One of the most treasured camping pastimes is sitting around a crackling campfire, roasting marshmallows, telling stories, and singing songs. It isn’t hard to see why so many people cherish these memories later on; what could be better than the warmth and friendship that a good campfire brings to the table?
Well, for some environmental activists, just about anything would be preferable to that. In recent years, a growing number of campers have been concerned about the negative impact their fires may be having on our environment. Today, we are going to discuss whether or not these fears are founded in fact and give you some tips on how you can make your campfire experience as eco-friendly as possible!
The Environmental Impact of Campfires
First, let’s take a look at some of the facts about how campfires impact the environment around you.
- In Washington state, around 10% of air pollution statewide can be attributed to the wood smoke that comes from just woodburning stoves. Lighting up a campfire could be worse because you are releasing more of the harmful fine particles from the smoke that can affect your health and the health of others in the area. This can increase the pollution by as much as 51%.
- The toxic particles in wood smoke will pollute water sources if the fire ash drifts into them or soaks into the ground near a body of water. This ends up hurting aquatic life and any animal, including humans, that may be drinking from these sources.
- Campfires have been known to harm the habitats of animals who make their homes in trees. This is because even dead logs can be a habitat, and people often use them for their fires. Excessive wood gathering can also become too much for the environment to handle, as the wood may not regenerate fast enough to keep up with the demand.
- As most of you know, campfires contribute significantly to the amount of wildfires that spread in dry environments in places like California or Oregon. When campers use unsafe practices or are careless while building their fires, the fire can quickly spread and decimate forests, kill off many animals, and pollute the air heavily. This is why there are burn bans in these places throughout the drier months.
What can we gather from this? Well, it seems clear that campfires can and do negatively impact the environment in several instances. The wood particles from smoke harms the lungs of animals and humans. The ash can pollute water and the smoke itself pollutes the air. You could potentially devastate a whole community if you do not practice campfire safety!
However, there are ways to limit your impact and still enjoy your camping trip without feeling guilty. All you have to do is follow some tips and safety guidelines!
Campfire Safety Tips
The following tips and guidelines are only meant to be followed when you are allowed to build a campfire. Never attempt to do so when the state you pitch your tent in has enacted a burn ban. This is done for everyone’s safety. No matter how safe you think you are being, those rules are there for a reason.
With that being said, let’s talk about what you can do when it is safe to build a campfire!
- Do not build a campfire if the weather is too windy or too dry. Sparks from your fire may catch on the grass and start a disaster that you can’t control on your own. It isn’t always as simple as stomping on an ember to extinguish it.
- If you are staying at an established campsite with designated fire pits, use one of those instead of building your own. Chances are that experts have already built the best pit with the lowest chances of getting out of control. If you are not near an already built pit, follow the tips below when building your own.
- Dig a pit away from overhanging branches. Again, it is easier than you think to start a fire when a stray spark lights up the tree beside your site. Find some sort of clearing or at least make sure that the branches above you are high enough to escape catching fire.
- Circle the pit that you made with rocks. Since rocks do not catch fire and allow it to spread, this is your safest bet. It will contain it within the pit you dug. Once you are done digging, you can fill the pit partially with sand, as it prevents the spread of fire.
- Remove any grass or other debris within 10 ft. of the fire pit. This is an extra safety measure that ensures you won’t accidentally start a fire that spreads across the forest floor. If you can find a site without any grass or plant life already, that would be ideal.
- Never leave your fire unattended. Even if you built the best fire pit imaginable, you still need to watch it just in case. You never know what might happen! In case of an emergency, have a bucket of water and your shovel nearby.
- When it is time to put out the fire, pour cold water on it, stir it with a shovel, and repeat the process until it is entirely put out and cold. If it is still hot, don’t leave.
- Leave your extra wood upwind of the fire. In case the wind does pick up, there is little chance that the wood outside of your fire pit will be set ablaze.
- Do not pull sticks out of the fire once you put them in. They are hot and may injure you, of course, but they could also set the grass nearby on fire if you aren’t careful. It is just common sense that extreme heat starts a fire when the conditions are right.
- Do not play with matches and carelessly toss them into the fire. Carefully and deliberately use as many as you need to keep your campfire going, but use no more than you have to. Don’t spray lighter fluid everywhere, either.
Eco-Friendly Campfire Tips
Now that we have diminished possibilities for a forest fire, let’s talk about what you can do to burn your campfire in a more environmentally conscious way. Small changes in your behavior can make all the difference!
- Only start a campfire when you need it for cooking or warmth. The less wood smoke you release into the air, the better for other humans and animals in the area. If you need light to see by while you scare everyone with ghost stories and urban legends, bring along lanterns and flashlights!
- Never burn trash in your fire pit. Plastics and other products like styrofoam release harmful chemicals into the air as they are burned. Wood smoke was already bad enough; when you burn plastic, you are just increasing the amount of poison you are breathing in. Recycle your trash or pack it out instead.
- Avoid using chemically treated wood or fire starters for your campfire. This reduces your carbon footprint by a significant amount. Natural wood foraged from dead sticks is better. Remember to try not to use logs, though, as insects and other animals may be using them for their homes.
- Make smaller fires. When you do this, you use less wood and minimize your use of the resources around you. Remember, wood is not unlimited; save some for the earth and for other campers!
- If you can make friends with another group of campers, build one fire and share it between all of you instead of burning two separate ones. This invites more fellowship and treasured memories without harming the environment more than what is necessary.
- Invasive species of animals, insects especially, can harm the environment around them. The area that they are native to is where they should stay. That’s why you should not bring wood from home. When you do so, any beetles or other insects that may be living on or in them could invade the other wildlife in the area you will be camping at.
As time goes on, we all need to be mindful of the impact we have on nature. As humans use up more resources than we can regenerate and pollute the air we breathe, whether or not the planet can sustain such behavior becomes more uncertain. The climate is changing at a rapid pace. If we all work together, we may be able to heal what we have done to the earth.
There is only one inhabitable planet for us all, and we must take care of it before it’s too late.
While you may have initially thought that you could do nothing to help the environment on your camping trip, the reality is that it’s quite simple! You do not have to be a committed and vocal activist to limit the impact you have on the life around you. Just practice basic safety and reduce the resources you use. You can still have a wonderful time in the wilderness without being wasteful. Doing so is crucial to the survival of everyone here on planet Earth.