Leave No Trace

LNT 13 - Flic a Bic

Hello All -

This posting wraps up my discussion on the LNT Principle:

Minimize Use and Impact of Fire

The very notion of giving up our cherished campfires is always a gut-grabber <g>.

I would guess that from it's "discovery" on, fire has always been deeply symbolic to us humans...and a LOT of us do get a double-dose of fire-use in our important heritage from our "pioneering" and native American ancestors. It's HARD to escape the fact that (for most of us) belief in the utility of (and a fascination with) fire seems to come "built-in"!

I truly love sitting at a campfire....good friends and I have solved the majority of the worlds problems around some of the better ones <VBG>. I believe strongly in the worth of a youth organization that makes excellent use of social and ceremonial campfires to help accomplish its educational aims. I feel that EVERY person who ever goes into the backcountry should learn (and practice!) the very important survival skills related to fire-making.

I have no intention of giving my campfires up...but, I HAVE decided that I might need to do a LOT better job of deciding where and when I make them!

I wish that I could somehow deny that the problems listed in the "dark side of Smokey" are true. Even more, I wish that they were not getting worse (in WAY too many places!) at an alarmingly high rate! I cut out some text that I had here (about a foot and a half <g>) because a rereading convinced me that I was probably pounding a bit too hard on how pervasive campfire damage is becoming (especially along such a national treasure as a National Scenic Trail!).

Instead of reading my deep concerns...we can go take a hike! Let's do a few weeks on some of the better-protected stretches of the AT in AMCland or (especially!) in Connecticut (where fires were banned when I came thru in '93...I HOPE they still are!). Then we can do a couple of weeks on the AT almost anywhere else. We can play detective and use our eyes...and our noses...a LOT...and then put our good noggins to work. THEN...I can still dig out the lost 18" of text if we still need it to debate how pervasive campfire damage is becoming <VBG>.

I do get gloomy at times, but I haven't given up yet! I still believe that we CAN do away with a LOT of the damage that campfire use brings to the backcountry (and certainly to heavily used trails like the AT!) if we just get a tad more careful about how, when, and where we make them.

For me, first choice is ALWAYS to try HARD to find a way to have an enjoyable and safe outing (that meets all our personal needs) without ever building a fire! It ain't always easy...but it IS always worth a good try <g>.

If we feel that we simply must have a fire, then "first choice" easily morphs into building it in an established fire-pit where the damage has already been done. We can use some of the wood-gathering techniques discussed below to help reduce our impacts to the surrounding area. We can take the time to remove our ashes from the fire-pit and to distribute them widely as we go miles on down the trail. Remembering the other LNT Principles can help us keep down some of the remaining damages that are WAY too easy to unthinkingly do as we enjoy our fire.

If there is no hi-impact fire-pit handy, then we might want to do a bit of soul-searching. Maybe we can just sniff a charcoal nubbin saved from our last fire...and the campfire fit might go away <VBG>. If we can convince ourselves that the local ecosystem CAN support the incremental damage done by our fire, AND we are willing to take the time to use some important skills, then we might want to try one of the following minimum-impact fire techniques.

The easiest for us backpackers, in the long run, is the "mound" fire. We grab something flat (garbage bag, Scoutmaster's shirt, etc....anything about 3' x 3' or so) that will hold dirt and smooth it out on the ground where we want to build our campfire. We turn our sleeping-bag stuff sack inside-out (so the inside won't get dirty) and go off to find some place where we can use our cathole trowel to fill it up with relatively dry mineral soil. Under the root mass of a blown-over tree or a dry sand/gravel bar are typical of the good places to get mineral soil (the sterile soil with no combustible organic material in it).

We dump the pile of mineral soil onto the middle of that flat "something" laid down earlier. We pat it into a shape kinda like an upside-down ice cream cone with the pointy end cut off a little ways up from the big end. The top surface of the remaining "truncated cone" will be where the fire is built, so we dish it slightly to keep the coals from rolling over the side.

A typical mound fire might be about 2' in diameter at the base, about 4-6" high, and a bit less than 2' in diameter at the top (the steepness of the sides is determined greatly by how cohesive the dirt will stay when it gets hot). If we expect to use the fire for more than a quick one-pot meal (want to do some baking, etc.), then it might pay us to get some more dirt and make the fire platform a couple inches higher (to make SURE that the heat doesn't make it all the way thru the dirt to the surface it is sitting on).

Now it is time to gather wood! We need to check how much our stomach is growling...if we can stand it, we need to set enough time aside to take a nice pre-dinner walk thru the woods <g>. Taking a 10-15 minute hike as we gather wood...making a big loop away from the camp area and picking up just a little here and a little there...helps us keep from stripping any one area of so many organics that the ecosystem can't self-repair. If we pick up branches no bigger than we can break with our hands (dead and down only...no fair stripping branches off the trees or pushing dead trees over), we are likely to be taking only easily-replaceable "seasonal" wood AND we get to leave the saw/axe at home!

It's easy to pick up and carry whole branches during our gathering walk and when we come back we can drop them near the fire location. We can break off only what wood we need to make and maintain the fire...and then, when finished, we can toss the unbroken (still natural) left-over branches back out into the woods. If we toss them into the nearby woods, we might be helping to replace a little of the organic materials that less-thoughtful campers have stripped away to feed their fires (stave off that desert for another day! <g>). If we leave the branches next to the fire area (or make a "courtesy" wood pile), then we are setting up a "monkey see, monkey do" situation that, woefully often, quickly leads to an unwanted hi-impact fire pit.

A "twiggy" fire does a much better job at cooking than we might think at first. We are cooking mostly with the flame, not with the coals, so we DO get to play a bit more at stoking the fire while we cook up that one-pot meal...OR bake that pizza. The pot quickly gets black with soot...I never wash the outside of mine (better absorption of heat!) and just store it in a lite nylon stuff sack (which I wash every month or so on a long hike...whether it needs it or not <g>).

If we let the twigs burn down to a fine ash, we are left with almost no disposal problem with the fire "remains"...we simply pick up our flat "something" and carry dirt and ashes back to the hole where we got the mineral soil. Dump it all back in, smoosh the local duff or nearby surface soil around a bit, and the remains of our fire are history. Back where we had our campfire, we simply need to "fluff" up any veggies we might have mashed...there will be no burn scars, no soot stains, and no sterilized soil to contend with!

The same fire-use technique works well with a "fire-pan"...a shallow metal pan that can be placed on local rock "legs" and which serves the same function as the mound. Horsepackers, canoeists, and rafters are probably a lot more interested than hikers in making this particular weight/convenience tradeoff <g>.

The "low-impact" firepit that we have been teaching in Scouting (for decades) has served us fairly well. Many times, careful Scouts have been able to use a low-impact firepit and then to replace (and water) the sod such that it completely heals over time. Unfortunately, many times the low-impact firepit resulted in a large area of sterile soil (the fire sterilized out to the sides as well as below the fire) and/or a soil penetration covered with dead sod (which allowed erosion to quickly occur). Heavy-use areas often simply didn't allow time for the many low-impact firepits to heal before the same ground was needed for yet another firepit! To top it off, a low-impact firepit takes more work (more dirt to move, bend WAY over to cook, etc.) than a mound fire...makes it easy for a lazy guy like me to choose <VBG>.

It's not hard at all to significantly reduce the damages that we could do with our campfires. The above techniques CAN help us reduce the actual damage we do...often getting us on the good side of that threshold of "ecosystem self-recovery" we always look for. The somewhat shop-worn observation: "big work to build big fire - sit way back...small work to build small fire - sit close" can help us still meet our personal fireside needs without doing TOO much damage to our favorite backcountry camping spots!

Next up is "Plan Ahead and Prepare" ...see you at "LNT 14-Planning Planning"

- Charlie II  AT (MEGA'93)
             PCT (Mex@Can'95)
         Chipping away at the CDT

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