Thursday, March 12, 2015

Campfires in the Backcountry

"The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter... it is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness." Henry David Thoreau

One of the unexpectedly-polarizing discussions on backcountry camping is that of campfires. You can't deny having a campfire is probably the stereotypical image and experience that people associate with camping. And as Mr. Thoreau notes above, even a hundred and fifty years ago when people required campfires for actual survival purposes on a regular basis, a lot of the benefit is derived from "cheerfulness".

The sides in the "campfire" argument tend to fall into two camps (no pun intended); on the one hand, you have the folks who argue that campfires have an aesthetic function only, causes undue harm to a fragile outdoor environment, and has the potential to wreak great havoc if not properly cared for. On the other hand, you have the folks who argue that aesthetic is part of the reason we hit the backcountry, and that, if done responsibly, campfires pose no problems at all.

Both sides have points. The biggest problem is, in my opinion, that you've got a few jerks who ruin it for everyone else. They destroy sites looking for wood to burn, don't put out coals, bring in wood from outside sources (which incur fun things like the emerald ash borer), generally act like jerks and ruin things for everyone else. Human beings are bad at managing and anticipating risk, so the tendency is to think, "Well, it's just me; if I break the rules a little bit here, it's not going to hurt anything. I'm just one person. I can leave a little trace. I mean, nature is huge!" Multiply that sentiment a few thousand times, thought, and viola. Destruction on an epic scale. This goes for other things besides campfires; God Forbid that Mt. Everest ever thaws for some reason.

I'm in the latter category. I think most folks probably are, especially the more "casual" ones. I can't deny that the majority of my fondness for campfires is that psychological aesthetic that comes from it. Sitting around the campfire relaxing after a hard day of hiking, backpacking; having a warm drink, watching the stars, retreating into your tent. Waking up the next day and firing up some coffee to watch the sunrise. I think as long as you follow the principle of "Leave No Trace" and any fire restrictions in place, having a campfire in the backcountry isn't a big deal. Here's a great resource for how to have a campfire in the backcountry the right way.

Now, be aware that lots of the most popular backcountry trails and camping areas in the National Parks don't allow campfires on them. For instance, the Gunsight Trail in Glacier National Park- one of the best multi-day trails anywhere that's within the scope and capability of anyone sufficiently fit, even kids. Beautiful scenery, crossing the Continental Divide from East to West Glacier. But none of the campsites on that route allow campfires.

For that, you have to do a little more digging and hiking, to places like Harrison Lake. However, the route to that campsite requires either a ten-mile hike each direction, or a two-mile hike after fording a river that, for most of the year, is effectively impassable for casual folks, especially kids. The end reward is fantastic, of course, but the whole goal is getting you and your kids enjoying the backcountry, not enduring a 10-mile forced march each direction, or a drenching in a torrential, freezing-cold river.

These are the sorts-of considerations we plan on taking on our research trips to these national parks, to help give them the information and preparation they need to make their backcountry trip a success for them and their kids. Look for more specific information- on both Glacier National Park, as well as other National Parks- in our books.

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