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Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame
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Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: ground fires = laziness / PS on 03/20/2008 06:51:08 MDT Print View

Just because there are and have been people who use irresponsible fire building practices dosnt mean there is no such thing as minimum impact fires (I refuse to use the term LNT -ever).
There is absolutly no reason to build a "fire ring" -except to designate a special place where all fires should be built, so you dont build one unless that what your doing.
In some enviroments fires should be avoided. Each enviroment needs to be seen on a case by case basis so you cant just condemn fire outright.
I also think people have different pictures of how big a fire needs to be. A cook fire can be very small not at all like the campfires from boyscouts that provide warmth and omviance. Very little wood is needed.
I hope future articles will go in more depth about what consitutes a responsible fire how you would go about building one.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Re: Re: ground fires = laziness / PS on 03/20/2008 07:59:51 MDT Print View

Living in Washington, I'm often in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness or Olympic National Park. There are large areas in there that either don't allow fires or are too used for me to feel comfortable clearing more of the underbrush to start a fire. In these sensitive areas, the impact is just too large.

However, I think there's a time and a place for fires (and I certainly LOVE fires). Now a Bushbuddy uses so little wood that I'd hardly consider this in the same ballpark as open fires, which use more wood. But with an open fire, there are places where I've made fires and felt very good about it.

Off trail at lower elevations where the impact is very minimal and wood is plentiful and river trips where I can use brush and flood debris are two examples. In these situations, I can build a fire and deconstruct the ring with no way that anyone can see that I've been there. In fact, no one will likely camp in these spots again for quite some time. I see these situations as aligning just fine with my LNT values.

Now, camping at a subalpine lake where I'm competing with all of Seattle for a site- would I have a fire there? No way. But there's a time and a place for fires and as stated it the article (which I loved), they can add a lot to a wilderness experience. I think it just depends on what degree of "wilderness" you're experiencing as well as the local environment.

Great conversation.


Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/20/2008 11:19:37 MDT Print View

I think that like anything else you do in the woods, you have to consider the impact of a thousand people doing it to understand how it adds up.

This includes taking dead wood from the land. All that dead wood is still there because [EDIT]the last 200 people to walk through[/EDIT] chose not to have a ground fire! They didn't leave the forest debris in their natural state just so you don't have to carry a stove anymore.

I think that it's poor form to plan to *depend* on ground fires 2x a day for your whole walk.

Off trail walks are a different story. But the logic "there is already a fire ring so it's okay" is akin to "someone already peed in this stairwell so I can too." I think that if you see a fire ring, that should be your signal that the area has already been stripped of anything that will burn and you need to use your stove.

Campfires should be made in the presence of lawn chairs, coolers, and big blue tarps. There they can burn wood that has been harvested with permission from a land management agency, and they can be lit and tended in a way that won't make the place look any more "used" than when you got there.

Walking into a pristine area where nobody else has built a campfire and insisting that you need a campfire because you don't even have a stove... I think that this is the kind of attitude that ruins the frontcountry and sends us all deeper into the backcountry in the first place!

Also, in scouts we made cooking fires that looked a bit like this: note the wood laid low and parallel to serve as fuel *and* combustible pot support:

whereas we would have called *this* a "white man fire":

Edited by bjamesd on 03/20/2008 14:26:21 MDT.

Sarah Kirkconnell
(sarbar) - F

Locale: In the shadow of Mt. Rainier
:-( on 03/20/2008 11:51:05 MDT Print View

I have never personally built a fire in the backcountry. I have helped hiking partners build one. But only in areas where this limitless fuel sources of wood. The deep valleys of the Olympics is a good one, as is the drift wood of the coastal strip. Even then, we have small fires - the circle being no bigger than where I would stand. No bonfires except for in front country CG's where we bring wood scraps from home. In the few fires we have had in the back country it was with downed timber, all small and scraps.

I cannot imagine having a fire in the arctic or above treeline unless it was life or death to warm up. It burns me to see fire rings blackening pretty alpine lakes, feet from the shore and trees hacked on - trees that are hundreds of years old!

In most cases there is NO reason to have fires anymore except for the social aspects. You don't need one to cook over in most cases.

The Bushbuddy and the Zip Stove are both cool ideas though - and allow a cooking fire without needing more than a pinch of scrap wood to cook on. But a fire pit with rocks ringing?

AGH!!!! Now all I can see in my mind is the 100 or so illegal fire pits I have broken up and tried to clean up all over Washington State in alpine! Grrrrrr! I have even found them in Mt. Rainier NP where ALL fires are banned in the back country!

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/20/2008 13:48:46 MDT Print View

"All that dead wood is still there because nobody else had a ground fire!"

- That wood is there is because trees constantly die and shed branches- it is a renewable resource. Granted in high use areas it can be collected faster than it can replaced- dont build fires there.

'But the logic "there is already a fire ring so it's okay" is akin to "someone already peed in this stairwell so I can too."

Never said it was always ok, I think you interpeted it the oppisite of what I saying. Just pointing out that the only purpose of the fire ring was to designate a spot for fire. So if you are not a Ranger or owner of the land dont build one. Its not the proper way to make a low impact fire.

If you arnt prepared to go without a fire on some days when its not apropriate dont try- simple as that.

My argument is that strip minning and drilling one side of the earth to make your stove and fuel so you can go LNT in a park boundry isnt greener from where Im standing. You will never be able to point out where I built a fire after Ive left .

Edited by MAYNARD76 on 03/20/2008 14:25:12 MDT.

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: Re: Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/20/2008 19:00:25 MDT Print View

"- That wood is there is because trees constantly die and shed branches- it is a renewable resource. Granted in high use areas it can be collected faster than it can replaced- dont build fires there."

The thing is that the wood on the ground is part of the ecosystem - it's not something left over that it's automatically OK to consume. In other words I don't think that it's a "resource" in the sense you seem to be using that word. Whether it rots and puts nutrients back into the ground, whether it forms a microhabitat for myriads of small and larger animals, or whether it stops erosion it's just better to not burn it - particularly when there are truly renewable lightweight options you can carry with you, which leads to your last point.

The point about strip-mining and drilling is interesting - but a recycled coca-cola can stove burning methylated spirits ("alcohol")[which, by the way, is not a non-renewable fossil fuel but a renewable fuel made from sugars (sorry, I guess everyone knows that it's 95% methanol but just in case..)] couldn't get a lot greener!

A couple of years ago I went camping at Wilsons Promotory, which is an absoloutely stunning peninsula in Australia. It has dozens of beaches and the sand on every one is different - so when you cross a headland the sand on the next beach will be different to the one you just left. Unfortunately it's very close to Melbourne, so there are about 4 million people within 2 hour's drive. I arrived at one of the sanctioned campsites, pitched my tent (4 kg ... oops) and went for a walk. Right on the beach a young couple had dragged together a huge pile of fallen timber. No doubt they were dreaming of flickering flames, bonding, Prometheus etc. The problem with burning bonfires on beaches, particularly pristine white quartz ones, is that it turns them black. And even if people do think about it, they always rationalise it by saying to themselves, well it's just me so it's OK. So I picked up all of the wood and dumped it in the sea. It's pretty hard to burn salt-sodden timber. Did I feel any qualms about it? Yes. Were the romantic young couple annoyed? Probably, but frankly I've got no time for people who destroy what little unspoilt environment we have left. That's true anywhere, but even more so in Australia which is very old, unique and ecologically fragile.

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: Re: Re: Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/20/2008 19:04:21 MDT Print View

A campfire in a reserve ... this sort of thing happens all the time.,21985,23326568-2862,00.html

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Re: Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/21/2008 07:51:42 MDT Print View

Arapiles ,
I think an alcohol stove is a very environmentally sound option and thats what I use most of the time.
But, my argument isnt that low impact fires are nessasaraliy the MOST enviromentaly sound just that they are environmentally sound.
Now, where on the grey scale of enviromentalism we should pin low impact fires is open to argument. I would personally put it high up there. It uses only local resources and there is no processing or transportation of parts and labor and no marketing literature. (except for the fire starting materials)

Personally I do see felled wood as a resource. Where it is plentifull there is enough for me and for the soil. We are talking about gathering a small amount not stripping the forest floor of all dead wood.
I agree that lots, even most people who build fires are probably doing it in an irresponsible manner. Most fires are built for atmosphere by people who arnt experienced and educated outdoorsman in places they shouldnt have one.
But lets not let that blind us to the possibilities that low impact fires can bring. Lets face it man and fire go together. Peolpe will always be drawn to it. Wouldnt it be great if we could have an article that shows how and when it could be done responsibly?

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/21/2008 08:50:19 MDT Print View

"Lets face it man and fire go together. Peolpe will always be drawn to it. Wouldnt it be great if we could have an article that shows how and when it could be done responsibly?"

True ... but it wasn't THIS article, fire-rings and cooking on flames etc.

Brian James
(bjamesd) - F

Locale: South Coast of BC
Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/21/2008 13:27:28 MDT Print View

I think that making a macro scale environmental argument is a little abstract. Nobody can argue that hiking is good for the climate, unless perhaps they went hiking in lieu of going to a 4x4 rally.

What's most relevant to me is the impact on the visual environment. Areas of the forest floor that have been stripped bare of dead wood are conspicuous and ugly. As are trees that have been relieved of all their dead limbs and some of their not-so-dead ones.

If you're off-trail, and below the treeline in an ecosystem that can regenerate quickly, fine. Leave your stove at home, be careful, and nobody will ever know.

But if you're on an established trail, as 95%+ of hikers are, do your part and bring a stove. Yes it will add *ouces* (!!!) to your base weight, but it will leave the environment natural for the next group to come through.

I'd love to build not only a fire every night, but a shelter as well. I'd also like to catch some of my own food. That would be awesome. A knife, a bow, some snares and a down blanket would be a pretty lightweight setup for wilderness travel.

I don't out of respect for the other users of the area.

Sean Miner
(kromangun) - F

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Superheated Rocks on 03/21/2008 15:39:13 MDT Print View

Great article -- I'm a huge fan of using rocks that have been heated by fire as a continued source of heat. In addition to using rocks for cooking, you can bury them below your sleeping area to heat you up. Just make sure to place a nice layer of soil over them. One word of caution, avoid collecting rocks near a water source. At high heats they can crack (and possibly) "explode" causing a nasty eye injury.

One drag about living in California is that too many people abused our ability to have ground fires by not being responsible. As a result, we're almost exclusively limited to gas/fuel tab stoves.

If you ever get a chance, though, go to the Point Reyes National Seashore (just north of San Francisco) and apply for their fire permit. Nothin' like a beach fire at the remote Wildcat camp!!!

Elizabeth Rothman
(erothman2) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
environmental impact on 03/21/2008 16:06:21 MDT Print View

I have to confess cringing, too, when I read about people having woodfires in the backcountry for any but emergency, survival reasons. And digging to bury rocks, cringe. Your teeny tiny impact must be considered multiplied by hundreds. That's the reality in most places people go. It's why I also cringe when I read, over and over, people in the UL world saying that because they are ultralight hikers they can feel okay about just sneaking off away from established or already-impacted camp spots to set up camp in that lovely grassy or otherwise pristine area. Guess what? The ten or twenty pounds less you're carrying doesn't mean you don't weigh anything or pee anything or otherwise have a typical human impact, and that worn-bare campsite used to be a lovely, pristine area too.

Re: fires: when I was working in the San Jacinto wilderness over fifteen years ago, I did a survey of firewood near established campsites, where fires were permitted (don't know if they still are, I hope not.) At most sites, I had to walk over 100 yards to find ANY wood on the ground that could be used to feed a fire. There are just too many of us out there, and the resource can renew and recover, yes, but not as fast as we can beat the crap out of it. Please read up on Leave No Trace practices, and don't think that because it's just little lightweight you it's OK to just step outside the 'rules' just a little bit. They're not rules set up by The Man; they are guidelines to moving ethically through the environment.

I'll share the plans for my lightweight soapbox if anybody's interested.

joe w
(sandalot) - F
Re: Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame on 03/21/2008 18:36:59 MDT Print View


Edited by sandalot on 09/20/2009 12:36:36 MDT.

Roman Dial
(romandial) - F - M

Locale: packrafting NZ
At least with a fire, like hunting or farming for your food, you see your impact on 03/21/2008 20:35:25 MDT Print View

I'd rather have the number of people reduced in a wilderness, if it allowed us to make fires, than no fires and more people.

It's all coming down to aesthetics as far as I can tell from the comments in this forum. It's certainly not the environment.

Basically, our wilderness suffers from "over-hunting" of firewood. Just because we Americans shot all the Buffalo, ripped up all the prairie, fished out all the salmon, doesn't mean hunting, farming, or fishing are bad.

My impression is that it's easier to apply a blanket no-can-do than to manage resources efficiently and effectively.

I make a fire every chance I get. It's carbon neutral and at least I see the impact I have on the environment, unlike the hidden costs of petroleum based fuel.

BTW and for the record, I felt our Arctic 1000 trek was a success and not an "attempt". We walked 1000 km carrying what we needed.

Edited by romandial on 03/21/2008 20:40:26 MDT.

John McLaine
(John_McLaine) - F

Locale: Tasmania
Arapiles is right on 03/21/2008 22:46:28 MDT Print View

The impact of the fires pictured and described is completely inappropriate in wilderness areas. The disharmony in the trip described in the introduction would have been better handled by more appropriate selection of route or activity for the group and better group management, not by a destructive blaze. Please reduce or prevent the terrible impact of these fires by using a stove in wild areas.

Edited by John_McLaine on 03/21/2008 22:54:50 MDT.

Greg Mihalik
(greg23) - M

Locale: Colorado
Re: At least with a fire, like hunting or farming for your food, you see your impact on 03/22/2008 00:30:17 MDT Print View

Deleted by Greg, the poster... quick on the trigger.
I need more time to reflect.

Edited by greg23 on 03/22/2008 09:11:52 MDT.

Arapiles .
(Arapiles) - M

Locale: Melbourne
Re: At least with a fire, like hunting or farming for your food, you see your impact on 03/22/2008 01:36:15 MDT Print View

"It's all coming down to aesthetics as far as I can tell from the comments in this forum. It's certainly not the environment."

Actually it is the environment I'm concerned about - it's the use of fallen and live timber - for the reasons described above - it's the risk of escaped fires and it's the visual impact, which is also an environmental issue.

"I make a fire every chance I get. It's carbon neutral and at least I see the impact I have on the environment, unlike the hidden costs of petroleum based fuel."

Which is why I suggest using methylated spirits - but I'm not sure how burning wood is carbon neutral. If burning wood is carbon neutral then burning brown coal must be too ...

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame on 03/22/2008 01:51:02 MDT Print View

Whatever the impact on the environment, whether good or bad, it is good to know how to make a fire when you need it.

I'm lucky in that I learned when I was a boy and had some truly memorable times with the fires. I went through all the mistakes and all the accidents (once almost started a brush fire when I went to take a leak and left the fire unattended) and so had the opportunity to learn through experience, a few times with some true experts with bush lore, how to be responsible with fires. That was before the days of Leave No Trace or 6 billion people on the planet or in the woods. And it's sad that people today cannot have an honest and unquestioned relationship with making fires; of anything that we learned since we first started our long walk on the planet it is probably the most important and fundamental technological skill we ever learned, and directly responsible for our becoming what we are today.

Be that as it may, learning to make a fire is important; it can save your life! For those who have never done it, someone has to teach them. It's not something you can learn by trial and error in one night. The teacher should know what they are doing and the impact of what they are showing. And it might as well be here on this site, around a group of people who take being responsible and ethical very seriously.

Of course, learning from an article is not at all the same as being out there actually making the fire...

Edited by butuki on 03/22/2008 01:54:03 MDT.

Adam Rothermich
(aroth87) - F

Locale: Missouri Ozarks
Re: ground fires = laziness on 03/22/2008 07:33:20 MDT Print View

I make a small fire almost every time I go backpacking. I don't burn very much wood, just enough for a little heat and warmth. I don't feel bad making fires because I can usually find more than enough wood for my fire in the campsite. It probably has a lot to do with how I was raised as well.

I'll agree that making fires on glades or other delicate environments is very irresponsible. However, in Missouri at least, controlled burns are very common to promote a healthy eco-system. So I wouldn't jump to say fire in the wilderness is an evil thing.

And as for fires being equated to laziness, I think lighting up a canister stove is a lot more lazy than building a fire. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but one is much more work-intensive.


PS- *deleted* - Probably took it a little too far. I don't want to cause too much trouble.

Edited by aroth87 on 03/22/2008 07:36:53 MDT.

Dean F.
(acrosome) - MLife

Locale: Back in the Front Range
Absolutism? on 03/22/2008 12:01:14 MDT Print View

As with most, though not all, issues I think it's wrong to make blanket statements about building fires.

It seems that the consensus, with some opposition, is that minimal-impact stoves such as the Bushbuddy or a Kelly Kettle (aka Benghazi Boiler) are acceptable alternatives. I certainly think so. Since they burn twigs and leaf litter I think they are materially different than a campfire buring larger deadfall, especially since most of the people that use such systems are those of us who are far away from the busier trails.

Nonetheless, I have to support the burn bans in national parks, since there are simply too many irresponsible people infesting the national parks. BLM land and national forests are another matter, though. Few Joe Sixpacks like camping in real wilderness. My friends and I had campfies every night when we were kayaking through the Tongass this past summer. Not bonfires, mind you, but little camp fires.

One of those rare absolutisms:

Anyone who says that burning wood is no more carbon neutral than burning propane needs to do a little reading. The carbon in fossil fuels has been locked underground for at least 50 million years. It is unlikely that the Earth was cold enough to have ice at both poles at any time before 65 million years ago. Here's a source:

It is the difference between freeing carbon that is currently participating in the carbon cycle (wood) versus carbon that has been out of the cycle a long time (fossil fuels). Before that carbon was taken out of the cycle the Earth WAS exactly what all the global warning fanatics keep screaming about, or worse. So if you want another "Hothouse Earth", by all means, burn those fossil fuels and increase the atmospheric CO2 by 500%.

Alcohol is NOT carbon neutral. All the studies show almost no improvement over fossil fuels, because it takes so much fossil fuels to grow the source vegetation (fertilizer, tractor fuel, seed trucks, etc.), move it to the processing center, move the alcohol to the stores where you buy it, etc.

That said, eventually we may get to the point where it isn't a bad choice. We can learn a lot about how to do it from Brazil. Right now, speaking purely environmentally, alcohol is essentially just as bad as fossil fuels. But then again, what is one propane cannister compared to the gas you burned getting to the trail-head? A drop in the ocean, that's what. There is no truly good option. We have to accept that humans are going to affect the planet, and just try to minimize it. We can't stop it at this point; there are too many of us (and growing). Thank you, Malthus.

Edited by acrosome on 03/22/2008 12:06:12 MDT.