Backpacking Basics: Campfires
Having a campfire is often synonymous with backpacking, but before you build a campfire, consider the potential wildfire danger as well as the impact on the local environment.
When considering whether or not to have a campfire on a backpacking trip, there are several questions to ask:
Are fires allowed where you’ll be backpacking? Fires may be prohibited in some areas, including above tree line or in heavy-use areas where wood is scarce, near bodies of water, or in the desert. Check with the ranger station to find out if there are any fire restrictions for your location.
What is the current fire danger level? Wildfire season in the Pacific Northwest typically peaks in July, August and September with conditions changing on a regular basis, so check before a trip to see if there is an elevated fire risk. Even if allowed, consider whether or not a fire is necessary, especially in wildfire season.
Is there enough supply of downed and dry wood for a campfire? Dead trees are an important part of the forest ecosystem, providing decomposing wood that nourishes the soil and provides life to wildlife, yet many heavy-use areas have been completely stripped of dead wood. Look around to see how much is available to collect when making a decision about having a campfire.
Build a low impact campfire
Remember the Four D’s when collecting firewood: dead, down, detached, and diameter. The wood that you collect should always come from a dead source. Never cut limbs off of a live tree. Even if it the source is dead, it should have already fallen down. Before removing limbs from downed trees, collect limbs that are already detached from trees. Finally, the diameter of logs being burnt should be no thicker than your wrist. Larger timber is a challenge to burn completely down to ash and leaves scarred wood behind.
Use an existing fire ring whenever possible. If an established fire ring is not available, your next best options are to create a mound fire or use a fire pan. Fire mounds can be built upon a thick layer of mineral soil, or on a piece of fabric called a fire cloth. Mineral soil is sandy, light-colored, nonfertile dirt, often found in streambeds, gravel bars, or in uprooted tree holes. Spread mineral soil in a circle about 18 to 24 inches in diameter and 6-8 inches deep. Or, if using fire cloth, layer mineral soil 3 to 5 inches deep on the cloth. Build the fire on top of the mound. Disperse the mound when you are finished. Fire pans are exactly what they sound like: pans with sides at least three inches high on which a fire is built. Best practice is to raise the fire pan onto rocks or mineral soil so as to avoid scorching the earth.
Fire building tips
To build a campfire, you’ll need to collect tinder, kindling, and firewood. Tinder can be natural materials found around the campsite such as wood shavings, small twigs, or dry leaves. After wet weather, finding dry tinder can be difficult, so consider bringing fire starter from home. Inexpensive and lightweight options for fire starters include dryer lint or cotton balls soaked in alcohol or vaseline. Larger twigs and small branches less than 1 inch in diameter make good kindling. For firewood, use larger pieces of wood up that you can break with your hands, up to 5 inches in diameter.
Start with the tinder as the bottom layer and build a teepee or log cabin shape with the kindling. Oxygen is important for a long lasting fire, so leave spaces in the structure for air flow. Light the tinder, and as the fire burns the kindling and increases in strength, add a few smaller pieces of firewood. Once the fire is going strong, add larger pieces of firewood a few at a time.
Fires should be kept under control at all times: While it may be tempting to create a bonfire that reaches to the stars, flames no more than a few inches high will do in most situations and will be much easier to control. Keep an eye on flying embers and put them out when they fall outside of the fire ring.
Never leave a campfire unattended.
Put it all the way out: Before going to bed or leaving camp, scatter the coals around in the fire ring and douse the fire completely with water. Stir the ashes and add more water if needed. Ashes should be cool to the touch.
Keep it clean: Instead of burning trash in a campfire, plan to pack it out. It’s not uncommon to see items that didn’t burn completely and were left in fire rings, leaving it for the next backpacker or park ranger to deal with. Enjoy your campfire, and leave the firepit in good condition for everyone else to enjoy. Note: food packaging that looks like paper is almost always coated with plastic or foil and can’t be completely burned in a fire.