Fireless Backpacking - For the Love of our Planet (and Ourselves)!
Some of my warmest memories from childhood come from spending summers at scout camps – around a huge campfire, singing songs, and waiting for potatoes to be ready. And yet, I believe there is no need for hikers to build fires when they are backpacking through the wilderness unless it’s on well-established campsites with fire rings prepared for visitors. And even that - only once in a while. Why on Earth would I write that?
I don’t deny the beauty and romantic value of building a fire and sitting around it. It gives warmth, beauty, a sense of the magical moment. But if we want to be responsible tourists, we need to look beyond our personal needs and see what simply makes sense for the greater good.
And we all know the dark statistics. Wildfires are devastating on a scale that is hard to comprehend. And too many are started by us – hikers, campers, guests in the Great Outdoors.
There are many more reasons why ditching the fire completely is the right thing to do.
Minimizing the risk of wildfires
This one is the most obvious and the scarier one. People think their fires are safe but they often are too careless about checking everything with enough attention.
Last summer I hiked in Quebec and shared a campsite with a group of kids on a three-day long trip. They were not scouts but rather regular kids from a summer camp with a few adult leaders.
One morning when I was (as usual) the last one to pack my stuff and almost ready to go, I noticed smoke rising from the fire area. They left without making sure their fire was completely out! The spot was maybe 2 m from the woods and it was pretty windy that day. That’s one of the reasons why it’s just too much of a risk. We might think the fire is out but there could be hot enough embers that just need a good breeze and some dry grass blown over them to start again.
Wildfires cause devastating damage to land, ecosystems, people's lives, and property. It is estimated that 90% of all wildfires were caused by human activity. Some of it also by hikers, campers, and other tourists.
Fires cause air pollution
Speaking about smoke: as much as I love the smell of burning wood, I know the smoke is really bad for us. It’s toxic and dangerous to breathe in. If you want to learn more about the exact chemical particles you breathe in - check this informative article. Using fires for daily cooking is seen by the WHO as one of the main health risks worldwide.
We might think that one small fire doesn’t make much of a difference but in a season, in a popular area, there could be hundreds of them any given day. And when we sit around the fire for a few hours, we breath in a lot of toxic chemicals and particles. This is particularly dangerous for people with health issues, as asthma, respiratory diseases, children and youth, as well as older folks.
Fires destroy the local ecosystems
Deadwood is part of the living, breathing Nature. It can be dead and useless to our eyes but it’s food or a home to others. Nothing is wasted in the Great Outdoors – that’s what is so amazing to observe in nature reserves where the forest is left to itself – and fallen trees begin a new life, providing nutrients to the soil, insects or fungi. Whenever we lift an old dead branch we can see there is life in and under it.
Deadwood is also part of the natural water retention system. Taking it away may speed up erosion, similarly to cutting trees does.
Many people cut down branches from living trees which is an obvious violation of Leave No Trace principles and damages woods.
Fires cause damage
Even a small fire burns a hole in the body of Nature. There are so many campsites or popular picnic sites, where you can see the ugly black circles after other people’s fires. It takes a long time for the soil to recover and plants to cover the spot again. So many times I've seen those ugly scars right under signs forbidding fires.
Many people also seem to think you can burn your garbage in a campfire. So in addition to scorched land, you have half-burnt chips bags and bottles. It’s littering and it looks horrible. Additionally, burning plastic releases toxic fumes into the air.
Fires interrupt local ecosystems
Some people try to be prepared and come with their own wood – it’s the right thing to do, right? This way there is no problem with taking dead wood or cutting down living branches!
Yes, on the surface it seems like a good idea, but it really isn’t. People often buy bundles of ready wood from big box stores with no knowledge about its origin. There could be invasive insect larva or eggs in the wood and we can help to spread the foreign species to new places (like the infamous emerald ash borer brought from Asia in infested wooden crates). Just a few unseen fungi spores can wreak havoc in an ecosystem. Some parks have regulations and rules about bringing firewood or ban it completely.
Sometimes wood is treated with chemicals to prevent it from getting moldy or rotten. When you burn it, in addition to the regular toxins of burnt wood, you add also those chemicals – and breathe them in.
But what can I do instead of burning fires?
Cook over a gas or alcohol stove. It’s easy to control and use, and it’s actually better for preparing meals than regular fires. It doesn’t leave your pots completely covered in soot and won’t burn your dinner. It’s much easier to control or simmer it and you can turn it off right away.
It’s also more reliable than a fire – you can make it in places where a fire would make no sense – you can even place it on a completely soggy ground or a shallow puddle and it will work. You can prepare your meal in the vestibule of your tent while it is raining outside - you just can't do that with fire!
If you are just starting at your camping gear, you can check this handy article for tips and advice on building your camping kitchen.
Source of light
If you want ambient light – bring a lantern you can place close to your tent or hang inside it. As a source of light, a headlamp or regular hand-held Led torch work much better.
Source of warmth
How do you you stay warm with no fire? We are not talking about extreme situations when someone is alone in the woods with no gear. If you go hiking well prepared, there really is no need for fire as a source of warmth.
Good clothing layers (no cotton!) - including dry change for the night, sleeping bag and sleeping mat matching the conditions you expect, checking the weather forecast, hot water bottle or hand/feet heating pads - there really is no need to freeze!
The most important part is warm sleep and the fire won't help you with that anyway. Just make sure you have a warm puffy in your bag so you can put it on when you stop, move around the camp, and eat your dinner (or breakfast).
Source of magic
Obviously, you can't get the lovely sound of cracking wood, sparks flying, and warmth filling your soul while staring into glowing coals... but it is still worth it when we think about the benefits to our Mother Nature.
We are not entitled to do whatever we want. It's not our birthright or a must to have a fire going when out there. Let's think of it as a privilege - something done once in a while, at a dedicated, well-prepared spot with all precautions taken care of.