The traditional campfire seems to be coming under increasing scrutiny, and many are now considering it as an unnecessary trapping of wilderness travel.

Some feel that it is an outdated practice  which has no place as an activity in modern wilderness travel. 

The proponents of no-fire camping would have us use lanterns or flashlights as a light source, and a stove as the only method of cooking. Depending on the area we are in, there is probably some merit to this approach. Many of the most heavily-used areas have been picked over to the point that there is literally no burnable material left.

I would be reluctant to say that campfires are never appropriate. There is something integral to the camping and canoeing experience in sitting around a fire at night. I believe that the approach we must take is to be selective about when and where we build a campfire.

Campfire on Georgian Bay, Ontario

First of all, we should recognize that for cooking, a stove is always a better way to go. Stoves are cleaner and more efficient than wood fires for cooking. We will get our morning coffee and all of our meals sooner, and spend less time scrubbing pots if than if we cook over a fire. This leaves us with the question of the actual campfire - the fire that we use to warm us, dry our socks and stare into during the quiet evening as we enjoy each others company and reminisce about the day's activities. Are such fires appropriate? Some will disagree, but I will give this type of fire a qualified yes.

If we are in a location where there is plentiful driftwood and deadwood, we can enjoy a fire without major damage to the environment. The trick is knowing when we are in such an area, and how to properly situate the fire. The following are guidelines to follow if we decide a fire is appropriate.

  • We should never cut or peel bark from a living tree as fuel. Green wood doesn't burn, and peeling bark can kill a tree.
  • If there is an existing fire ring at our site, we should use it. Multiple fire pits are an eyesore.
  • If no fire pit exists, we should make one in the proper area. If a flat area of bedrock is available, that is probably the best location. If no rock is available and the fire pit must be put on soil, we have to be certain that the area is cleaned down to mineral soil before lighting a fire. Organic soils, peat and forest duff can burn invisibly underground for long periods of time, eventually re-igniting.
  • If we create a new fire pit in an area which is likely to be re-used by future canoeists, it is probably best to leave it in place when we leave. A single neat fire ring is easier on a site than multiple pits left by subsequent campers.
  • It should be unnecessary to even mention this, but in spite of what Smokey the Bear has been telling us for years, we still manage to burn down large portions of our wilderness by failing to properly extinguish campfires. Fires have to be drowned completely. We use our bailing bucket and pour water until the ashes are absolutely soaked and cold to the touch. If we can't hold our hand in the ashes, the fire isn't out yet!
  • If we are camping in an area that is not likely to see another group in the near future, it may be best to completely dismantle the pit and remove all traces. After the fire is burned down to ashes, doused and cooled, the ashes can be scattered in a wide area of bush behind the site. Blackened stones can be thrown into the water or scattered. We also have to remember that there is little point in disposing of ashes and stones if we are going to leave a sooty smudge on the bedrock or a dead, burned section of ground cover. If the fire pit is going to be removed, we can cover the bedrock with sand or soil before we light our fire and this material can be disposed of with the rest of the materials. If we have made our fire on the soil, we can cover the area with twigs, leaf mold and other organic material to disguise it.
  • We should keep in mind that we're building a campfire, not a bonfire. Huge fires consume vast quantities of wood and are unnecessary. Most of the material we should be using is very small - often no bigger than our thumb and nothing bigger than our wrist.
  • The fact that wood is dead does not always make it appropriate for use in a fire. Standing dead trees provide valuable habitat for birds and small mammals. Fallen dead wood is needed to replenish the soil in an area. Nature works in cycles - trees grow by absorbing nutrients from the soil. As these trees die, they break down and decompose, returning organic material to the ground and beginning the cycle again. If we remove all of the deadwood from an area, we pull an important component out of this equation and disrupt the cycle. We have to make a conscious effort to gather dead wood from as wide an area as possible, not just from the immediate campsite.
  • When we leave a site, we should make sure that all of the material in the pit is completely burned. The time when we're loading our canoes in the morning is not the time to be throwing a huge log on the fire. Nobody enjoys arriving at a site to find a pile of soaking wet, charred logs in the fire ring

Campfire Guidelines

Do we really need a fire?  Stoves work much better for cooking.

Never use live trees or green wood in your fire.

Use existing fire rings.  Don't create new ones.

If a fire pit doesn't exist, it is probably best to create a new one.

Ensure fires are completely extinguished before leaving a campsite.

Leave a neat fire pit.  Don't leave garbage or large, unburned logs in the pit when you vacate a site