Despite all of the benefits a campfire brings, they are increasingly rare in the backcountry. Fire can provide us with light and warmth, can cook our meal, ward off predators and give us comfort during a lonely night as if it were a companion.
It is too bad that they are rarely ever permitted these days, though for good reason: According to the U.S. Forest Service the leading human cause of wildfires are from campfires not properly controlled or extinguished. Government land management agencies have largely adopted policies that prohibit campfires outside of existing fire rings and in some places, removed the rings altogether, except in established car camping areas along park entrances and roadsides. In some ways, the prohibition on flames has made any occasion we get to make and enjoy a fire even more enjoyable.
Once we started camping in the backcountry, we all began loathing car camping and fire rings with grates over them for a ready-made grill. Now in an era where Whisper Lite and Jetboil stoves are our source for flame in the wilderness, such fire pits are such a rarity they are a joy to be had. Some of us may even have gas powered fireplaces we turn on with a switch in our homes, but there is a romance over making kindling and stoking a flame to health.
So when can we fire it up in the backcountry? Check the land management agency’s rules before going out. If fires are strictly prohibited or just because of a significant danger of forest fire, don’t even think about it. That is, unless it is an emergency. At least that is what every guidebook and experience backpacker will tell you. Use a space blanket to conserve warmth if you did not just lose it with your pack foolishly crossing a river at high water. Of course, I am assuming we all carry one – we all should.
My late Uncle Tom — the original Suburban Mountaineer — and I once made a fire in an “emergency.” We were in the Adirondacks and our camp was visited after dark twice by a black bear. Despite the prohibition in effect at the time, we gathered rocks into a ring and lit a match. Never regretted it. Then again, we were never penalized and no forest fires erupted either. We just let the fire die out on its own overnight. Of course, it helped that it poured all the next day. In retrospect, it was a bad idea to allow the fire to smolder.
If I were injured and stranded, even in Yellowstone, where flame has generally been forbidden (by regulatory flexibility rather than fixed policy), I would probably light a log. That’s what the survival books tell us to do. But be careful. Be sure to contain it and put it out properly before leaving camp. I couldn’t bear one of us being responsible for ruining someone’s favorite stomping ground, including that unnerving bear’s.