The next of the Leave No Trace Principles is about minimizing fire impact. We’ve all seen the devastation out of control wild fires leave in their wake, but for LNT purposes we’re concerned with fire’s impact on a much smaller scale. Even fully controlled, burning fuel has a big impact on the land under and around it. If we want to limit the damage we do, as with most things, it starts with awareness and consciously making good choices.
The first thing to consider is whether you want to build a fire. I know for many people it just doesn’t feel like camping without a roaring blaze to stare into. Most all of us have great memories of warming up and drying off around a cozy fire, but the least impact would come from not having a fire at all.
Unless you are in an emergency situation being prepared should allow you to get warm and dry at the end of the day without lighting a fire. I have made camp soaked to the skin after hiking all day in a cold rain and been warm and dry much sooner by setting up my shelter and getting into dry clothes than I would have been gathering wood and tending a fire in the rain.
Beyond eliminating the impact of the fire itself you’ll also be limiting your impact on the area around your camp. Fuel gathering around designated sites can have a huge impact on a wide area if a camp is heavily used. Keep in mind that not only is there surface disruption from the gathering process, but by burning the fuel you are removing carbon from the local environment.
There are other non-LNT benefits from not lighting a fire. One is simply freeing yourself from the task. Not gathering fuel, lighting and tending a fire leaves a lot more time to appreciate being where you are. After going to all the trouble to reach some remote site I like to spend as much time as I can actually just being there. Not destroying your night vision also means being able to enjoy the stars coming into view.
For all those reasons my personal choice is to not have a fire unless there is a good reason for one. The most frequent reason I make a fire is to cook fresh fish. If I catch a fresh trout or salmon I am NOT going to boil it in my kettle! Another good reason for a fire is to toast marshmallows for my daughter on a family trip. So I am definitely not saying you should never light a fire. I’m just suggesting that you give some thought to whether you need a fire before lighting one.
If you have chosen to make a fire start by gathering fuel responsibly. You can begin to collect small branches from the forest floor along the trail as you near your intended site. This will reduce the amount of gathering you need to do in the camp area and spread the impact of gathering out over a wider area. Use small branches you can break by hand. Smaller diameter fuel will burn more completely and gives you better control by letting you add small amounts of fuel at a time.
If your camp has an existing fire ring using it will limit your impact to a previously affected area. On the other hand if you are creating a temporary camp avoid building a fire ring so as not to disturb the local terrain. Depending on where you travel you may want to carry a fire pan with you. This allows you to build a small fire within a contained area. Another option is to build a small mound fire directly on the ground using as little fuel at a time as possible.
Fuel added to the fire should be burned to ashes. Do not add more fuel to the fire unless you are sure you have time to burn it completely. Once the ashes have cooled they can be scattered safely which is why it is important that fuel burn all the way down. Not only can you distribute the impact but you can be sure you are doing so safely.
Like most of the Leave No Trace Principles this really comes down to thinking about what you are doing and how that impacts the areas you visit. Do as little as possible to disturb what you find and be thoughtful about the things you decide to do. We can all work together to keep our favorite paths looking less traveled by