How to Leave No Trace of Your Campfire

by Paul Kirtley

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An example of how not to leave a campfire

How not to leave a campfire - full of rubbish and half-burnt logs. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

For me, leaving as little trace of my presence as possible is an important part of bushcraft. In leaving no trace, you show respect for the environment and respect for other visitors who may come after you.

In particular, if you have a campfire, it is important to ensure you leave the site safe, clean, tidy and as you would wish to find it.

In my travels, I have found many sites of campfires in a state that they needn’t have been left. I think a lot of the time it is due to people knowing no better. There is also a small minority who just don’t care. Therefore, it’s even more important that those of us that do care do our best to leave places as we find them, to avoid campers, hikers, canoeists and bushcraft and survival skills enthusiasts from getting a bad name. It’s also imperative that we do our best to show others best practice.

Campfire mess on the shore of Loch Lochy, Scotland.

Campfire mess on the shore of Loch Lochy, Scotland. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Why Should We Leave No Trace Of A Fire?

A smouldering fire is a threat to the environment

It’s not just about leaving a campsite clean and tidy, leaving making sure we leave the environment safe from our fire is paramount. Before leaving a campsite where we have had a fire, we must make sure that there is no risk of the fire spreading into the wider local environment after we have left. More often than not this means making sure the fire is well and truly dead. And this normally means dousing with water. With this in mind, choose your campsite well, with water relatively close to hand if possible.

Also think ahead – the bigger the fire you have, the more water you will need to make it safe. When I teach bushcraft courses, people are always surprised at how much water they need to cool the ground under a relatively modest fire site. We are not only concerned about embers blowing on the wind but we should also be concerned about the remnants of a fire smouldering in the ground, within root systems of trees. This is a particular risk with coniferous trees.

An obvious fire site is, well, obvious…

An obvious fire site encourages others to have fires in the same place. Increased footfall and tent pitching in a particular area may cause more localised damage to vegetation than someone pitching camp in another, random spot. People are lazy – especially at the end of the day – and go with the easiest option.

An obvious fire site disturbs the sense of wilderness and exploration. There is an added thrill to being in wild places when you feel they are untouched. Even if you are not so far from others, this illusion of remoteness can be burst by obvious and unnecessary signs of others having camped before you.

An exception to this is when there are specified camping sites (say in a national park) where the authority that looks after the land wants people to have only one campfire area on a campsite. This can be for various reasons such as not having a proliferation of mess, or causing damage to the ground or fragile rock. In particular, park authorities often want to encourage people to have a fire on a rocky area where there is no danger of the fire spreading through tree root systems.

Even so, there is no reason to leave an established fire circle full of mess such as inflammable rubbish and half-burned logs. It’s unsightly and disrespectful to the next user. Also, once wetted by rain, half-burned charred logs are second-rate firewood at best.

Messy fire circle containing beer cans and garbage, litter

Even if there is good reason for an established fire circle, this is no way to leave it. Ontario, Canada. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Cleaning a fire site helps eliminate litter

I really have no idea why people feel the need to leave tin cans in campfires. There is no logic to it. If you pack it in, you should pack it out. Stamp on the can and put it in a rubbish bag to take home with you.

It’s not just the obvious cans we need to take home either. Tin foil is a scourge and isn’t necessary for good campfire cookery. If you disagree – tell me how our ancestors coped for millions of years before we discovered a use for bauxite? Exactly.

Even those of you with the best intentions can be caught out these days, though. Many packets, sachets and the like, have tiny amounts of foil on the inside. When this is burned in the fire, the foil is left behind. Tidying up your campfire after you have used it ensures you pick up any foil which may have been deposited in this way.

How Do You Leave No Trace Of Your Campfire?

A really important but often overlooked piece of advice is to think ahead:

  • Make sure you clear the ground before you light your fire if necessary. See this article on how to light a campfire.
  • Think about how much fuel and of what type you really need to achieve your goals – cooking, warmth, morale, a focal point for the camp, etc.
  • Think about how long it will be until you are leaving; practice judging your fuel so that there is nothing but ashes by the time you want to break camp. If your fire is still full of half-burned logs, you got it wrong.
  • When it comes to clearing up and making your fire safe, this task normally requires water. Don’t camp miles away from an easy source.
Campfire with only ashes left

Think ahead. Let your campfire burn down so you don't have lots of half-burned wood to deal with. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Adding plenty of water to douse the embers

Add plenty of water to douse the embers. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Leave no trace of your campfire: Breaking up the ground with a pointed stick.

The ground underneath the campfire site can be baked hard. Break it up with a pointed stick. Then add more water so it can seep into the ground. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Leaving no trace of your fire - get your hands right in

Get your hands right in to check the ground underneath is cool. Photo: Amanda Quaine

Leave no trace: Picking up the cold damp charcoal from the campfire

Picking up the cold damp charcoal from the campfire. Photo: Amanda Quaine

Leaving no trace: Distributing cold, wet ashes from the campfire

Distribute the cold wet ashes from your campfire. Photo: Amanda Quaine

Leaving no trace; Remove wet ashes until only mud remains

Remove all of the wet charcoal until only damp earth remains. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Covering up the site of the campfire with leaves

Cover up the site of the campfire with the material you cleared when preparing the site of your campfire. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

The campfire site has been cleaned and covered making it virtually impossible to detect.

The centre of this picture is the site of a campfire. A good clean-up job makes it very hard to detect. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Paul Kirtley standing next to cleared site of campfire

The author standing next to the site of his campfire. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Having a campfire is an elemental thing. For many it is an integral part of camping and the outdoors experience. Those of us who do choose to have a fire in the great outdoors must do so responsibly. We should understand how to leave the site of a campfire safe and clean. We should always leave a campsite as we would wish to find it and this certainly includes the fire site.

Please let me and other readers know any extra tips or tricks for tidying up after you that you use.

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Rody Klop

This has to be learned from the start and in every beginners course !
The “Leave no trace” principle has given the bushcrafter a positive position and not being counted as the next rubbish making wilderniss tourist.

Reply

Will

Maybe people should look into the makings of a Swedish Torch. At least with that they have a fire and something to cook with but it is only one log and can be burned away with a smaller area to clean up.

That or people should think more as to what they are doing.

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James Peskett

In general, I agree with everything Paul has said and this is what I practice when I go out into the woods. But there is just one thing that troubles me: ‘an obvious fire site disturbs the sense of wilderness and exploration.’ This is a statement of values, which shows that we bring more than just kit and knowledge with us when we go outdoors. Wilderness, it seems, must always be – or appear to be – untouched by humans.

This idea of nature as only perfect when untouched has had some negative effects; for example, the on-going struggle between many conservationists and supporters of indigenous people’s rights. It also gets in the way of seeing our proper place in nature and acting more sustainably in all our activities. Needing to (quite rightly) reemphasise respect for the environment shows how far we still are, as a society, from this path.

I doubt our ancestors would have looked at things this way. Coming across the remains of a campsite must have been a powerful experience for them, possibly full of delight or maybe foreboding. In bushcraft, we often look to learn from the past. This doesn’t always mean adopting the practices of the past, but it can be instructive to linger over the differences.

I think litter is disgusting and uncontrolled fires can be devastating – I want to prevent them both. There are also a lot more of us these days and we need to be mindful of our cumulative impact. But I would also like us to get a point where we can feel a warm glow from cold embers as a connection to the environment, our past and a community of respectful nature lovers. I would be happy to come across fire sites if I never saw litter.

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Paul Cox

Leave nothing but your thanks!

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Steve Harral

Great article Paul… it pays to remind ourselves about the basics at times :o)

As for voting for your blog… done that and answered a couple more about best instructor and bushcraft school ;o)

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Dark Horse Dave

Good article (as ever), and an important topic which I’m glad you have covered.

The point about bits of foil left from burning packaging is well made. Do you have any general observations or tips about what should or shouldn’t be disposed of in the fire?

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Steve Bayley

I routinely clear up after people who leave messy fire-sites in woodland near my home. There is no excuse for leaving any mess behind ourselves, quite apart from the terrible danger posed by fires which have not been properly extinguished. I’m frequently amazed by the rubbish left behind by thoughtless hikers and campers. Why do these people bother to hike into wild and beautiful places only to despoil the very place they are visiting?

James makes an interesting point about our ancestors, but our ancestors only carried natural materials, not things which take years to decay, or will remain in situ virtually forever. Added to that the population density was much lower in our Mesolithic past so the impact would be much lower. The cultural differences in how we perceive these issues compared to our ancestors or with other indigenous people is of course significant, but I think we are all capable of understanding the ‘Leave no Trace’ ethic and I can’t think of anybody who could convincingly argue against it.

Paul rightly flags up our duty of care; we won’t be trusted to wild camp if we don’t take our responsibilities seriously. Just look at the bylaw now banning wild camping along the east side of Loch Lomond as a direct result of thoughtless or lazy folk leaving rubbish and fire-scars. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-12698722

By taking a few minutes to clear up our fires and campsites carefully, and by thinking about what we’re burning, we are investing in our own future rights. Why wouldn’t we want to do that. As is so often the case education and awareness is the key, which is why articles like this are so important in encouraging best practice in our community.

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Chris

Education is the key to healthy natural lands. Thanks for the great post and phenomenal blog!

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Duncan Stillwell

Lets all remember the tenet all good bushcrafters stick to, “Take only memories, Leave only footprints”.

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Darren Roberts

Great article Paul on a subject that is one of my pet hates,i only wish some of the people guilty of this could read your article. Thanks.

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Austin Lill

It should be lawful to disembowel individuals who leave fire and rubbish like your opening pic with a spoon.

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gino schafer

It should be legal to disembowel people who advocate killing someone just because they left litter on the ground.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks for your input Gino.

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Austin Lill

It should be lawful to disembowel individuals who leave fire sites and rubbish like your opening pic with a spoon.

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Dave Smith

This is a excellent articale Paul.
Can’t tell you how many times ive come across a camp fire like these, it pisses me off.
But, i try to clean them up as best i can. And i get 10 cents each for beer cans, lol.

” LEAVE NO TRACE” :-) Cheers

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Danny

thanks again paul for another well put together and important article.a good clean up job emphasizes the magical effect of a campfire and visually returns nature to its undisturbed state.i can see the point james is making about mirroring our mesolithic ancestors but like it or not we are today in a different reality .as steve pointed out the population density difference is enormous and also these days we are unfortunately only left with pockets instead of countries of untouched landscape. to give us a sense of those times i think it best to keep it so for all to appreciate

Reply

Bill

The campfire is a very emotive thing and a great comfort to those travelling or living off the land, i love them but I always go for a small contained fire off the ground as I strongly believe that the fire scars are not welcome, in the pockets of wilderness we have left.
So this article goes a long way to address through education the idiots who believe that they need a large fire directly upon the ground. The ground takes years to recover from a fire. where as a small contained fire that uses small stuff keeps me warm provides tea, food and companionship and leave no fire scar. The last thing I do before leaving camp is to scatter the cold wet ashes over a large area to aviod a concentration in popular areas. Pack my fire pit into its bag and away I go without anyone knowing I have been there. So by not using logs or larger branches I leave no half burned wood and no trace of a fire at all to the unknowing.
So well done Paul keep the leave no trace articles comming.

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Mark H

Superb article Paul.

Surely ‘Leave No Trace’ should be central to all actvities outdoors… Unfortunately ,especially in the UK and the States it most certainly is not. Folks seem to forget that nature is something to revere and show respect . Leaving no trace , taking just what you need and leaving nature’s resources unspoilt should be both an attitude and habit.

I am sure all of the people reading Paul’s articles and this blog are completely ‘on side’. It is most certainly our job to educate all those we come in contact with.

Or perhaps Mr Clarkson would have some suitable punishment ‘up his sleeve’ for these ‘offenders’ !

Reply

Duane

Good Article Paul
(Great minds think alike LOL)
Leaving a fire scar in the wilds is bad enough, but leaving tin cans and rubbish!!!!
some people should be made to picnic at the local tip not in the beautiful great outdoors!!!!!

Reply

Leena

Good article
Fire scars- learning point.
Isn’t it possible to use stones as a layer to protect the ground , when possible…to lift the fire off the ground.

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Bean

I think you should always lift a fire off the ground. But be careful of the stones you use as porous stone could explode when heated up.

Ground fires have dangers other than fire scars, for example a fire on peat could leave a ground fire burning for years and destroy the wilderness you sought out.
I was told this although i doubt its origins ‘Red man makes small fire keeps warm, white man make big fire keeps warm getting wood’

Reply

Wild Skill Dude

Great article.
Theres nothing worse than some bosso leaving the remains of a fire with all the other rubbish piled in it.
Fortunately most people have more sense, but your article explains the whole procedure excellently.
many thanks

Reply

Adrian

It saddens me greatly when I walk through a beautiful piece of woodland and come across half burnt fires strewn with beer cans and plastic wrappers. To me this demonstrates a total lack of respect and understanding of both nature and other human beings. As human beings we have a duty of care towards this planet and all life upon it. After all, are we not children of nature our selves.
Many thanks to Bean. I like that little saying. Good humour tends to be born from truth.

Reply

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