There’s some primitive instinct in humanity that craves a big, blazing fire when you’re sitting around in camp, whether alone or with your friends. “Camp television” it’s called. No campsite seems complete without a fire ring with the obligatory half-burned logs and charred stumps here and there. Really, who doesn’t love a campfire?
That’s not to say I dislike campfires. I’d say I’m even pretty good at starting them. I started the one in the picture above just last fall. But on the list of things that I absolutely must have in camp, a fire is pretty close to the bottom, right along with other forms of unnecessary entertainment like radios and card games. Of course, this is entirely a matter of preference, and I’m not going to say my opinion is any more correct than that of people who enjoy campfires. But I’ll stand by the fact (not opinion) that a fire in camp is a form of unnecessary entertainment, and not a safety tool.
When I was planning my New England Trail through-hike, one of the opinions I heard from someone weighing in on my gear list was “If it gets too cold for your clothing/shelter systems a fire can save your life.” And if you look at the 10 Essentials list that I posted last week, fire starters come before first aid kit, whistle, and rain gear. Will a fire save your life in the wilderness? I can see having fire starters to light your camp stove, but if you’re at the point on a backcountry trip where your only means of survival is lighting a campfire, you’ve let a heck of a lot of things go awfully wrong already.
The three uses for campfires as supposed safety devices are to cook food, signal search parties, and keep you warm. In all three cases, fires are incredibly inefficient, and, if your life is in danger, probably a waste of your resources. Think of it– if you’re hypothermic and in desperate need of warmth, you’ll need to spend a lot of time standing still in order to get a fire going to the point where it will provide sufficient heat to bring you back to a comfortable temperature. Or you could use that time to run around, jump up and down, wave your arms, or do anything at all that will get your heart rate up, and produce heat internally. While you’re sitting around, lighting your fire, you’ll be losing heat pretty steadily.
Then there’s fire for cooking or signalling, but camp stoves and LED lights are going to be a lot better at that, without the dangerous side effects. You know, like embers that shoot out and burn your clothes or backpacking equipment. Or root fires. Or forest fires (yes, those do happen). Or skin burns. Camp fires are less controlled than stoves or flashlights, and less control is usually not a good thing if you’re already in a bad situation.
Rather than thinking, “if my stove and light break, and I’m too cold, I can start a fire,” it’s better to think, “what can I do to make sure my stove and light don’t break, and I don’t become too cold.”Let’s get rid of this notion that fire is an emergency tool, and relegate campfires to their place as campsite entertainment.