Campfire or No Campfire
One of the most romantic camping traditions is to build and sit around a campfire. After all, the capacity to create and control fire is one of the hallmarks of human evolution. As we fall headlong into the 21st century and human population reaches and exceeds 8 billion people, perhaps we should reconsider whether or not campfires are necessary and applicable for modern recreation.
Building and Burning a Campfire has Many Unwanted Impacts
The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles, also called fine particulate matter (PM 2. 5). These microscopic particles can get into your eyes and respiratory system, where they cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes, runny nose, to bronchitis and aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. In this era of rampant respiratory allergies, smoke is common allergen and exacerbates respiratory discomfort while we are on vacation. These microscopic smoke particles can also be deposited on and in our camping gear including our favorite camping coat, causing respiratory distress long after exposure to the campfire.
Heat from Fires
Inhaling air that is consistently at a higher temperature than the surrounding air can cause more damage to the lining of your lower respiratory tract than smoke inhalation. If you feel intense heat on your hands or face, that’s a clear signal that the air you are breathing is too hot (Source pulmonologist Bohdan Pichurko, MD). Huddling close to a fire can produce irritation on exposed skin equivalent to sunburn.
The heat generated by a campfire is much more intense that any natural burn. The prolonged period of concentrating heat in a campfire sterilizes the ground by destroying all the organic matter and drives the heat-generated volatile oils associated with heating organic material into impervious layers in the soil. These impacts can last for millennia. In fact, in archeological excavations through out the West, the soil impacts of fire hearths are clearly visible more than 15,000 years after they were last used.
At higher elevations and throughout the arid West, organic, woody material is a precious commodity. This downed, dried woody material is not only a limited source of nutrients for soil-building communities and future plants, but is also provides food, building material, and nesting sites for a wild diversity of animals including birds, small mammals, and hordes of insects and arachnids. Many desert shrubs that appear to be dead, are actually dormant, awaiting infrequent rains to replenish their branches and stalks with moisture. The “dead” wood you harvest for your fire may be a successful plant that has evolved unique strategies over millions of years to survive in the severity of arid climates. When ever you collect fire wood, you are impacting the environment in ways that are difficult to comprehend.
Campfires produce charcoal. Charcoal breaks down easily into fine particles that have a propensity to spread out into the surrounding soil. Ground surrounding repeat-use campsites is filthy with charcoal, which is easily transported by feet and sticks tenaciously to tent floors, ground cloths, clothing, and to the fur of animals, domesticated and wild. The most beautiful (aka most frequently used) campsite are plagued by soot and charcoal.
Yes, a fire can keep you warm. Cool and cold conditions, however, including snow, rain, and wind are all contrary to building fires. Relying on fires for warmth can lead to disastrous results when all the wood is wet and/or the wind is raging. Trying to stay warm by a campfire often becomes a challenging effort to keep rotating to assure all sides stay warm combined with a constant marathon of movement to keep out of the smoke in variable winds. Down and synthetic clothing is lightweight and can provide comfort in a wide variety of cool and cold conditions. Warm clothing combined with rain/wind gear, a tent, and a sleeping bag will provide you with warmth and safety in even the most intense of weather conditions, when campfires become impractical and impossible.
Cooking Over Fires
Cooking food to chemically change it by making nutrients and energy more suitable for human consumption and digestion is one the hallmarks of human evolutionary achievement. Relying on making a campfire to prepare your food in the backcountry is no longer necessary, is excessively time consuming, and can be dangerous when fire building conditions are not appropriate. RV’s offer a variety of cooking options, from propane and electric cooktops to microwave ovens. Today’s lightweight portable stove systems make food preparation simple, efficient, and environmentally friendly to backcountry ecosystems. Many people chose to forego cooking and heating food entirely, instead relying on lightweight, pre-prepared foods that can be consumed and enjoyed without the added weight of a stove and create more time for hiking, exploring, photographing, hunting fishing, and or quality time with friends and family.
Lighting Up the Night
Campfires embody the worst aspects of ineffective night illumination. The fire itself is an unshaded lighting source, shining out in all directions and into the eyes of those around the fire. This means that all eyes will be impacted and the pupils will constrict, shutting down night vision. The lighting on objects around a campfire is quite feeble. This produces a situation where the campfire create a small circle of illumination surround by the impenetrable darkness and deep shadows of restricted night vision. Sitting by a campfire robs campers of accessibility to the natural nocturnal darkness that is only available with fully night-adapted vision. (See the Dark Sky Camping tab for more information.)
Burning wood introduces much more carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. Allowing wood to naturally decompose helps sequester the carbon back into the ecosystem and enhances the growth of more carbon dioxide sequestering plants. Many of the 8+ billion people on earth still rely on burning wood for sustaining their lives. The question is whether or not we, who go out into the the natural world for recreation, should be contributing, unnecessarily to increasing the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere. Occasional recreational campfires produce a small carbon footprint, however, the journey to stop global climate change begins with one less campfire at a time.
Wildfires and Climate Change
Nevada and the West have been experiencing an unprecedented reduction of precipitation and sustained warming. This trend is predicted to increase, and perhaps accelerate in the future. The consequence of this climate change and the resulting vegetation changes is an extraordinary and catastrophic change in fire regimes throughout the West. Hundreds of years old forests of Joshua trees have burnt across the Mojave and a recent fire on Troy Peak burnt millennia old bristlecone pine trees all the way to the summit. Wind and drought produce fires that spread to 100,000 acres in a couple of days. Pervasive cheat grass and other invasive plants accelerate the progress of fires. Weather and wind is becoming unpredictable and the slightest spark can set off an inferno that can run across the landscape fast than people can run. Most wildfires are human caused. Campfires and open flames are one of the major sources of these fire. Even in "calm" conditions, whirlwinds or "dust devils" can materialize almost anywhere and spread fire starting materials from a campfire for hundreds of feet. Public lands throughout the west have longer and longer durations of closures to fire usage. Please consider keeping public lands open and accessible for this ecologically difficult time of climate change by leaving fire home when you venture out on public lands.
Leave No Trace
Campfires leave an impact on the land that can last centuries in arid landscapes. As backcountry camping and “boondocking” increases popularity, the negative impacts of campfires are creeping further and further across the remote public lands of Nevada. If you do chose to have a fire, heed the fire closures, do not build fires when there is any wind or a forecast of wind, bring your own wood and fire pan, do not build campfire rings and other structures, and haul your ash and charcoal out (it weighs much less and takes less space than the wood did). Always leave you campsite cleaner and with less impact than you found it. That way we can all enjoy feeling like we are the only person to enjoy our favorite remote camping spot.