arrival to said shelter areas I encounter wood that is either…

    a) Still burning

    b) Wood that is still bright red and not spread out so it can go out

    c) This is a big one, findind unburnt foil and garbage in said fire rings

    These type of things drives me nuts. Then again, I am already nuts.

  25. Since I'm more of a walker than camper, in my opinion they are just too much work and stress me out a bit in reference to potential forest fires. One big difference in the west vs. the east is the scaring of campsites and fire rings. I really hate it. probibly preaching ot the chior though as if you're reading this, you more than likely know how to act in the backcountry.

    I'm usually an alcohol stove kind of guy, but have boiled water for coffee or noodles over a tiny fire on a few occasions. Ther are SOOOO easy to control and erase.

    Car camping w/ kids? Must have fire and the "campfire cablevision" when it's cold. Never car camp when it's hot, that's just painful.

    Great skill to know if all hell breaks loose but I basically never make them backpacking.

  26. If you don't like the smell of wood smoke in your gear, then I predict you're not going to be too pleased with the wood stove you're going to try soon. I recently went on a group outing where someone had a small forced-air woodstove along (sorry I didn't get the brand but it looked like a staiinless steel coffee can). The thing was always spewing either clouds of smoke or a snowstorm of ashes. It did add a nice patina of creosote to the pots though.

  27. Hominids and fire have been together for millions of years, at least from homo erectus, and it's possible we've developed a genetic disposition toward it so even though we now have warm clothes and the big predators are almost eliminated, we still feel compelled to build campfires.

    I like them mostly for the bug repellant effect; the pests like me so much that 100% deet is little deterrent, but a few burning sticks clears an area for yards around.

  28. I grew up in Arizona and therefore understand your feelings about campfires. Most of the people making them where I'm from have just gone out to the desert to get drunk and not have the cops called for noise and drunk people with fire is just stupid dangerous especially in a high risk area like the desert. But I have always enjoyed them while car camping and civil war reenacting (our family hobby) and they can be fun and enjoyable. It's really a right time, right place discussion for me. I personally prefer to abstain on backpacking trips since it's more work than I care to put in.

    For what it's worth, your gear smelling like smoke is a HUGE advantage in high bug areas as the smell drives the bugs away. When we were Civil War reenacting we always spent a portion of our time trying to get everything to smell like smoke and get it on our skin since accurate portrayal kept us from using bug juice. It is more effective than Deet and much safer to use!

  29. For 30 years I did nothing but cook over a campfire until fires were banned and now I just love my little Snowpeak stove and Lantern….But, when I made a switch to fleece on a trip a few years ago I got cold, very cold and I had layers on…But I was cold and it was too early to climb in the bag and lay awake half the night, so I went back to having a fire.

    The way I build a fire is quite different from what most websites including a recent Backpacking website has a video on, in that I learned from my Dad back in the 60's to only build a fire big enough to keep you warm and to cook on. He said he heard an Iroquis fishing guide tell a group that white man build a fire and has to sit away from it, an Indian builds a fire he can sit next too, white man chops down trees and spends all night gathering wood in the dark. the Indian uses little wood and stays near the fire nice and warm.

    I call it a "hatful" of fire. because the fire is no bigger than the inside of my Baseball Cap. I first find a nice sandy spot hopefully wind free or set up a wind block like laying my old frame pack on it's side, the newer packs don't work as well. So sometimes I have to built wind block out of stone of wood..It then neatly clean away all the duff for a 3 ft wide diameter and put it in a big pile to one side.. Next I dig a hole with a cup or a knife flattened stick, the width and depth of my Baseball Cap. I make a little trench off to one side about 3 inches wide six inches long. The trench is same depth as the hat which is about 5 inches deep. Next I find some grass, bark, and very small twigs and crush them and roll them into a fluff ball in my hands about the size of a baseball. On top of this I place larger pieces of downed wood but nothing thicker than about one quarter inch to about one full inch intially. Later I'll add pieces up to 3 inches thick.

    Next I start the fire by either use of a flint and steel, Lighter, Matches, Phillipino Compression Unit, Magnifying glass, or a bow drill to start the fire with…I like to use various methods of starting my fires just to keep in practice just in case. Once the fire is going I build up a coal bed using large and larger pieces of wood, the longest peice is only about 7 inches long.. With a fire this size I am able to sit cross legged right up close to it and easily warm myself up, especially my shoulders which always seem to feel the coldest when I am out in the wilds. As the Indian said white man build fire so he has to sit far away from it…With this fire you right on top of it and actually can control the burn easier..and it uses less wood. I have had as many a two other companions sharing this small fire with me without any problems.

    For cooking I move a few of the coals over into the short trench I built off to the side. where it is pretty easy to control the amount of heat and I set the pans right over the 3 inch wide trench and not on rocks, In fact I do not encircle the fire with anything at all for the fire is kept in the hole.

    When I am done with the fire I make sure it is burned down to ash as much as I can which is easier using smaller pieces of wood than big logs that you usually see dotting the landscape at old fires.. Next I fill the hole with water or a bodily substitute and make a nice mud and stir it up and around cooling down the sides and the ash.. This ensures it is completely out.

    Next I fill in the hole with the dirt I removed and stamp it down really tight. On top of that I add some more water and if it steams, it means the fire is not completely out and I need to add more water or a substitute. When I am sure the fire is out I may or may not place a flat rock over it. I then respread all the forest duff back around the spot and dribble leaves and rocks or what ever else is laying around to more or less try and put the site back into the same shape I found it….

    I have found over the years that you do not need a big huge fire that is hard to control and eats up a lot of wood and which you actually have to stand back away from.. A fire ring in a Campground is a totally different situation and is made just for that type of fire…

    Remember though, only you can prevent forest fires….keep that in mind always..Especially on a very windy day or your on a very windy site. Embers can float for long distances through the air and land and start a fire.. And I understand the Forest Service is now making hiker pay for the costs of the fighting fires they accidently started….

  30. I like the paradox of campfires –

    lots of dry wood laying around = forest fire fuel

    campers gather wood and safely burn it up = forest safer from fire

    Of course you can poke holes in the premise but forest management has been testing controlled fires to reduce such fuel before it builds to excessive amounts. Don't campfires do the same thing?

  31. I like campfires … smallish, "controlled" campfires. But for me they've been exclusively for campgrounds, or occasionally when on a Jeep road, at a site with an established fire ring. The key for me is to only have a fire if there is an adequate water supply very nearby. As someone mentioned earlier in the thread, it baffles me to see campfire rings on the trail, far from any source of water. How do people properly extinguish a fire in such a site?

    But I find it equally baffling to hike along in a designated Wilderness, where the rules explicitly state that camping & fires must be at least 100 feet from trails, creeks, lakes, etc – and there are campsites and fire rings right next to the trail and/or creek or lake. Maybe people consider the rules to be mere "suggestions"?

    Then there are the campsites where one finds multiple fire rings within 20 feet of each other. What's up with that? Last summer I camped in an area that wasn't a designated site per se, it was well off the trail and appeared mostly undisturbed. There was a lake nearby, but a good 10 minute round trip walk. In this area there were at least 2, maybe more, fire rings, all within a small area. I guess if they carried a bucket of water from the lake, the water aspect is covered, but why have multiple adjacent fire rings?

    Maybe I'll try a campfire when backpacking sometime … especially if it's late season with an early sunset and cold weather. But it definitely won't be right next to a trail or water supply, though it will definitely be close by so I have a ready supply of water on hand.

    As for cooking, I'll continue to use my gas stove – unless I'm car camping and want a char broiled steak :).

  32. The Forestry people at the Tallendega National Forest in the area of the Shoal Creek Ranger District use controlled burns there and I have never seen a more healtheir looking forest in 30 years of hiking on the PCT, APT or in the Adirondacks…I was a bit worried at first but I was Educated by a Ranger one afternoon and then I saw with my own eyes and camera the following year what the results were…They've done a really good job of ridding the area of non-native or invasive species as well…The Deer look really healthy compared to other forests I've hunted in. And the Wild Turkeys, Squirrels, Foxes etc. etc. are nicely represented.. So I now disbelieve or doubt the wisdom of all these Clubs and Scienctists who are against controlled burns…Their just talking through their hats in my opinion to keep the money they've become accustomed to flowing in from the Arm Chair environementalists…And I fully support the Nature Conservancy, for they actuall buy up land, restore it, study it, and give it back to the Government in most cases…The other groups just line some lawyers pockets with cash in my opinion…Give smartly is what I say…as in The Salvation Army who spends 92 cents out of every dollar to help people, not line their pockets…Amen

  33. I'm a pyro at heart but rarely do campfires when I BP simply for LNT reasons. I personally like the smoke smell, too.

  34. I would say that you are a curmudgeon. LNT is great, but when people tell me things like I can't have a responsible fire and I have to haul out my own poop I get turned off real quick.There's no reason to leave a large burnt out pit but you certainly don't have to. I routinely use a small fire in a little hole to cook my lunch, burn it all to ash, sprinkle it with water, stir it up, fill it in once it's cool and go about my business. You couldn't even tell I'd been there. I read your article on root fires. Not a problem in my area, to the best of my knowledge. We're pretty wet and they have controlled burns. Sounds like your problem is with inconsiderate people, not camp fires.

  35. Anon, I have been a supporter of your fire suggestion for over 40 years. I read somewhere once long ago that an Indian is quoted as to saying; "White man builds big fires, and then has to sit far away from them to keep warm!" "Indian build small fire, always warm"!"

    I have personally been building what I call a "Hat Full Of Fire"…I dig a hole in the ground no bigger than the inside of the hat I am wearing, usually a ball cap of some type, no logo, they don't pay me to advertise, so I don't wear anything with a logo,…I then build a little side trench so I guess I could call it a "Key Lock" Fire. For over this trench is where I do my cooking. With a fire this small I can get up closer to it and stay reasonable warm even at zero degree temperatures especially with a fire Reflector of some sort in place to radiate or reflect back the heat. The Reflector also acts as a chimney of sorts to funnel the smoke up and away. One consideration most people ignore when siting a fire is the prevailing wind when building a fire with a Reflector and I rarely see it mentioned by any of the so called experts on some of these Backpacking Websites but it is a very important consideration….When I leave, I make sure the fire is out by dousing it with water and or bodily fluids and then stir it up real good and then cover it with more dirt and pack it down and pour a bit more water on top of that. Sometimes if I luck out, I would have removed a hat sized rock which made an indentation in the soil making it easier to dig my Key Lock Hole, I then replace the rock and sprinkled leaves or bark or pine needles or whatever local vegation I moved for the safety ring and try to leave it looking nobody had ever been there…

  36. I've found this discussion of hat sized fires to be very useful and find myself agreeing with you both.

    I am a still a curmudgeon, though!

  37. I never do fires in backcountry, partly because I believe in LNT, partly because it seems incredibly unnecessary (of course I cook with a stove).

  38. Sonja, I carry a Stove as well, but sometimes things happen especially when it comes to a bit of hypothermia due to an unexpect stream spill, or you found out your grossly and extremely over expensive top rated by the Backpackers Marketing people leaks or it's pores are clogged after the second trip and your soaked to the skin when the temperurature drops to the 50's..No Stove will keep you warm..So you need the fire to dry out your gear and yourself and I find the majority of hikers out there can't even be LNT in the Parking Lot so I shudder what that means out on the trail, might explain all the Plastic waterbottles and trail candy wrappers that the Rangers and Volunteers have to clean up..On my last trail trip I picked up a 30 gallon size trash bag of hikers trash I found in a two mile section of a Wilderness Trail…ANd sometimes it is just nice after a long day on the trail to sit relaxing in front of small warm fire resting and Roasting Strips of now thawed Steak on a skewer, along with a small baked potatoe and some rehydrated veggies and a nice warm mug of White Tea….Listening to the night…

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