As we ask CDT supporters to take this year’s Pledge to Protect, we wanted to help teach some of the ways you can best be a steward of the CDT!
Q&A with Katie Connelly
Q: One of the seven Leave No Trace principles is “Minimize campfire impacts.” What are some ways that people can follow that principle?
A: The best way to minimize campfire impacts is to not have a campfire at all! Historically, campfires were used to dry out cotton clothes, stay warm, cook food, provide light, and ward off wildlife. It was a necessity for survival. Nowadays we go camping in high-tech quick-drying fabrics, with expedition-style sleeping bags that stay warm well below freezing. We cook over efficient camp stoves and use headlamps to see at night. Campfires, far from warding off wildlife, have become a major draw for certain animals. Critters who have picked through campfire rings for food waste that doesn’t burn all the way through, or that smell your cooking wafting on the smoky breeze from miles away, return to campfires again and again to scavenge.
I’d suggest gazing at the stars instead of looking into a campfire for ambience — fires ruin our night vision anyway, and my home state of Montana is called Big Sky Country for a reason! Most of Montana is also under stage 2 fire restrictions (and very possibly the whole state by the time this is published), so foregoing a fire isn’t just the ethical and Leave No Trace thing to do, it’s also the law, and folks are looking at steep fines and prison time for violating restrictions and closures.
If, however, you’re determined to have a fire, you can follow the principle by being as careful as possible. Keep it small, in an established campfire ring, using local fuels no longer than the distance from your wrist to your elbow, and no thicker than your wrist in diameter. Definitely don’t transport wood from one location to another, because you may also be unwittingly transporting pine bark beetles or other blights to new forest ecosystems where they can wreak havoc. Never, ever leave your fire unattended. When it’s time to put it out, make sure you’ve burnt it down to a fine white ash (this is easily done if your campfire is kept small), and then rake through that ash. Touch the ashes with the back of your hand — is it still warm? Then it’s not dead out! Don’t leave until the ashes are cold to the touch.
To learn how, or to become really well-informed about how and when to build certain types of backcountry campfires, I’d suggest checking out more from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics.
Q: How do people know if it’s safe to have a campfire?
A: The most important consideration when deciding to use a campfire is the potential damage to the backcountry. This time of year, in Montana, it’s not safe to have a campfire. Conditions are the driest they’ve ever been — and some of the hottest, too. Fish and forests are dying, and we’re on track to match the all-time hottest year on record, which is 1934. So unless you were alive back then, these are the hottest conditions you’ve seen in Montana in your lifetime. That’s significant.
For other times of year, or for the years to come, you should check with the land management agency where you’re camping to see what fire restrictions are in place there.If you’re backpacking in a Wilderness area, there will be information about campfires on your permit. If you’re not sure which agency manages the land where you’ll be camping, google the nearest Ranger Station and give their phone number a call. They’ll be happy to advise you! The National Weather Service also issues red flag warnings so you’ll know when high winds are expected and can plan to avoid them.
Conditions often change when you’re on an extended backpacking trip, making the guidance you received at the outset of your adventure no longer applicable. Generally speaking, if you notice that it’s hot, dry, and/or windy, then it’s not safe to have a campfire.
Q: What is one thing you wish more people knew about campfire impact mitigation?
A: That it’s easier to do than most people think! Having a campfire is work. You have to find an appropriate site, collect fuels, actually build the darn thing, then tend to it — which anyone in charge of a campfire knows is smoky, dirty work — stay up with it, and then ensure it is dead out. Mitigating your impact means having either no fire at all or, in a lot of cases, having a smaller, more manageable fire. In either case, it means less work! A smaller fire means less fuels to collect and greater ease in putting it dead out. Collecting dead, down wood is much easier than packing in tools to cut down green wood, and your campfire throws less smoke. Using an existing campfire ring saves you the work of building one (and saves the landscape from a new scar.) Not to mention, putting your fire dead out saves you from dealing with an investigation when a wildfire sparks from your abandoned embers.
It’s rare when the easy thing is also the right thing. Lessening your campfire impact is easy, and learning to build a mound fire, or to use a fire pan (both are ways to mitigate your impact) is fun.
Q: Are there other ways that CDT travelers can help mitigate forest fires?
A: Yes! Most wildfires are caused by people, but they aren’t limited to campfires. If you’re a smoker, be super careful to smoke only in areas cleared of brush, and to pack out your ash and butts. Either bury your toilet paper in a cathole 6-8″ deep, or even better, pack it out, but don’t set it on fire. Don’t set off fireworks, period. And never let loose a floating paper lantern.
On your way to and from the trailhead, make sure the vehicle you use doesn’t have chains dragging, and don’t take it off of designated roads, as the heat from your car’s exhaust can start a brush fire faster than you can finish reading this sentence.
If you see people engaging in risky fire behavior, and you feel comfortable approaching them, then you could use the opportunity to teach them more about fire safety in a welcoming and friendly way. You can also carry a metal shovel or a collapsible water bucket to help put out any abandoned campfires that you run across — again, only if it is safe to do so.
Q: When not having a campfire, what are some other activities that people can enjoy while camping?
Most folks who have campfires do so in the evenings, so let’s focus on that time of day. I’d recommend gathering around a solar lantern. Unlike a fire, a headlamp or lantern’s red light function will allow you to see while preserving your night vision, and the eerie glow leads itself well to the telling of ghost stories. I’ll also sometimes bring a star chart to help identify constellations while stargazing and counting shooting stars. And night hikes and good books are both delightful! Really, though, backpacking is a person’s best chance to escape the shrillness of civilization, to unplug from devices and simply recharge one’s emotional battery in nature and solitude. What could be more enjoyable than lounging barefoot in the shade atop a smooth, glacially-polished rock after a long day of hiking, listening to the song of western tanagers, with a belly full of huckleberries and a panoramic view of an untrammeled landscape?
This post comes from Katie Connelly, Montana State Advocate for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Thanks to Katie and to the Leave No Trace Center for their work to educate others!