Minimize Campfire Impacts
In the Backcountry
The use of campfires is, for most people today and throughout history, part of sleeping outside. It’s how we warm up on a cold night, a source of light and a way to occupy ourselves at camp (call it “Caveman TV”), and because we all have a vested interest in staying warm, campfires create an inherently social atmosphere. But strictly speaking, because of modern conveniences like ultralight insulated clothing, headlamps, and especially camp stoves, we usually don’t NEED to have a fire while we’re camping. So the question is, when is it appropriate to have a campfire at camp, and how can we do so in a Leave No Trace kind of way? The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics suggests that you ask yourself the following questions before getting the fire going:
- Is it safe for you and for the ecosystem (what is the wildfire risk)?
- Is it legal?
- Is there enough wood available that using some won’t be noticeable?
- How long will it take to regrow the fuel supply?
- Do you possess the skills and supplies necessary to build a fire that will Leave No Trace?
Even if you are confident that you can have a Leave No Trace campfire, ask yourself: Do I really NEED to? Many backcountry areas have had their supply of firewood greatly diminished by overusage, so try to have fires only when it is truly necessary. Here are a few of the LNT Center for Outdoor Ethics’ tips for having a safe and responsible campfire:
- Use existing fire rings. They are there for a reason.
- Have smaller fires only for the amount of time that you need it. Otherwise you are just burning fuel unnecessarily
- Extinguish the fire with water, not dirt. Dirt doesn’t actually work well to put out a fire and it will likely stay hot for a while, increasing the risk of wildfire
- Avoid starting fires near rocky outcrops where the soot and ash stains will remain for years.
- Build a thick mound of rocky soil, sand, or gravel on top of a ground cloth, tarp, or garbage bag, then have your fire on top of that. This is called a mound fire and it helps insulate the ground below from the heat of the fire
- Use a fire pan. This is commonplace along river corridors, and can be used in car camping settings as well. Pack out the unburned chunks of wood with your garbage once you have fully extinguished the fire.
- Use only small, dead, fallen branches or driftwood, collected from a wide area. Do not use live wood or bark, or break branches off a dead tree. This destroys homes for wildlife and detracts from the natural appearance of the landscape
- If you bring firewood into the backcountry, buy it locally. Bringing firewood from home can aid in the spreadof invasive species.
- Be safe. Use common sense and don’t get hurt
Be sure to do your research on the laws and regulations in the backcountry area you’ll be travelling through. Not only does it suck to get a ticket for an illegal fire, it really sucks when one spark from your campfire sets the whole forest ablaze because you simply didn’t know that there was a high risk for wildfire.
We require energy in our domestic lives for many of the same reasons we like to have fires in the backcountry: for cooking, for warmth, for light, for social experiences. Like campfires, we usually don’t NEED to use so much energy. Because our energy use has historically been a measure of progress and development, there are also parallels to our sentimentalism about “leaving the light on” for someone, just “going for a drive”, or to keep the house “warm and toasty” in winter. That said, it shoudn’t surprise anyone that our rampant production and use of energy worldwide produce massive amounts of the leading cause of climate change: CO₂. Our energy and electricity across every sector is generated primarily from fossil fuels like petroleum, natural gas, and coal, and one of the main byproducts of burning fossil fuels is CO₂. This might be, among many others, the way that we most need to change our habits for the sake of the global climate. But our use of energy is spread across 5 energy-use sectors, as defined by the US Energy Information Administration:
- The industrial sector, which includes facilities and equipment used for manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and construction
- The transportation sector, which includes vehicles that transport people and/or goods like cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, trains, aircraft, boats, barges, and ships
- The residential sector, which includes homes and apartments
- And the commercial sector, which includes offices, malls, stores, schools, hospitals, hotels, warehouses, restaurants, and places of worship and public assembly
The US Energy Information Administration has some really great information on how our energy use is divided among these sectors, how it has changed over time, what sources we derive energy from, and how their use has also changed over time. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy has set the following goals to try to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and make our energy systems more efficient:
- Accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable transportation technologies. Improvements in engine efficiency, vehicle weight reduction, battery and fuel cell performance, and the increased production and reduction of cost for biofuels are the keys to successfully reaching this goal.
- Increase the generation of electric power from renewable sources. This means reducing the cost of hydropower, solar, wind, wave and tidal, and geothermal power.
- Increase the efficiency of our homes, buildings, and industries. Developing new materials, technologies, and processes, implementing minimum energy performance standards, improving building energy codes, and supporting home weatherization are the ways they intend to provide energy savings of 25-50% by 2020-2030
- Stimulate the growth of clean energy manufacturing industries by reducing the life-cycle energy consumption of manufactured goods by 50% by 2025
- Integrate clean energy into the electric grid through grid-supported technologies, standards, test procedures, sensors, communication protocols, cyber security, and technological resilience.
- Promote a culture of high-performing, results-driven management processes
Check out their website to find out how we’re progressing with increased energy efficiency, renewable energy production and technology, and transportation. And most importantly, make sure to vote in your local, state, and national elections for clean-energy-minded representatives, and contact those already in office to show that your community supports clean energy.
On the Individual Level
Reducing our energy consumption is critical to minimize the effects of climate change. People all over the world are already feeling the effects of our changing climate. When traveling in New Zealand back in 2016-2017, I met a woman who had come to New Zealand from the small island of New Caledonia in the Pacific. She had come to New Zealand to learn English because, as she told me, rising sea levels and increasingly powerful storms would likely displace her family within her lifetime. She felt it important to educate herself so that when the time comes to move off the island, that she could more easily find employment, perhaps in New Zealand, and be able to support the well-being of her children. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as of October of 2019 sea levels are rising at a rate of ⅛ inch per year, and the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change released a report in 2017 stating that 4.2 million people around the world that live in coastal areas are already at risk of flooding due to rising sea levels. As our climate warms and glacial ice in places like Antarctica and Greenland melts off in massive quantities each year, millions of people will be displaced over the next century. The root cause: carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. And the people in New Caledonia and the other islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific that are subject to this flooding? Their carboon footprint represents a fraction of one percent of the total amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, meaning that although they are hardly responsible for the effects of rising sea level as a result of climate change, they feel the effects much more than anyone else. It is hard to overstate the damage and devastation that will result from inaction. Ecosystems and the entire global population will suffer if we do not start to make seriously comprehensive changes to our consumption of fossil fuels. If there is only one thing that you choose do to reduce your impact on the planet, choose to use less fossil fuels. Here are a few ways you can minimize your energy needs:
- Improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling systems. Minimize energy loss in your ducts, use a programmable thermostat, use curtains and sun-facing windows to help heat or cool your house, turn it on for only the amount of time it takes to do the job, and turn it off when you don’t absolutely need it!
- Improve the efficiency of your water heater. Make sure it is well insulated, or switch to more energy-efficient models like a tankless, indirect, or solar water heater, and just use less!!
- Weatherize your home by getting a home energy audit, reducing air leakage, using more efficient and sustainable insulation, manage the moisture content to improve the efficiency of your heating and cooling, and make sure your ventilation system is up-to-date
- Before purchasing a home or doing renovations, do your research about energy-efficient designs. Smart landscaping can help reduce your heating and cooling costs, as can your windows and doors, and using energy-efficient and reused and recycled building materials will greatly reduce your costs and your overall impact
- Purchase efficient appliances and electronics, use power strips to avoid wasting energy when your electronics are not in use, wash your clothes in cold water and let them air dry, install renewable energy sources like solar and small-scale wind and hydro power, and use efficient lightbulbs and make sure to turn them off when you’re not using them!
- Use public transportation or carpooling where available, turn off your car when you’re stopped, reduce your weight and wind drag by carrying less and filling your trunk before piling gear on your roof rack, drive under 50 mph whenever you can to increase fuel efficiency, plan your trips to knock out more errands in a single drive, change your oil when its needed, keep your tires inflated, and take care of that check engine light!
- Before buying a new car, shop around for electric cars. There are plenty of practical, affordable options out there nowadays and you can save a lot of money on gas.
- AND DRIVE LESS. Ride your bike, take a walk, or even paddle to work if you can. Its super fun, keeps you in shape, lets you spend more of your time outside, and greatly reduces your fuel consumption!
We can all do more to be more efficient and minimalist in our energy consumption, and this is by far the biggest contributing factor to climate change. Check out the Department of Energy’s “Energy Saver” page, take action by educating yourself, doing your own energy audit, and take steps to use less every day!
There is no more surefire way to reduce my energy needs than to live out of a backpack for the next 10 years. But I still need to cook, and there will be times when I need to hitchhike into town to resupply on food, or that rare opportunity where someone might invite me to join them on a scenic flight or helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon (who knows?!). Plus, keeping up with the blog and content on the go will mean regular town stops for internet/computer access. There are plenty of ways in which I will still need to use fuel and energy, but here are a few ways that I can make sure to minimize my energy consumption:
- I’ve got a 28 watt solar panel and an external battery that can easily supply and store all of my energy needs on the go. All the battery-powered technology that I will carry with me- my phone, my headlamp, and my camera batteries- can be charged via USB through the solar panel or external battery
- My cook stove can boil water using denatured alcohol in a classic soda-can stove, or function as a wood stove. When denatured alcohol is not available, or I can safely and responsibly collect kindling from the backcountry, I can always rely on my wood stove. It only takes about one handful of small twigs to boil one liter of water in my cookpot
- While there will be times when I need to stop in town to use a computer, much of the work that I need to do to stay digitally connected with the world can be done through my smartphone, which again, can be powered totally by solar energy
- Resupplying on food from stores that sell food in bulk and without packaging whenever possible will help save energy in transportation and manufacturing
- As far as hitchhiking into town for resupply goes, as long as someone was already driving that way, I wouldn’t really be using any extra gas anyway, and the benefits of meeting people on the hitch into town vastly outweigh whatever infinitesimally small impact catching a ride with someone might make.
It is impossible to leave absolutely no impact. Even if you are hunting and gathering all of your food and constructed your shelter and clothing from all locally-sourced organic materials, you are still leaving an impact. The point is to critically evaluate what you REALLY NEED, what it takes to fulfill those needs as sustainably as possible, and to minimize whatever consumption exists on top of that.