Open fires can be a great thing – a point of focus, a source of warmth and light and somewhere to sit and chat in an evening. However, if not built and tidied properly, they can be one of the worst eyesores in our landscape. This is increasingly a frustrating bugbear of ours. We love the openness of access to the outdoors in the UK, particularly in Scotland, but increasingly think that the outdoors access code does not make the leave no trace point in a good way. It says:
“Wherever possible, use a stove rather than light an open fire. If you do wish to light an open fire, keep it small, under control, and supervised – fires that get out of control can cause major damage, for which you might be liable. Never light an open fire during prolonged dry periods or in areas such as forests, woods, farmland or on peaty ground or near to buildings or in cultural heritage sites where damage can be easily caused. Heed all advice at times of high risk. Remove all traces of an open fire before you leave.”
With the mention of leave no trace as only one line at the end, these fires are really easy to do if you want to and know how to, so why do so many people not? And why do so many people cut branches from trees rather than source wood responsibly? Why do some regions such as the Loch Lomond National Park think that banning wildcamping for all is the solution instead of education and investment in facilities at the most popular spots?
We don’t have fires that often – it’s simply not worth the hassle, smoke in our eyes and so on. Most of the time we simply use a small gas cooker to cook our food and make our drinks, and then wear extra layers and a hat to keep warm – make no mess, none to tidy! When we do have a fire, our number one choice is to use a firebox. If this sounds complicated it really isn’t – all a firebox does is lift the fire off the floor, contain it and collect the ash. We have two, one which is for our larger fires, and is simply an old bucket barbeque from a supermarket, the second is a small trekking woodstove we bought from Ebay for around £12, weighs about 300g and is much smaller but very simple to use and ideal for taking on walks or for quick fires for a spot of marshmallow roasting.
In terms of wood, we only burn windfall wood, as dry as we can find, and we collect from over a large area to not remove all wood debris from one spot. This helps bugs and small animals. For our bigger fire and at popular spots we usually take a sack of logs with us as natural fallen wood can be difficult to find in these places. Our small fire burns literally the smallest of twigs and there is always a supply of small twigs in pretty much anywhere we stop.
Once the fire is out and the ashes are cool we bag these up and take them with us, or in the case of our small fire, we might sprinkle the cold ashes over a large area – no trace is key though, so we will take it with us if in doubt.
We don’t bother with fires directly on the ground because whilst leaving no trace is actually pretty straightforward, it is more effort and more time consuming than a firebox. Having said that, if you do want to have a fire directly on the ground, here is a method that will leave no trace. First, put a large bin bag down on the floor. Second, place about 10-15cm depth of soil (not peat) on top of the bag. The holes from fallen trees are great places to find easy access soil. Third, have your fire, keeping it less than half the size of the soil area. Finally once the ashes are cool, scoop the ashes into a bag to take out with you and return the soil back to where you found it and take the plastic bag with you. It is really that simple – if more work than a firebox.
Finally a thought on really popular loch shore spots – why ban when you could educate actively and provide firepits? It would be pretty simple to enforce a leave no trace rule if it was that clear at popular spots, and surely the national parks could also make money selling logs etc from the visitors centres that are pretty common in the most popular areas for use in the fire pits. Surely an approach like this would work better for all; promoting use of the outdoors, but minimising the impact we all have without the kneejerk response of ‘Ban Wildcamping’ which we are currently seeing.
Wildcamping is great and we are lucky to be in a country where access is so open and easy. Open fires can be a real highlight of a camping trip, but being responsible and really leaving no trace is vital, regardless of where you camp or how you get there.