There’s only really one thing that matters when it comes to having a campfire in the backcountry – if it’s not allowed, DON’T DO IT. I’ve camped in so many locations and there’s almost always one group breaking the campfire rule. Just because someone else is doing it does not make it okay for you to have a campfire too. Just because you see evidence of fires from past campers does not make it okay to have a campfire. Forgetting to check in advance if fires are allowed also does not give you the right to have a fire. Campfires are not an “ask for forgiveness, not permission” issue. Respect the backcountry and always check first.
If you want to have a campfire when you’re hiking, there’s two things you should check in advance:
- Whether campfires are permitted. Most Provincial Parks don’t allow fires in the backcountry, though there are definitely some that do. Fires are a risk in parks and they can be destructive to the natural environment, but I think the main reason why Parks don’t allow fires is because of the impact of firewood collection. People will cut down and destroy live trees and shrubs in their zeal for foraging firewood and even dead branches have a lot of value to the forest ecosystem, so usually, parks are better off left alone.
- If there’s a fire ban. Regardless of whether fires are permitted or not, if there’s a fire ban in the area that you are camping in, then you cannot have a fire. Hopefully I don’t have to explain the risk of this one given the wildfires spreading all over the Pacific Northwest the last couple of years. So I usually try and prioritize campfire friendly locations in Spring and Fall since the fire ban will likely prohibit any fires throughout the summer regardless of location.
However, there are some times when you will be able to have a fire! The coastal trails on Vancouver Island (above photo) are a great place if you’re looking to have a campfire because the damp environment keeps the wildfire risk low and there’s lots of driftwood to burn, which has lower ecological value. Often if you stick to trail networks that are outside of park systems, fires are generally permitted as well, though there are some parks that permit campfires. Finally, if there’s no fire ban, campfires are almost always permitted in frontcountry campsites! This is a great way to enjoy a campfire because you don’t have to forage for firewood and there are often firepits provided, creating a safer environment for fires.
But if you are lucky enough to find yourself at a backcountry location where fires are permitted, what should you keep in mind?
- Safety: pick a good location for your fire. It should be away from your tent and anything that could catch fire from flankers. If possible, build a fire ring out of rocks to help contain the fire, or dig a pit in the sand, and always have a source nearby to put out the fire. Carolyn’s trick is to fill all our pots with water and keep them next to the fire in case it spreads. Or if you’re on the beach have sand nearby to throw on the fire.
- Firewood: like I’ve discussed above, try and disturb the surrounding environment as little as possible. Beach campfires are great because it’s easier to find rocks to create a pit and driftwood makes for great firewood. Never take branches from living trees and avoid larger logs – these are generally wet and provide valuable habitat to many forest critters. Stick to smaller deadfall that will be easier to burn and has less ecological value.
- Put out your fire: never leave a fire burning after you’re done with it. Even if it’s just embers left, douse them with water or throw sand on top. A fire should never be left unattended.
Tips for starting your fire:
- Stack your wood, by which I mean, start with smaller dry materials, move up to twigs, then sticks, then logs. As the fire grows, start adding the bigger pieces of wood to keep it going. Collect enough wood in advance so that you don’t have to leave the fire unattended to look for more. Use a pocket knife to make wood shavings for kindling, or find some small twigs from the underbrush.
- Bring a firestarter to help speed things along. I like to use fluffed up tampons because they’re tiny and burn well, but Brandon dips pieces of paper towel in hot wax and brings them with him. If you don’t mind carrying something a little bulkier, the old dryer lint stuffed in an egg carton and dipped in wax works great too.
- Make sure your fire always has oxygen. Use a pot lid to blow some air into the fire when you’re getting started and have a fire poking stick to turn logs over and keep the fire fresh.
I’m not really a fire expert, so if you have any more tips to share or if I missed anything, please let me know and I’m happy to add! Just remember, only you can prevent forest fires!