Fires Versus Stoves
The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth, is steeped in Canadian history and tradition. Some people would not think of camping without a campfire. Campfire building is also an important skill for every camper. Yet, the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood. The development of lightweight efficient camp stoves has encouraged a shift away from the traditional fire for cooking. Stoves have become essential equipment for minimum-impact camping. They are fast, flexible and eliminate firewood availability as a concern in campsite selection. Stoves operate in almost any weather condition, and they have a low impact on the immediate environment.
Should You Build a Fire?
The most important consideration when deciding to use a fire is the potential damage to the forest and infrastructures.
- What is the risk of a forest fire for the time of year and the region?
- Have land managers developed fire regulations for campgrounds, picnic areas or beaches? Have authorities issued restrictions regarding open fires? What precautions must be taken?
- Is there sufficient wood so its removal will not be noticeable?
- Does the harshness of alpine or desert growing conditions for trees and shrubs mean that the regeneration of wood sources cannot keep pace with the demand for firewood?
- Do campers know how to make a campfire that will leave the smallest trace possible and prevent any risk of a forest fire?
Lessening Impacts When Campfires Are Used
If you decide to make a fire and you are permitted to gather wood on site, camp in areas where wood is abundant. Choose not to have a fire in areas where there is little wood at higher elevations, in heavily used areas, or in desert settings. A true Leave No Trace fire shows no evidence of having been made. Avoid all risks of spreading fire or starting a forest fire.
Existing Fire Rings
The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring in a well-placed campsite. Remove all combustibles such as dead wood, tree branches, twigs or dry leaves. Keep the fire small and burning only for the time you are using it. Allow wood to burn completely to ash. Put out fires with water, not dirt, before leaving the site or going to sleep. Dirt may not completely extinguish the fire. Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years.
You can build a mound fire with simple tools: a garden trowel, a large stuff sack, a ground cloth, a fire blanket or a plastic garbage bag to prevent the ground and roots from burning.
To build this type of fire:
Collect mineral soil, sand or gravel from an already disturbed source. The root hole of a toppled tree is one such source. Lay a ground cloth, blanket or bag on the fire site and then spread the soil into a circular, flat-topped mound at least 7.5 to 12.5 cm (3 to 5 in) thick. The thickness of the mound is critical to insulate the ground below from the heat of the fire. The fire blanket, ground cloth or garbage bag makes it easier to clean up afterwards. The circumference of the mound should be larger than the size of the fire to allow for the spreading of coals. The advantage of the mound fire is that it can be built on flat exposed rock or on an organic surface such as litter, duff or grass.
Firepans, Fireboxes or Wood Stoves
Here are some other safe alternatives. In addition to models available in stores, portable and inexpensive firepans and fireboxes can be created using a barbecue, garbage-can cover or basin made from heat-resistant materials. The sides must be at least 8 cm (3 in) high. The pan, box or stove should be placed on rocks or surrounded by gravel or sand so that the heat does not scorch the ground. Since steel is often treated with toxic chemical products to prevent rusting, first burn the cover or basin in a large flame in order to remove this layer.
Firewood and Cleanup
- Standing trees, dead or alive, are home to birds and insects, so leave them intact. Fallen trees also provide bird and animal shelter, increase the water holding capacity of the soil, and recycle nutrients back into the environment through decomposition.
- Stripping branches from standing or fallen trees detracts from an area’s natural appearance.
- Avoid cutting or breaking branches from standing or downed trees. Dead and down wood burns well, is easy to collect and leaves less impact.
- Use small pieces of wood, no larger than the diameter of an adult wrist, that can be broken with your hands.
- Gather wood over a wide area away from camp. Use dry driftwood on rivers and seashores only if it is available in large quantity and if gathering wood is permitted. In parks, visitors are usually not allowed to burn driftwood in an effort to protect the fragile ecosystem of beaches and dunes. Check with the land manager ahead of time.
- Don’t bring firewood from home, which is often prohibited to prevent the spread of invasive alien species. Either buy it from a local source or gather it responsibly where allowed.
- Burn all wood to white ash, grind small coals to ash between your gloved hands, thoroughly soak with water. Once they have cooled, scatter the remains over a large area of vegetation away from camp and away from any aquatic or wetland environment. In winter, cover the remains with snow to reduce the visual impact. Avoid leaving mounds behind.
- Check with the land manager about your responsibility in terms of packing out ash from fires lit along river corridors or depositing them in a safe container made available for visitors.
- Replace soil and rocks where you found them when cleaning up a mound, pan or firebox.
- Scatter unused wood to keep the area as natural looking as possible.
- Empty barbecue ashes into an ash bin provided on site once they are cool to the touch, but never into a waterway or along a bank.
- Pack out any campfire litter. Plastic items and foil-lined wrappers should never be burned in a campfire.
- Provide adequate supervision for young people when using stoves or campfires.
- Follow all of the manufacturer’s safety instructions for stoves.
- Use approved containers for fuel.
- Never leave a fire unattended.
- Keep wood and other fuel sources away from fire.
- Thoroughly extinguish all fires before going to sleep or leaving the site.