Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/11/2011 (2025 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
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.