Leave No Trace Fires

20 August 2010 · 2 comments

in Personal & Holidays

For thousands of years our ancestors relied on fire for cooking and as a source of heat and comfort. However in recent decades we have become culturally adverse to the concept of open fires whether that is in our homes or outside. The Scottish Outdoor Access Code gives this advice:

“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.”

Thus here in Scotland the only places left are mown grass and beaches. Otherwise it is a sanitised, boxed up form of fire such as stoves and barbecues that people are expected to use. Fair enough when you remember the damage caused by fires that get out of control.

Not to be put off, several weeks ago, on a family canoeing trip, I decided that it might be nice for my son to experience an open fire in a semi-wild place and to learn about the concept of leaving no trace in an experiential way. We found a lovely beach on a loch and set to work, taking care to site the fire away from trees and vegetation. There was a gentle wind but this was carrying the smoke across the loch.

First we set about collecting dry sticks from the ground. We had to sort these by size into those as thin as spaghetti, those as thin as pencils and those as thin as our thumbs. Next we cleared a small place in the sand and brought out the tinder.

In the pot on the left is some very dry birch bark. On the right is a firestick I made several months ago from Scot’s Pine. I took both along with us as dry tinder is essential to starting a fire.

MJ was given the honour of lighting the fire. Although I have a Swedish flint stick, I took pity on him and let him use a match. We don’t have photos as we were too busy concentrating on the fire! But the dry tinder was well worth bringing.

Even a small fire needs a good heart. We followed the No Trace principle of keeping the fire small and using sticks that are smaller in diameter than our wrists.

MJ enjoyed toasting and eating the marshmallows. He did have to test this out by completely burning several of them.

Once we’d finished our snack and drink, we made sure that our fire burnt out completely. The lumps of half burnt wood were moved in to the heart to ensure all the wood turned to ash.

This takes quite a bit of time and patience. Next we had to ensure the fire was completely cool, by adding water until the smoke had gone.  We scattered the ash far and wide so that it could not be seen.

We made sure that no ash was left on the beach. We did not want to see a trace of the fire here or anywhere else.

Just before we left by canoe, we “swept” the beach to make it look less disturbed with a little bit of heather.

Last year I attended several bushcraft courses to ensure I was making and managing open fires in a sensible and environmentally sensitive way. This blog is for information only and should not be used as a guide to lighting fires.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Debi August 20, 2010 at 20:48

Your son is so lucky to have taken part in such an experience. Lovely post.


Mandy August 25, 2010 at 10:58

We recently went on a guided nature day in Forres, Scotland, with Deborah Benham of Wild at Heart Ecoholidays, where we made a fire in the wood without matches – it was the most absorbing hour I have spent in a long time! My four year old was very proud in starting things using a fire steel so since returning home we’ve been gathering thistle seed for tinder.

“Leaving no trace” was a wonderful concept to be involved in and the melted chocolate button bread was delicious!


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