Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Campfires in the Backcountry.

When camping almost everyone loves a campfire. I enjoy them, albeit to a lesser extent than most of my fellow outdoor enthusiasts. There is definitely something comforting not only about the warmth and light of a fire, but just it's crackling life. It can almost be like having another companion along for the experience of being outdoors.

But what I often find when I'm in a developed campground is that so many people are burning wood that the smoke becomes overwhelming and choking. It's like living in a cloud of heavy smog (which it is), and then the pleasure becomes a torture.

When I'm in the backcountry on an overnight or extended backpacking trip I very rarely build a fire. I just don't want a campfire at all when I'm out in what amounts to wilderness. To me, in such places, smoke and flames seem out of place and intrude greatly on my sense of solitude and wonder of Mother Nature.

There are exceptions, of course. I once did build a campfire when I backpacked down into Linville Gorge. I was camped beside the Linville River which was packed with so much dry firewood that it was just too tempting to pass up gathering a huge pile of it. And the weather was cold (I'd hiked through freezing rain at the lip of the gorge). Also, there genuinely did not seem to be any other humans in the Gorge, at all. I had a couple of days off in the middle of the week, the weather was foul, and no one else appeared to be using the wilderness on that trip.

I built a campfire, and I have to admit that I enjoyed it.

But that was a very rare exception. I do my best to avoid campsites where other backpackers are camping if I think any of them will build a campfire. I once set up camp and just as I got ready for bed a couple of other backpackers arrived and began trying to build a campfire. The smoke drifted directly toward my tent and kept me from falling to sleep. Just as I was preparing to move my tent they gave up on trying to ignite the damp wood and I was able to fall asleep.

There's a certain writer of outdoor trail books (whose name I will not mention because I don't want to advertise his practices) who builds large, overwhelming campfires at every spot he camps. If you see his books there is an obligatory photo of a roaring campfire at every spot he stops to camp. I hope never to encounter this primitive moron in my travels.

My tent in the foreground at Deep Gap on the Black Mountain Crest Trail. I had arrived first and earlier in the day. Other backpackers came along and set up camp near me. Fine. No big deal. Until they began to try to light a campfire with damp wood and the smoke blew directly into my tent, choking me. Thankfully, the wood refused to fully ignite and they gave up before I lost my temper.

My campsite on the summit of Mount Sterling in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can see a bothersome campfire ring in the foreground. But I had the site completely to myself and no one arrived to try to build a fire. The stars came out after a dusting of sleet and ice and I enjoyed the view of the night sky.

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