Posted by: highmountainmuse | August 22, 2009

The campfire: how-to

Keeping it small and simple:  a morning in front of the camp fire at ditch camp

Keeping it small and simple: a morning in front of the camp fire at ditch camp

As Forrest’s poem yesterday reminded us, the campfire is much more than a back country staple, a part of camping and being in the back woods that is not only often necessary for survival, providing basics like comfort and cooking, but there is something much deeper there. I may not have the words to express it as well as Forrest did, but you all probably know what it feels like, what it is.  You can’t sit before a camp fire without staring in, staring beyond, going somewhere far away in mind and soul…  It happens every time.  It mesmerizes the observer more powerfully than a TV. And mind you, that’s said by me, someone who hasn’t had TV in 20-something years because of that:  I turn into a zombie before the screen.  Conversation, thought and free will are instantly zapped!

But zoning out before the fire, I allow myself.  My thoughts don’t evaporate, but rather, become enriched by the dancing of the flames…

I suppose any fire will do this.  We’ve all been known to stare mesmerized at the flames in a fire place or open wood stove.  But it’s different, it’s somehow more, when you’re out under the stars, in the cold night air, or bundled up at first light with the pot of coffee boiling away…

Of course at times, a fire can even be done without, and should be done without. We’ve camped during fire bans and in locations that fires are restricted because of over use.  Going without is easy.  We cook over a small propane stove, and turn in early.  And yet, I miss the camp fire during those times.

Camping in the Wilderness as we so often do, Leave No Trace ethics are a staple.  This is an easy theory and practice that is simply summed up by being responsible and cleaning up after yourself.  Keep things small.  Small is easier to clean up afterwards, anyway. 

There is a good amount of information on the internet and in any camping/outdoor shop on LNT ethics. I have a post on my horse blog which covers many details (please click HERE to view). But today I just wanted to reiterate the “how to” of campfire building.  My concern was raised after spending a good deal of time on our various back country trips scattering newly built fire rings, and even putting out fires that were left hot. Cleaning up for other folks so that the next people by will feel like the wilderness is really wild.

The basic how-to of responsible back country campfires is simple. If there is a designated fire ring, use it.  Otherwise, don’t build one.  Fire rings lined with big rocks are completely unnecessary.  If you do build one, clean it when you’re done by scattering the cool rocks. 

To make a fire pit, dig out the top soil, stash it under a near by tree.  We use a small camp shovel and dig a pit about 12 x 24 inches, and probably 6-8 inches deep. This is more than large enough for us to cook all our meals on, and enjoy the warmth and beauty.  We use a portable camp fire grate which we can set up over the fire on which we put our pots and pans. When you’re done with your fire and are certain the coals are dead out (you should be able to stick your hand in there – if you’re concerned, pour on more water and stir up the ashes), put the top soil back on top and naturalize the site again.  I returned to the site where we camped last year.  After 24 days of camping and cooking, the location where our fire pit was is barely visible. 

Leave No Trace is a no brainer.  A ring of rocks is a big trace.  Who needs to see it?  Any indication of the next person seeing where the last person camped is not only unnecessary, but it’s rude. By seeing the number of huge fire pits left behind, I’d guess some folks just don’t think about the impact their actions might have on the next person.  Here’s a good, but unfortunate, example.  A group spent just one week earlier this month camped at a site Bob’s family, as well as innumerable back packers, horse packers, and hunters, have camped in for nearly half a century.  In this one week, a huge fire pit was not only built, but left, hot coals and all.  This is the photo we took after already spending time scattering the big rocks they had used for decoration. 

what NOT to do for a campfire

what NOT to do for a campfire

In just one week, the land is scarred for decade… Think about it.



  1. Sitting looking into a camp fire is like looking into a cristal ball .Even if its for real your mind brings back memories and thoughts of the future .It sometimes dose more than any doctor or over can ever do .I was always taught tp leave the land as you found it .When you leave there should be no trace of you being there . I guess its the indian in me .Mother earth is being destroyed fast enough with out my help .You are doing your part to preserve her . when i retire next week a good way to spend the rest of my life would be trying to save what little is left for my grand great grand and on. Your and Forrests writes has made up my mind . I thank you both .

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