According to the Centre for Outdoor Ethics:

"The use of campfires, once a necessity for cooking and warmth, is steeped in history and tradition [...] the natural appearance of many areas has been degraded by the overuse of fires and an increasing demand for firewood." 1

Even in my lifetime, I've seen the rapid increase of traffic into the backcountry, and I've seen many favourite camp areas devastated because of trees being cut for firewood.

With modern technology and the availability of very lightweight and economical camp stoves, campfires really aren't necessary anymore. There's a certain romance and nostalgia attached to campfires, and they can still save a life an emergency. But for the most part they result in trampled terrain, delimbed trees, blackened stones, unneccesary trails that weave through the woods but go nowhere, and hatchet/ax scars in trees from 'hanging up' your campfire tools.

In todays backcountry, according to Leave No Trace ethics, when is it unethical to have a campfire?

1 Principle 5: Minimize Campfire Impacts

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    While I can agree with all your statements, I still think it is imperatively wrong to conclude that campfires are bad because of widely spread abuses. The problems are not campfires, it is the behaviour of those doing campfires. As long as you respect the environment and thus some common sense rules, the impact is really small. And that means of course, that there are areas, where campfires cannot be done according to this rules. So there you just do not do one, and use a stove. Generally condemning a practice because of misuse is very bad and even counterproductive. – imsodin Mar 25 '15 at 22:52
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    @imsodin : Make this an answer and I will up vote it. – user5330 Mar 26 '15 at 2:13
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    @mattnz: Well it is quite a rough thought and now the question has been adapted to "when" it is unethical instead of the absolute "if". I still dislike calling it "unethical", as ethics is very open to debate. And I do not think there is a general answer to this apart from use common sense to judge the impact, every place is different... – imsodin Mar 26 '15 at 7:29
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    Anyone care to discuss whether is is on topic? I'm in two minds – user2766 Mar 26 '15 at 10:02
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    UekdsIseiekq mlwiqouwuweueuryruueurjehee – ShemSeger Mar 26 '15 at 18:29

I think this largely depends on the specific area you are traveling in. My approach is to always minimize campfires in the backcountry as a general rule. That being said, if I am in an abundant backcountry environment, where there is an already well made fire ring, I have no qualms making an occasional fire from dead, down, dry, and less than wrist size wood.

I think Leave No Trace ethics are a great jumping off point for folks who are newer to the outdoor recreation space, but I find taking a more global approach to land-use ethics is a better direction to be going. I would encourage you to read this article on "Conscious Impact Living" to learn more.

One of the principles is summarized as "Use Appropriate Technology," here is the brief description.

Seek to use situation-appropriate fuel sources for cooking, heating, light, and transportation. Seek technologies which support rather then destroy the integrity of wild places and natural systems.

  • +1, because I agree with the first paragraph and the rest is thought-provoking. But I can't help feeling that the author of the article on Conscious Impact Living is being silly and irrelevant. Of course the production of beef jerkey has an environmental impact and moral implications regarding factory farming, etc. But these issues are outside the scope of LNT. LNT isn't meant to be a grand unified philosophy of life, it's a specific approach for visiting wilderness areas without damaging them. – Ben Crowell Aug 9 '15 at 20:46

Like most activities, campfires aren't simply ethical or unethical. There are only a few things in this world that are always ethical or always unethical. Rather, there are ethical and unethical ways to behave. I don't expect a campsite to look exactly like the land around it - I understand there will be artificial clearings in the trees, perhaps a sign indicating it's a campsite, a fire ring, and perhaps a latrine a little way back in the woods. I accept that and in fact prefer that the humans-sleep-here changes to a place are restricted to campsites rather than diffused randomly through the entire natural area. With that in mind, I find it unethical to:

  • build a large campfire every day, or several times a day, for no reason other than to cook, when you could use a stove instead
  • leave the campsite and surrounding forest a mess
  • cut down green trees (which don't burn well) leaving a mess and less live trees than you found
  • build complex structures to surround or contain your fire
  • make any kind of hole in or damage to a live tree for convenient hanging up of things (I don't even put nails in trees, ever, anywhere.)

I find it not necessarily unethical to:

  • gather up some fallen wood (from the campsite and the land nearby) and use it for a small campfire
  • sweep the ground around your campfire of tinder and other things that might cause your fire to spread, even though doing so leaves the campsite less "natural" than it was
  • use 10 or 20 rocks to build a fire ring
  • "furnish" the area around the fire ring with logs, stumps, or rocks for people to sit on

To sit around a small fire in the evening, chasing away the dark with light and heat of our own making, is one of the joys of camping and one of the ways we feel competent and capable. Yes, someone else coming later to my campsite will see soot on the stones of the ring. So? Perhaps yesterday I saw someone's tent, bright blue among the trees, and realized I wasn't actually the only human for a thousand miles. That doesn't make using a tent unethical.

As for overharvesting and devastation, that is best prevented by limiting the numbers of people who use a place, rather than letting everyone in and telling them they can't have campfires. Of the list of troubles campfires supposedly cause:

trampled terrain, delimbed trees, blackened stones, unnecessary trails that weave through the woods but go nowhere, and hatchet/ax scars in trees from 'hanging up' your campfire tools

only "blackened stones" can be laid at my feet, and to be honest a neat fire ring with signs of use and a few logs stacked next to it warms my heart and gives me a sense of connection to those who camped here before me. The rest of it are by no means inevitable consequences of a campfire.


Avoiding the word 'ethical', I'll ask: Is it good for the forest to stop all fires, and let fuel accumulate?

In North America this has led to many very destructive fires that kill every tree in the forest. Lot's of money and time is being spent to clear out the excess fuel with controlled burns before it is too late. So in these areas, I'd say go ahead, clear out some dead wood. But leave the hatchet at home, burn only wood that is down.

On the other hand, it is destructive to have a fire in a place where trees grow slowly and fires are rare, for example high altitude area of the Sierra Nevada. The trees there usually well spaced, thunderstorms are not so common, and dead wood lays around for decades before breaking down. In this case you're taking carbon from an environment that has very little to spare. Half Dome used to have trees on top, but granite doesn't make soil very well, and now they are gone.

BTW, the US Forest Service and National Parks say pretty much what I've written here, and I think they are doing the right things these days.

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    Forrest fires are a natural disaster. The forests have been burning for as long as there have been forests. There is proof that they even rejuvenate the ecology. The problem is not "excess fuel" in the woods, the problem is idiots starting fires–either intentionally or unintentionally–that burn out of control. Controlled burns are only utilized to help control existing large burns. I grew up on a small mountain town where my father still works as a fire captain. They respond to bush fires more than anything else, the majority of which (~99%) are started unnaturally by campfires. – ShemSeger Mar 26 '15 at 16:28
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    The recent intense forest fires can be attributed to a history of fire suppression. Forest fires are natural events that are a very important part of the ecology and tree species (like Ponderosa Pine) are adapted to surviving and thriving. However our forests are now unhealthy, consisting of many small closely spaced trees, downed wood, and ladder fuels (like thick scrub oak) that allow fires to reach the crown very easily. The controlled burns are intended as a corrective / restorative measure. Anyhow, that is how it was explained to me in NAU's forestry 101 course. – trooper Jun 2 '15 at 2:15
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    If you examine photographs from a hundred to a hundred fifty years ago, before this suppression activity began, this is pretty evident. The forests in those photos consist of large widely spaced trees with lots of sunlight reaching the forest floor. Look at those same forests today in areas that haven't been treated by the FS and they consist of many smaller trees where no sunlight reaches the ground. Historically the trees would have burned and some survived (that is why they were widely spaced), but thanks to civilization putting out every fire for the last 100yrs, they now all perish. – trooper Jun 2 '15 at 2:21
  • A natural fire is a ground fire that clears out underbrush, fallen needles, and the like. Using down wood in your fire won't do much to reduce the fuel build-up. – Mark Aug 9 '15 at 19:14

Let me turn the question around: Is it ethical to use a portable stove to burn irreplaceable fossil fuels? Is it ethical to carry that fossil fuel in a pressurised can (for gas fuel stoves) or metal bottle (for liquid fuel stoves) that can't be easily recycled and so ends up in landfill? However, note Shem's comment below - Aluminium bottles are almost infinitely recyclable.

I think the answer lies in the scale. Using a few twigs in a twig burner is fine. Using all the dead trees in a half-kilometer radius to build a bonfire the size of your tent is not.

Most of the outdoor places where I go in New Zealand are under fire bans and most of the huts have had their open fires replaced with potbelly stoves which aren't that good for cooking, so I have no choice but to carry a portable cooker.

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    I only use AL bottles, which are easily the most recyclable thing in the world. But you make a good argument against using propane/butane, which I like because I'm not much of a fan of compressed gas stoves. As far as using fossil fuels, nothing else on earth uses that stuff, only humans. Burning white gas leaves a smaller eco footprint than burning wood. Downed wood creates habitats for small animals, which eventually rots and provides food for creeping critters and rejuvenates the forest floor with nutrients. Burning that wood interrupts the, "circle of life". – ShemSeger Apr 1 '15 at 21:10
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    Burning wood also puts particulates like hot ash and sparks into the air. The biggest concern with campfires is that human started forest fires are sparked by poorly managed campfires more than anything else. – ShemSeger Apr 1 '15 at 21:10
  • @ShemSeger I don´t think you can say that burning wood has a bigger eco footprint than fossil fuels. You also have to consider the exploitation process and everything associated - remember deepwater horizon? Or the Niger delta? Or the debate about the Keystone pipeline? I think fossil fuels and there extraction has a huge impact on environment which cannot be neglected. – Paul Paulsen Apr 6 '15 at 8:57
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    @PaulPaulsen - You need to consider the scale of the impact relative to the activity. The majority or oil taken from the ground is burnt as fuel in engines, after that it's mostly used for pavement and laying roads. Burning carbon fuels for camp stoves is very far down the list of footprint sizes. The amount of white gas needed to produce the same amount of heat is minuscule compared to burning wood, and far more efficient. There are responsible ways to remove oil from the ground, if we didn't use it then it would just sit in the ground forever. – ShemSeger Apr 6 '15 at 15:01

Most comments here suggest that campfires are a back country tradition when in fact they are mostly in densely populated camping areas in parks. They are rarely used for cooking. Most of the noxious smoke blows right into the next campsite and the owners of the campfire sit comfortably upwind of the fire. It appears that NPS has no policy on this except to provide fire rings and sell firewood yet this smoke is injurious to anyone with respiratory issues and obnoxious to anyone else. Ironic that they ban cigarette smoking which I support, but profit from wood smoke.

  • National parks do often have prohibitions on fires in specific areas, e.g., no fires above a certain altitude in a certain national park. – Ben Crowell Aug 9 '15 at 18:12

Campfires are not flat-out unethical in all circumstances, but too often they way they are built and used are. For example, if you passed a fire ring not long ago, or know there is a fire ring not far away, do not build another one just because you want to camp here. If you have to build a fire ring, don't make it larger than necessary to cook your food and give you a pleasant hour or so of gazing into the flames. (Unless you are hypothermic.) Don't leave unburned or unburnable things in the fire ring -- bandaids, aluminum foil, smashed cans, glass. Unburned bandaids are my pet peeve. I don't like seeing rocks and fallen trees elaborately arranged to make the area look like a living/dining room. And carry out or bury ashes and charcoal to the best of your ability. If you can't do that, clean up someone else's mess on your way out.

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