Why Say No To Campfires? 6 Earth-Friendly Reasons
Love the thought of a campfire on your next camping trip? DCMB urges you to think twice. And not just because campfires may be banned in the area you plan to camp in: even without the obvious risk of wildfires, they are much more damaging than most people realize. Hmmm..consider saying no to campfires…
Here are 5 ideas to consider as you plan your next outdoor overnight. Some reflect personal experience, several refer to environmental and historical realities.
Why say no to campfires?
Let’s look at large-scale fire damage first. We’re not talking minor hazard. Here, it’s perhaps best to read some newspaper accounts. Try this one in the LA Times on the 2016 Soberanes fire in near Monterey CA. Caused by a runaway campfire. Stats? 67 square miles scorched, 44,000+ acres burned, 57 houses destroyed, 1 fatality, 5,500 firefighters…
#2 Volume of log wood being burned
Consider: Per Coleman and the Outdoor Foundation, there were approximately 40 million folks camping in the US in 2013. Campers averaged 15 days out per season. That’s 600M camper-nights. A low guesstimate of 600M armful bundles of wood seems about right.
Muddy Boots is not up to any more math at this point, but we’re getting the point of how many trees are getting burned up for campground jollies?
And this number doesn’t include backcountry campers, AT hikers (8 months of fires every night at every shelter, even in summer), or picnickers.
#3 Close-up damage
Campfire locations are eyesores. They mar woods and clearings. They disrupt the feeling of wilderness on sight.
Damaging natural elements
Plus, a fire permanently blackens rocks, slabs, and cliffs. It destroys the nutrients underneath (essential for the well-being of flora), and strips the area of small fuel and branches needed by animals for survival.
Speaking from hands-on experience…
Muddy Boots removed 12 such fires at just one corner of a mountainous lake in Yosemite, on assignment to a National Park ranger. Over the years, fires had been set every few yards. And the damage was un-erasable. All for an hour, an evening, a day of pleasure.
No to campfires ever since that Yosemite outing, in 1984.. That’s a few thousand nights of camping.
#4 Damage in the vicinity
Notice how barren the ground is around the fire above that is being dis-assembled in the Coconino National Forest in Arizona?
Damage is very visible on the AT, a unit in the National Park system
You should see what certain sections of the Appalachian Trail look like: stripped from the ground to above head level, sterilized, as though swarms of locusts have spent the night.
This kind of landscape sterility happens when humans pick up duff, leaves, dead wood. They strip bark and snap branches from trees for a nightly campfire or small wood-fed stoves. They bring saws and axes, even lugging them to the backcountry. Woody matter gets chopped, pulled, scooped for sitting around and for cooking.
Animals need that material for survival in situ. They use it to build nests, perch on, keep an eye on prey, shelter from storms. It’s no wonder there are no creatures around AT shelters, only the smaller rodents and blue jays which survive on human crumbs.
What about wood-fed camp stoves?
Yes, you’ll hear a refrain when folks use small wood-fed camp stoves: “it’s just me, one person, just a little duff and a few twiglets. Tinder. It won’t make a difference”. Newsflash: one camper at a time, it’s a matter of survival for our fellow-creatures and destroys the wilderness experience for other humans.
National Park campground damage
Next time you go to a National Park campground, take a look around at the vegetation and the damage done by other campers illegally foraging for campfire fuel. Look carefully at your own camp spot and see what prior tenants have done…
#5 Invisible damage underfoot
Burning, digging, and scraping the ground to make a fire destroys the micro-organisms underfoot. Our woods are already under pressure from the lack of duff as a result of earthworms, an invasive species and are eating up the soil nutrients which feed deciduous trees like maples, a staple of northern forests. And a wondrous display for all of us in fall (see, e.g. All In A Day Fall Foliage: Upper Valley VT-NH and All In A Day Fall Foliage: Upper Valley VT-NH)
We’re just learning about…
Research also shows that there are elaborate tree-to-tree communities connected by underground networks of fungi and rootlets. Trees protect one another, feed sick and compromised neighbors, warn of predators attacks.
Further reading at
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. (Incidentally, there’s likely to be a long waiting list for this title in your local library.)
#6 What are you missing?
You might be missing something if you’re focused on a campfire? Like the stars in Coconino National Forest? Kayaking by moonlight? An owl walk with a National Park Ranger?
More reasons to resist the lure of a campfire?
Many more: try this article in OutsideOnline.
Agreed: Sometimes campfires are a matter of survival in an emergency
As when you’re sleeping in the bush and surrounded by roaring lions and very LARGE hippos. Been there, done that. Phew: made it through the night.
Or at risk of hypothermia. Or injured. Or lost.
Don’t underestimate the clothing bulk you need when camping. Sitting around outdoors while enjoying company can feel cold, especially in the damp or wind. This will help you resist compensate for the absence of a campfire.
For decades, federal natural resources agencies and experienced outdoors folks have recommended the use of gas stoves. Yes, gas stoves have their own challenges (e.g. container disposal) and add to our “carbon footprint”, but the latter is a hazard of burning wood as well. More on a car camping friendly gas stove at Fire Up! Two No-Brainer Colemans For Car Camping.
Dusty Car Muddy Boots NEVER recommends alcohol stoves. They are hazardous, unpredictable, and tippy. People carry fuel in flimsy plastic containers.
Every AT shelter has burn marks where an alcohol stove has flamed up. This recommendation comes from personal experience: an alcohol stove skittered the length of a picnic table in a fireball. Caused by yours truly. No one was hurt, but this is a lesson learned.
Summary from the Appalachian Mountain Club:
So, next time you head out, consider saying no to campfires?
Photo credits. Featured image and top…Dismantling illegal campfire ring: Public Domain via Flickr. Illegal campfire: Public Domain. Forest clean up crew, BLM Lewiston: CC BY 2.0 by BLM via Wikimedia. Illegal campfire: Public Domain. Sawed stick at NH AT shelter: ©DustyCarMuddyBoots.com, All Rights Reserved. Osprey nest: Public Domain by Tracy Enright/USGS. Bird’s nest with blue eggs: Public Domain via Unsplash. BioLite stove: Screen shot, Amazon. Fire and stars, Lockett Meadow, Coconino National Forest: Public Domain via Flickr. Owlets in a nest: webcam article.