Now I don't think there is a person amongst us who can't appreciate the warmth, security and entertainment a camp fire brings when we're enjoying wild, outdoor places. But fires are all too often misused, and frequently damage the landscape and surrounding habitats.
When I ask outdoor users about the need for a fire answers usually fall into one, or more than one, of three categories:
"We need it to cook and keep warm"
"We enjoy sitting around it, it encourages conversation!"
"It keeps away wild animals"
Well yes, having a fire can serve a purpose. They can transform a camping experience into a enjoyable, social gathering. They certainly have their place amongst outdoor education as an ultimate way of brining students 'back to nature', learning new skills, and gaining an appreciation of managing risk and danger.
Let's not forget the relationship between humans and fire is one of the oldest, and the power to control fire separates humans from the rest of the animal world. But, as I'm sure I've heard somewhere before...'with great power comes great responsibility'.
The thing is, fire is no longer essential for comfort or food preparation. Many of the lasting impacts associated with campfires are easily avoided by carrying a light weight cooker and pot. Using a cooker also removes the requirement to forage for wood, and eating habits are likely to be a lot cleaner - attracting less animals in the longer term.
Judge wind, weather, wood availability. Is it a safe and responsible place to make a fire?
Is there any provision for a fire? An existing grate or stove, have you thought about carrying a lightweight fire pan?
Do you have the time to build a 'Leave No Trace' fire and clean up appropriately?
It's easiest if you carry a small trowel to collect material for your mound. The kinds for digging 'cat holes' are ideal. The material can be collected from a nearby location and carried in an old stuff sack or bin bag to your fire site.
Your tarp (or whatever you choose) is laid on the floor, and the soil placed on top and compacted into a mound 6-8 inches thick and 18-24 inches in diameter.
A good sized mound prevents heat from the fire reaching the ground, and provides a manageable platform that doesn't encourage the fire to grow bigger than needed.
When looking for fuel, dead and downed wood is most preferable - ideally sticks that can be broken by hand and no larger than your wrist. Larger pieces of wood play an important role in nutrition and soil productivity, as well as providing shelter for small animals and many plant species.
Smaller firewood burns completely to a fine ash, making cleaning up easier. Half burnt logs are difficult to dispose of and encourage future, larger fires. Once the fire is completely out, bearing in mind the amount of time needed to burn all those little stick ends, the ash can be scattered, or mixed with the soil from the mound and returned to the ground where it was first taken.
Before leaving, try to restore the appearance of the fire site by replacing any surface debris and sweeping the area for litter and food waste.
The choice to become a responsible outdoor user is ultimately yours, but as more people spend time in our wild places it's surely important to encourage minimal impact. By thinking about your location and purpose, and by following some straightforward guidelines it is possible to enjoy a fire outdoors without leaving any trace!
If you're interested in learning more Leave No Trace techniques, have you considered joining one of our courses?