Most people just don’t feel like their camping experience is complete without a campfire. There is something so satisfying about building your own fire and gathering around it in the evening for community and warmth.
However, as you probably know, campfires do have their risks and dangers. Not only are there environmental impacts to campfires depending on how they are built, but any fire possesses the risk of igniting a forest fire.
One of the solutions to having a responsible campfire is to create a low-impact fire.
So what is a low-impact fire?
A low-impact fire is one that does not damage the surrounding landscape and leaves little evidence of its existence. There are a variety of factors that go into creating a low-impact fire that will be outlined in this article.
We will discuss the components of a low-impact fire and then give some details on how to build one. In addition, you will find some tips and tricks to make creating a low-impact fire even easier for an effortless, safe, and enjoyable campfire experience.
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Check the Weather and Fire Conditions
Before starting a fire, take a moment to inform yourself about the surroundings. What are the weather conditions and forecast? Is it dry and windy?
Are there any fire restrictions or bans? If so, then building a fire is out of the question. Instead, bring food that doesn’t need cooked over a fire or use a portable camp stove instead.
If the conditions are right for a fire, make sure there is enough wood available to fuel the fire responsibly. Another thing to consider is whether everyone in your camping party knows how to safely build and tend to a fire.
Lastly, check the location where you are camping. Is it possible that even a safe fire could have a negative impact on wildlife or others around you? If so, rethink whether or not to build a fire.
Opt Out of a Fire
One of the ways of having the least impact is by forgoing a fire altogether. Instead, cook food or warm drinks up on a camping stove. If possible, pack foods that don’t need to be heated in order to be enjoyed.
Pack warm clothes, lots of layers, outerwear, and a season-appropriate sleeping bag so you aren’t relying on the fire for all your warmth and comfort. Dress appropriately and insulate your tent so you are warm enough. Bring a flashlight so you can see around your campsite in the absence of a fire or other source of light.
Although you may be disappointed if you can’t have a campsite, try to see some of the benefits of camping without a fire. Without any smoke, you won’t disturb the area around you and may have an opportunity to see wildlife or stars that wouldn’t otherwise be visible.
Another way to opt out of a fire is to have one less frequently. Don’t build a campfire every single night that you are camping. Not only will you lessen your impact, but the occasions when you do have a fire will be that much more special.
Choose a Good Foundation
Whenever possible, use a fire pit when building a fire. Never build a fire on bare, open ground where it could overheat and scar the ground or kill insects in the soil underneath. Don’t build a fire on an area that has vegetation of any kind growing on it.
If your campsite has a fire ring, build the fire inside this area. Make sure the fire is always contained within the pit or ring.
For sites that do not have a fire pit or ring, you can use a metal fire pan or box instead. Put the pan on top of stones to prevent the soil underneath from being scorched.
It’s also easy to build a mound fire. Get some mineral soil, sand, or gravel that does not contain important organic matter. Pile it up so it measures 6-8 inches deep and 18-24 inches wide, then build your fire on top of it.
You can also put down a ground cloth or fire blanket, put several inches of non-organic soil on it, and build the fire on that. Never build the fire at the base of a tree or rock because the smoke could damage and cause black scars that will last a long time.
If a ring is present, it should not be bigger than 24 inches in diameter. This will discourage large fires that will use up a lot of wood.
Low-impact fires are those that measure 18-24 inches, or less, in diameter. The actual fire itself should be kept small so less fuel is burned. Only feed the fire additional wood to keep it just big enough for whatever you’re using it for.
Don’t build excessively large bonfires that use a lot of wood and can easily burn out of control. Instead, keep the fire a manageable size and use small sticks that will burn completely.
Watch What You Burn
One of the ways fires leave an impact is through the wood that is used in them. Any firewood used to build a low-impact fire must be already dead and down on the ground.
Never collect wood from trees or break off limbs, even if they are already dead. Look for firewood in a widespread area that is away from the campsite.
Search for smaller pieces that previous campers may have overlooked. Hike away from your campsite or keep an eye out for good firewood while hiking on trails.
Opt for smaller pieces that will burn down completely without leaving behind unsightly charcoal or unburned wood. The firewood you collect should be small enough to be broken with your bare hands. You shouldn’t need a saw or axe to collect firewood.
Don’t use larger logs even if they are broken up into pieces or have fallen over. Instead, leave them so they can decompose into the surrounding soil or be used as a habitat for smaller animals.
If the area where you are camping does not have an abundance of downed, deadwood to be gathered, buy firewood locally. Don’t bring firewood from home because it may contain invasive species or diseases.
Before building the fire, remove any trash that has been left behind in the grate or ring. Never burn your own trash in the fire, especially if it is plastic. Most food does not completely burn either so it should not be disposed of in a campfire.
Never put glass bottles or unopened cans into a fire. Glass can shatter and cause harm to campers and the environment. Canned food shouldn’t be cooked or heated in the fire because it can explode.
Always burn the wood in the fire to ash so you get the most out of it and don’t leave any waste behind. Stop adding extra fuel to the fire a few hours before you will be putting the fire out so it has time to burn completely.
Keep an Eye on It
One of the basic rules for all fires is to never leave one unattended. If you cannot be mindful of the fire or have time to attend to it, put it out or don’t start it.
Only burn the fire for the amount of time that you will be using it. If this means cooking a meal, prepare your food in advance to minimize the time the fire is burning. Let the wood burn to ash and then put the fire out after you are finished cooking.
Campfires that lead to forest fires are often those that are not extinguished properly. Soak the fire thoroughly with water. Don’t use dirt to extinguish a fire because it may not put it out completely.
Use a shovel to turn any coals or ashes over and make sure they are wet. Mix the ashes until the entire fire is wet and becomes cold to the touch. To further minimize your impact, poke some small holes in the ground so the water can soak in and cool the soil off.
Clean Up After
Just because the fire has been extinguished does not mean your work is done. To erase any traces of the fire, you will need to clean up the area.
If you have firewood that was not used, scatter it around the campsite in a natural way. The completely cooled ashes can also be collected and scattered around a large area away from your campsite.
When it’s not possible to scatter the ashes, you can bury them or pack them out. Any litter or trash that did not burn completely should also be disposed of properly and not left behind in the fire ring or pit.
Finally, brush some leaves or other organic debris over the site to remove the evidence of the fire. Once the ground dries, it will not look like anything ever burned in that location and you will have had a successful low-impact fire.