Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Throwing another log on campfire debate

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After a long, hot summer when the forest floor felt like a tinderbox and the tall-grass prairie actually went ablaze, the first few dustings of snow probably came as a relief to people who love campfires.

For the first time since the spring snowmelt, it's now relatively safe to build a campfire in most wild sections of southern Manitoba.

The real question is whether you ought to do so, either now or at any time of year.

That's because the campfire, once considered an essential part of any wilderness trip, is increasingly seen as a wasteful or even irresponsible practice to wilderness users who've embraced the principles of leave-no-trace camping.

And this can lead to conflict with traditionalists who demand to build campfires for esthetic or even spiritual reasons.

As a person who loves sitting by a campfire but also tries not to leave any impact when I camp, I understand both points of view.

My solution is to minimize the number of campfires on my trips and reduce the size and duration of those fires, whenever possible.

If you ever find yourself in the midst of a campfire debate, consider your needs and those of the immediate environment before you make a decision.

The following suggestions, which are based on Leave No Trace principles, may help you out:

1. Only build a fire if you really need one

In an age when lightweight, portable stoves can be used for practically any form of camp cooking and headlamps can provide all the light you need after dark, you only really need a campfire in a survival situation.

If you're cold, wet or both and are an in danger of hypothermia because you don't have adequate dry clothing or shelter -- by all means, build a fire. But if you just need to boil water for coffee, it's probably faster and more efficient to use your little camp stove.

2. Keep control of any fire you do build

If you take the previous rule to its extreme, you may never build another campfire again. If that seems unreasonable, merely limit the occasions you do build fires in order to prevent using up too much wood at any given campsite. And keep those fires small -- do not build raging bonfires that last all night.

You may be amazed how quickly a pristine chunk of the Canadian Shield can be denuded of deadfall.

3. Never build a fire if safety is an issue

If it's too windy to control a fire, don't build one. If there's a provincial ban on building fires, observe the ban. But if there is no ban, use common sense: If it's sweltering outside, the forest floor is covered in crispy pine needles and you're actually worried, then err on the side of caution, not stupidity.

4. Choose surfaces that can withstand fire

If you find a fire pit, fire ring or metal fire box at a campsite, that's where your fire should go. Avoid building new fire rings or pits whenever possible. But if you must build a fire ring, choose bare rock to avoid scorching any soil or sand.

If rock is not available, attempt to insulate the ground or beach from your fire by building a mound of earth. And never build a fire in sensitive areas that can not recover, such as high-altitude or desert campsites, where there is little wood to begin with, or on ultra-fragile tundra or cryptobiotic crusts.

5. Eliminate all traces of your fire

If you use an existing fire ring, burn your fire down to the ashes and douse the entire ring with water to ensure the fire is out. Don't leave behind charcoal. But do not dismantle the ring; other campers will use it in the future.

On the other hand, if you had to build a ring or pit, after you burn the remains of the fire down to the ashes, scatter those ashes widely and dismantle the ring or pit. The idea here is to avoid leaving any trace of your visit.

I'm not arguing you should never build another fire. But you can keep heavily used areas of the wilderness pristine for a lot longer if you ignore your inner pyro.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2011 C16

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives


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