Sarah Stirling | Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?
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Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?

Campfires: when and where is it OK to light them?

There is something primal about watching a campfire. Artificial light kills darkness; campfires illuminate it. The glow is hypnotic, people are drawn to stay within its radius and the calming atmosphere invites story telling. In a world where most people are overconnected to tech and disconnected from nature, sitting around a fire is one of the few easy lifelines we have to our roots. It seems a shame to be the Health & Safety person asking, “Yes, but when is it safe and legal to light one?” But nowadays, with the doom of climate change looming over us, most of us are thinking more about our environmental impacts. This year there have been terrible droughts and wild fires around the world. So it’s also a topical and very important question.

This campfire question came to light recently when I was asked to be the Outdoor Consultant on a wonderful guide to adventure for kids. I thought about campfires. Here was a fantastic opportunity to pass on a real love for the outdoors – both enjoying it and taking on a responsibility to care for it. Kids generally love campfires. But everything I knew about when and where you could light them was gut instinct from experience, so I needed to check my facts first. Wanting to teach kids is often really helpful, isn’t it, because it challenges you to consider why you do things, instead of mindlessly doing.

Where would I personally light one? 

I got a pen and started with what I thought I knew.

  1. I definitely consider campfires a rare treat when the situation allows, rather than a right or necessity
  2. At campsites that allow fires
  3. On a really quiet beach because there’s little danger of it spreading and it leaves no trace if you clear up afterward – i.e. doesn’t scorch the ground
  4. If it wasn’t a really quiet beach, I would bring my own raised fire pit and have a fire in there
  5. Occasionally if I found a fire circle that someone else had used and scorched the ground anyway (not sure on the ethics of this, thinking about it, but I know I have done it)
  6. I would always try to leave no trace

The rules and ethics in England and Wales

Next I called Adam Vasey, New Forest National Park Ranger, who told me: “While we have some Open Access areas of countryside where we have a ‘Right to Roam’ off the paths – in National Parks, forests etc – all this land is owned by someone. All these areas have different regulations, but as a general rule, lighting fires on private ground (even Open Access areas) is discouraged and can even be classed as an illegal activity because of the risks of fires spreading like, well, wildfire. An official guideline is: ‘Only light small campfires when you have the express permission of the landowner, normally at a campsite or some such, and remember that lighting fires can be extremely dangerous, resulting in the destruction of habitat and property etc.’ I love campfires and mostly choose campsites based on whether they allow fires (some have raised fire pits you can use).”

The rules and ethics in Scotland

In Scotland it’s slightly different, Cairngorms Park Ranger, Ben Dolphin told me. The Scottish ‘Outdoor Access Code’ strongly discourages rather than prohibits fires. Where possible, the code advises, use a stove. If you do light a fire, keep it small and consider yourself responsible if it gets out of control. You are advised not to light them in forests or woods, on farmland, peaty ground, or near buildings or heritage sites. You are also advised not to light them during prolonged dry periods and to leave no trace afterwardsEssentially, as with wild camping, which is allowed in Scotland (it’s technically not in Wales and England), you are allowed to do it in Scotland as long as you do so responsibly and occasionally rather than frequently. 

The problem, explains Ben, is that a lot of people think they know what they are doing with fires. In Scotland, he says, most of the ground is peat, which can burn very well. He regularly approaches people who are having fires, and hears the explanation, “It’s OK, we know what we are doing, we built this ring of stones.” But the ring of stones does nothing, he says, apart from perhaps marking out an area kids shouldn’t cross, and preventing logs rolling out – the heat still goes into the ground and spreads outwards. Wild fires have started this way.

This summer, because it’s been so dry, the National Parks in Scotland have actually banned fires and they see this trend continuing with climate change. Ben has actively been putting out fires. I ask about raised fires and BBQs – are these OK? Ben explained that these were also banned, but that he and other Rangers had recognised that if everything is banned some people will get fed up and light a fire anyway. So if they saw someone with a fire on the ground they would put it out and explain why (and it apparently takes 20-30 litres of water to put out even a little fire on dry, peaty ground, because the ground gets so hot), but if they saw someone with a BBQ or raised fire they would just explain the risks – tell them that they personally would not have a fire – and would ask them to keep the fire small.

We talk about beaches and riverbeds – Ben explains that some people light fires in the dunes rather than on the sand, and this can lead to the whole dune setting on fire and disintegrating. He points out that riverbeds are a relatively safe place to have a fire, compared to fields, forests and moorland areas.

Carry in and carry out

Ben also commented that, as well as making sure you leave no trace after your fire, it is also good practice to try to bring your fuel (wood, charcoal etc) in with you. He said that some woods in Scotland have little dead wood left in them as it’s all been burnt for fires and this is a problem as dead wood is important in the eco-system and a habitat for lots of creatures. Apparently a well-balanced wood is about 30% dead wood.

Forest School methods

The proliferation of forest schools are a good marker of how bushcraft is rapidly growing in popularity, hand-in-hand with rising awareness about the environment. Here’s an example of what kids learn: only light a fire if you have the landowner’s permission, dig off the top soil so you don’t damage it, light the fire, keep it under control, then thoroughly douse it out afterwards, poke a hole with a stick under the fire so the water can seep down, stay until the coals aren’t hot any more to touch, take the big bits of charcoal away with you and scatter the remaining ash around the area so it’s not concentrated in one place, then replace the top soil. 

Opinions from UK outdoor instructors

“I wouldn’t light a fire wild camping anywhere in the UK but I have found plenty of basic campsites that do allow them if they are lifted off the ground. I use fires with groups of young people where they are allowed and they love them. Maybe on a quiet beach would be an exception but even then I would make sure to leave no trace when I leave. In South Africa and Swaziland on expedition we did all our cooking on open fires but the fire pits were already in place at our wild camping spots as this was common practice in the wilderness there. I would look at the guidelines for areas you are visiting. In most National Parks around the world I think fires are strongly discouraged”
Mikaela Toczek, UK mountain instructor and expedition leader

“I only ever light campfires on beaches and in campsites (never seems to be in the UK any more but in Europe it often is). It’s a joy of camping when done responsibly and a great opportunity to educate the next generation”
– Matt Cooper, climbing and hillwalking instructor

“The easy option is to have the landowner’s permission and to have your fuel with you and prepped so you can maintain control of your fire. Using a raised fire pit is a safe option. Working with kids this helps in managing your environment, too. I think you have to separate wild camping from bushcraft. Wild camping is a means to an end. Maybe halfway up a mountain. So you wouldn’t need a fire, just a stove at most. But bushcraft – finding a site to camp and practice those skills – locating a suitable safe spot is part of the art of bushcraft”
– Simon Curran, a UK bushcraft instructor

Opinions from elsewhere in the world

“In our province it’s illegal to light a fire from June to October. Wild fires have devastated the landscape and lives of so many” – Vicki, Spain

“Seeing the wildfires and their impacts on all the westernmost National Parks this summer really changed our minds about this. We used to love campfires but now we don’t want to contribute any more to the air pollution” – Elise, LA

“British Columbia fire status notices are posted throughout the year depending on conditions and this determines what you are allowed to do. Generally no fires are allowed June to September” – John, British Columbia

Conclusion

What I take away from this is:

1 Places it’s generally OK to light a fire on the ground: campsites that allow it, quiet beaches (but NOT in the dunes and check for signs that prohibit them), Scottish riverbeds

2 If you’d like to light a fire elsewhere, check the local regulations or check with the landowner – also check what the soil is, and don’t light one on peaty ground

3 If you really want to have a fire somewhere that’s not a beach or a riverbed, or if you’re not sure if the beach will be quiet, bring your own raised fire pit or BBQ, keep the fire small and never leave it unattended

4 Bring in your own fuel, where possible, and leave no trace when you leave – scatter ash and carry out big bits of charcoal where possible; bury it if it’s not possible

5 Don’t light a fire on the ground during a prolonged dry period – it’s not worth the risk

6 A ring of stones makes a good marker for a line kids shouldn’t cross, and helps prevent logs rolling out, but remember it doesn’t stop the fire drying out the ground, which could still cause a fire

sarah
sarah@sarahstirling.com
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