Staying Fire Safe in the Backcountry

Staying Fire Safe in the Backcountry

This summer in the Northern hemisphere has been hot, really hot, and for many of us it has been combined with hot dry winds and the dreaded warning: smokey. Here in the Western USA, August saw a multitude of wildfires raging in the backcountry, destroying thousands upon thousands of beautiful nature spots. Parts of the PCT have been closed and diversions were needed. Southern Europe wasn't spared either: wildfires took villages and nature spots all throughout the region. This is amazingly frustrating, especially after such a cold and wet (and long!) winter - I guess climate change is real.


Wildfires in the backcountry are almost exclusively man made, with the NPS estimating that as much as 90% of wildfires are caused by human error. It is one of the easiest dangers to avoid with a good mix of planning, a bit of compromise on comfort and foresight. Wildfires are almost always a by product of negligent behaviour, even from people with good intentions. In order to try and slow down this pandemic of wildfires, I'll start with the first piece of advice in this list:

Don't have open fires in the backcountry: no fire pits of any size, none.

Fire Pit

So after covering this basic rule (or what should be a rule), lets get into all the things we, as hikers and backpackers, can do to prevent wildfires:

1. No open fires

As I wrote above, avoiding any kind of open flame fire in the backcountry in the form of a fire pit, fire circle or anything that can't be controlled should be avoided. It doesn't matter how great your stone circle skills are - you can't guarantee control on the fire with dry brush and strong winds all around you. The smallest spark can start a brush fire.

Fire at a camp ground

At the occasional campground you can indulge in a fire, but it must be highly controlled: only use existing fire pits and BBQ stands, use coal and not huge logs (which tend to spark more) and have the means to stop a fire: a bucket of dirt/sand is the best.

One last point about fires: fire rings are an ugly scar on the ground and blacken rocks. It is also pretty much against the 5th principle of Leave No Trace: minimizing campfire impact - worth a read.

Fire on a plate

2. Use fully controlled stoves

When we say fully controlled stoves we mean ones that have a solid on/off system and which are stable. Not surprisingly, that means heavier and bulkier stoves, with gas canister stoves being the safest: no fuel spillage and very restricted fuel flow. After gas canisters, white gas stoves that are used with a pressurized container are ok, though fuel spillage is possible. 

What you shouldn't use are the various ultralight stoves: alcohol stoves, solid fuel stoves (esbit or wood) and the like. The ultralight stoves are very rarely controlled and rely on a very simple design. They are also very, very easy to kick over by accident and leave a trail of burning alcohol all around, risking you, your gear and all the brush around you. Also, during fire restriction times (like summer in the Pacific NorthWest) you are not allowed to use them, simple as that.

Alcohol stove

3. Don't smoke

This feels almost foolish to mention, but here it is, mainly due to the fact that this is so often the cause of many wildfires (the main cause, actually, according to a study by UC Davis): 

Don't Smoke (at least in nature, your home is your problem)

Smoking is dangerous for the environment in the form of fires, smoke and disturbance to local habitats from smell and litter.

And it's bad for you.

So don't.

Woman smoking outdoors

4. Take out what you brought in

This should be obvious but is so easily forgotten, especially when a few drinks are involved, but the drinks themselves are a huge culprit: glass litter is another way we create wildfires. Strong sun light is focused through the bottle you left behind, creating a very hot dot that can generate a flame on the right material. Glass bottles, strong sun and dry brush is a wildfire waiting to happen.

So just as you follow LNT when sober, make sure you do so even when you are carrying a slight hangover from the night before.

Discarded bottles

5. Go stoveless (and flameless)

The ultimate summer adventure: no stoves, fires, or heat. Going stoveless for a day hike is easy: some trail mix, a couple of sandwiches and you are pretty much set. The problem with going stoveless is when you are backpacking for days and many think that it means no coffee, dinner or breakfast - terrible! In reality, going stoveless in the summer is wonderful: less "faff" in camp, food has a bit of a cooling effect and there are some great alternative possibilities. Here are a few ideas:

  • Coffee: an overnight cold soak of coarsely ground coffee beans works the charm! Before going to sleep, put 2-3 spoons of coffee in a small plastic bottle (8-12oz) and leave over night. In the morning, filter through a coffee filter or drink straight from the bottle.

Making a cold brew

  • Breakfast: mix your favorite highly nutritional cereals (brans, oats, etc) with dried fruit, chopped nuts and anything else you want (I add chocolate chips) in a sandwich sized Ziplock. Add a spoon or two of milk powder at home and pack away. In the camp, just add a half cup of water to the bag and eat straight out of it - no cleaning needed.
  • Dinner: the stoveless backpacker's best friend for dinner is couscous: add water (hot or cold) at a ratio of 4:5 (couscous:water) to the couscous and it is ready in 5 minutes, so simple! To make things interesting add a serving of soup in a cup, a sachet of meat/fish or dried vegetables with the couscous. The combinations are endless.

You can see that going stoveless doesn't mean not having a satisfying and tasty food experience outdoors, and with as hot as it has been, can be even refreshing.

Cuscus dinner

Make sure to prevent wildfires

Adjusting our behavior to prevent wildfires is step one. You can easily implement all the above (though you don't have to go stoveless) for an enjoyable outdoors experience. The next step in preventing wildfires is educating others: if you see others with open fires or who are tempted to take an ultralight alcohol stove, talk to them and help them realize the risks. If you see a small fire that hasn't died completely, extinguish it with dirt and sand.

Don't just look into your own world, make sure everyone around you is working hard to prevent those wildfires so we can enjoy an active summer outdoors.

What did you do today to prevent wildfires?

1 comment

  • Brad Braun

    Great food advice. Convinced me to stick to stove less.

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