Get Wild: Is camping in the backcountry better without a campfire?
It was a warm weekend in July, and I had just pitched my tent on a perch overlooking the glassy waters of Lower Slate Lake in the Eagles Nest Wilderness. After inflating my sleeping pad and boiling some water for dinner on my camp stove, I found a comfortable rock to rest my back against. I simultaneously savored some piping-hot freeze-dried risotto and the last bits of light that lingered on the ridgelines above the lake. Alpenglow faded into darkness, pierced only by moonlight and, when necessary, the beam of my headlamp.
For these couple nights in the backcountry, my partner and I had opted to camp in view of the lake in exchange for a campfire. There were no fire bans in place that weekend and small campfires are permitted in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, so long as you are below tree line and at least one-quarter of a mile away from any lakes and 100 feet from streams. We were camped away from the lake’s edge, but still too close for a fire. Plus, in recent years, with fire bans in place in Summit County through much of the summer, we’d come accustomed to not having fires at camp at all.
Admittedly, there is a specific allure to the glow of a campfire — staring into the dancing orange flames as you chat with camp mates or quietly ponder. But I’ve come to find that time at camp is even more enjoyable when I forgo the fire. When the flames are in front of me, I’m mesmerized to the point of losing my peripherals; I look only at the fire and forget to consider what’s around me. Without the bright flames, I instead found myself observing the moonlight as it danced along tiny ripples on the lake’s surface. I saw the subtle reflection of the peaks in the water. I watched a moose take a dip on the opposite shore underneath the light of the night sky. Instead of the crackle of dry wood, I bathed in the sound of whispering pines and a gushing stream.
Despite the rain we’ve seen in Summit County so far this summer, Colorado remains in its multi-decade megadrought. A UCLA-led study published earlier this year suggests that this drought isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which is to say that seasonal fire bans are also not going anywhere anytime soon. According to the National Park Service, nearly 85% of wildfires in the U.S. are human caused. While not always the cause, mismanaged campfires are a notable contributor to this
Drought and fire bans aside, campfires are prone to doing more harm than good for the land: They inhale dead wood that acts as a vital part of the ecosystem, scorch microbe-rich soils and leave burn scars in their place. While building campfires under Leave No Trace standards helps, it doesn’t mitigate all the issues associated with them. Plus, they’re laborious. Instead of digging a hole to build your campfire in, you could be enjoying the scenery and solitude of camp.
Perhaps it’s time we bid backcountry campfires adieu and instead admire the trees and peaks and lakes that surround us when we’re out amongst it after the sun’s gone down. Without the blaze of a campfire, you’ll be amazed by the sights and sounds of nature that are arguably more interesting than the flicker of a few flames.
Stasia Stockwell is a Breckenridge local and avid backcountry enthusiast. A true mountain dweller, she feels most at home in the Alpine. Stasia writes primarily for the outdoor adventure realm, with the desire to connect readers from all backgrounds with nature in a meaningful way.
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