Leave No Trace Principle 5: Minimize Fire Impacts

Campfires are a fun and memorable way to spend a night in the outdoors. However, drought or high winds may cause land managers to put restrictions on campfires. Following the first Leave No Trace Principle, Plan Ahead and Prepare, it is important to check regulations for the area you will be camping for any fire bans.

Building a campfire is a skill that is taught in scout programs, summer camps and on family vacations but we must consider the impact building a fire can have on a campsite. I have no doubt we can all picture a campsite where the birch trees have been stripped of their bark or young trees are hacked into, leaving them permanently damaged.

Leave No Trace suggests asking yourself the following questions when choosing to have a campfire:

  • What is the fire danger for the time of year and location you have selected?
  • Are there administrative restriction from the agency that manages the area?
  • Is there sufficient wood so its removal will not be noticeable?
  • Does the harshness of alpine and desert growing conditions for trees and shrubs mean that regeneration of wood sources cannot keep pace with the demand for firewood?
  • Do group members possess the skills to build a campfire that will Leave No Trace?

If you have thought through these questions and still feel it is okay to build a fire, the following Leave No Trace guidelines can help minimize your environmental impact:

  • Only use an established fire ring and do not create new fire rings. This can create more work for land managers when they do site maintenance.
  • Collect only down and dead wood that burns easily. This ensures we do not damage living trees.
  • Use only small pieces of wood. Wood pieces should be smaller than the diameter of an adult wrist and should be easily broken with your hands.
  • Gather wood over a large area away from camp. This ensures sites look a natural as possible.
  • Do not bring firewood from home. Transporting firewood can spread diseases such as Dutch Elm. Either buy firewood locally or gather when responsibly allowed.
  • Burn all wood to white ash, grind small coals and scatter remains over a large area away from camp.
  • Extinguish all fires completely! Coals should never be left overnight or unattended. To ensure a fire is completely out, douse with water to make an “ash soup” and stir with a stick to ensure all coals are thoroughly wet.
  • Scatter any unused firewood.
  • Never burn wrappers or plastic; all camp trash should be packed out.

If you find yourself unable to have a campfire, don’t fret! There are plenty of fun and educational activities that can be done at night. Listening for owls can be a thrilling way to experience the nocturnal species we don’t normally see. Owl species have distinct calls that can be easily identified with a little help. Resources such as the Cornell Lab can be a great place to start building your repertoire.

Clear nights are also a great opportunity to learn more about astrology. Printable constellation cards are a great way to help kids learn popular star clusters before heading outside. Instead of a ghost story around the campfire, try sharing the myths and legends behind the constellations. These stories are a chance to learn about the rich culture of the Greeks, Romans and Indigenous Peoples who all used stars as a way pass down their history.

As the weather continues to warm up, we hope you will take the chance to experience the outdoors after dark!