Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Backcountry Cookfires: Overview and Techniques for Cooking Over an Open Flame

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    Thanks for the citation, Brian. It seems that the whole subject is up in the air, with refutations and counter refutations flying back and forth. I thought initially, from your original post, that it was an established fact. Seems that's not so. I too, being from Northern Michigan, have been around a few mines. Not a pretty sight, are they? But my educated guess is that a Hummer uses its fair share of industrial metals and other environmentally pernicious goodies as well. Anyhow, I'm not interested in a debate, either, so thanks again for the citation. One last question/observation. You refer to environmentalists as the "Enviro Elite". It comes across, to me at least, as
    pretty derogatory. I was just wondering: Do you regard environmentalists in general that way, or is it some particular subset that you feel that way about? Just curious.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern Oregon

    I will support anyone's environmental stance, no matter how radical or different from my own, if they walk the walk. Do not take the stance of no logging if you live in a home built with lumber or you use paper/wood products of any kind. Do not lecture on fuel consumption unless you walk everywhere – barefoot. Everything, and I do mean everything, we use ,the light and UL adventure gear we buy, the food we eat, the cloths we wear, everything we use requires natural resources and requires processing. Its honorable to aim high and do ones best but save the lecture for someone else. I put over 12,000 miles on my bike last year and less than 5,000 on my vehicle. Does that make me richeous or give me the right to judge others, hell no. That bike is made of titanium which requires mining and is welded which I'm sure someone will state causes damage to the ozone. There is rubber on the tires, leather on the saddle, components made of metal and the bike requires chain lube that is petroleum based. Not to green sounding to me, and by the way the vehicle I put less than 5,000 miles on is my H2. Having ranted on I feel so worked up I need to go for a run, in Nike's, made in China I'm sure. I'm so ungreen I will likely be asked to drop my BPL membership. And to think this started over cook fires in the wilderness and I go cookless.

    Steve O


    Locale: South Kak

    The 400+ page report doesn't even cite a single reference nor does it explain any methodology. I'd wipe my … with the "Dust to Dust" report before even thinking of reading it.

    Brian James


    Locale: South Coast of BC

    At least the Dust to Dust "report" made us think more analytically. Prior to the controversy, the sheeple were lead to believe that a car's sole environmental impact was its' gasoline consumption. The Environmental Elite or Environmental Religious had quietly boxed us in through false equations. Fuel economy is not directly equal to environmental impact as we *now* all acknowledge.

    Even the Pacific Institute report is willing to box the reader in using a series of careful qualifications: they're not talking about actual environmental impact, but total energy consumption. This conveniently sidesteps the issue of Nickel mining and smelting.

    As I posted before, I believe in doing one's own analysis. If a product or activity is "Saintly" according to someone else's standard, you have to ask where that standard came from and whether it may be motivated by a secondary agenda. There are huge "dark sides" to CFL lightbulbs, hybrid cars, the Kyoto Protocol, ethanol auto fuel, the Hydrogen economy, etc. But you don't often hear them discussed that way.

    I feel that this applies to any popular concept that the media equates on a 1:1 basis with Environmental Salvation: Carbon Neutral, Fuel Economy, Total Energy Consumption, Virtual Water, Sustainability, etc. I don't automatically believe anyone who tells me that buying a whole new car will save the planet or that burning wood isn't changing the climate.

    Richard Scruggs
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon

    William —

    Excellent article. Appreciate the information provided, and your balanced assessment of the important benefits and responsibilities that backpackers have with the use of any campfire, as you made very clear in the article itself.



    Devin Montgomery
    BPL Member


    Locale: one snowball away from big trouble

    I know this is an immense tangent from the original story backcountry fires, but I just couldn't help myself. What is "good" about the original Hummer vs. Prius article is that it purports to put attention on the entire energy and waste cycle of products. Had it actually done that, it would have been great, but what it did instead was gruesomely abuse any notion of intelligent research or fact checking. It's just insulting – an expected lifetime of 100K miles for a Toyota? Such a claim almost puts me at a loss for words.

    I defy anyone to find a SINGLE Toyota that hasn't been wrecked, run without oil, or suffered some other user-induced travesty that has only lasted for 100K miles. Frankly, I would be surprised if any modern car has a life expectancy that low – maybe the 2008 Yugo? The there's 300K miles on a Hummer? Well, it is a Chevy, so a few will probably make it, but "expected"? Meaning mean or or maybe median lifespan? Snowball's chance in hell.

    This kind of pseudo-research really gets to me. It's just so offensive it makes me want pound my fist on a table and curse as spittle flies from my pursed lips. It would almost be funny if it wasn't so good at 1) conning some people into thinking that it's valid and 2) causing others to have an irrational mistrust of good science and research. Yuck.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    When I commented on many "environmental" fuel sources being counterproductive, my major shining example is the way that hydrogen has been embraced as the fuel of the future.

    The issue is this: where do we get the hydrogen from? Answer: we crack it from water, using fossil fuels.

    So until we are running the entire country on sustainable power sources the hydrogen cars are as bad as gas burners (or worse, due to <100% efficiency in changing fossil fuel energy to hydrogen energy). I will admit that I haven't looked up data on this, but it seems intuitive. If anyone has data send it my way.

    Similar argument for electric cars. The charge comes from coal-fired power plants, unless you're one of the few people who have access to a massive solar array or something. And then, you have to do something with the batteries, which are a HAZMAT nightmare. At least they can be recycled.

    These are green solutions for some individuals, but not for a country or the human race. This is one reason that I'm somewhat of an oddity: a pro-nuke environmentalist.

    Max Hoagland


    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    Brian James wrote:
    "Dean, I'm not interested in a debate. I humbly and sincerely concede defeat in all categories."

    I don't want to 'defeat' anyone, dude. (I've been trying to walk away from this discussion or at least move it to a new thread for days now.) I just want to understand what you're saying because if we're talking about two different things then we're talking about two different things, but if we're talking about the same thing then I think you're wrong, but I can leave it at that.

    I also got touchy and took the offensive because I thought I was being insulted. If you weren't trying to call me some sort of mindless enviro-fascist, well, mea culpa.

    And if you don't want to be mean to each other any more, I'm all for it. I certainly love hiking in B.C. and I don't need you out in the woods waiting for me with a club. :)


    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    Max Hoagland wrote:

    Whew! The bottom line of this article seems to be that the experts are still disagreeing, basically with CNW pitted against the Clean Vehicle Program guy. I'll reserve judgment for after they've got it figured out, because economics on this scale is WAY above my pay grade. I'm a science guy not a business guy, and most of the argument revolves around "energy costs," which some are using as a surrogate for energy consumption.

    I'll stand behind my statements on hydrogen- and battery-powered cars, though. At least as long as we're burning oil to generate electricity…

    Joshua Mitchell


    Locale: Kansas

    "I'll reserve judgment for after they've got it figured out, because economics on this scale is WAY above my pay grade."

    Actually, for individuals, it's a fairly simple answer… it's the answer that has always been around: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

    Note, no place in that mantra does it say throw out the stuff you already have and consume more stuff.

    In reality, reducing your need for transportation (don't drive when you can walk or bike), reusing your transportation (keep whatever you have properly maintained and running as long as possible)… does far more than trading your old whatever in for the newest 'green' car.

    Now, when something breaks beyond reuse, then it's time to consider which 'new' thing to buy to replace. Think in terms of only buying what you need (reducing), buying pre-owned if possible (reusing), and finally buying with green materials / construction in mind (recycling).

    No one will ever get to no-impact (as Thom well put it, even bikes have SOME impact – though his use of his bike rather than his hummer is certainly reducing his consumption). However, it's all about relative degrees of impact. Always choose the lesser of two impacts and most people already have the facilities to make that choice, as long as they keep RRR in mind.

    PS – there's a reason the 3Rs are in the order they are in, they are in decreasing order of potential, reducing your current consumption is more effective than reusing something… etc. (note reducing =/= buy something more 'green' to replace what you already own)

    Matthew Swierkowski


    Locale: Southeast

    Good grief this thread got way off topic. I had to read through all that stuff to see what comments were actually made on the article.

    Anyway, I actually have a comment on the article. Someone already mentioned three rocks with the pot straddling the rocks and the fire underneath. Now I don't use a cook fire, and don't intend to so take this comment for what it's worth. I was surprised not to see something similar to this as one of the options in the article. On a mission trip to Peru a few years ago I witnessed the natives (Quechua) cooking on cook fires. They usually had a few rocks close together with the pot straddling the rocks and the fire underneath. They would feed in minimal amounts of fuel (usually small pieces of wood…like maybe finger diameter), and the method was extremely efficient (it had to be cause fuel was not abundant where we were at). So anyway, like I said I was just surprised to see the big fire ring with the pot in it, and not something smaller like I described above. Not only does that seem more efficient, but I would think it would be faster to assemble/disassemble and would work better in the wind.

    John S.
    BPL Member


    There are more philosophical threads up in here than I can throw a stick at these days…


    Richard Scruggs
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon

    I agree that chaff makes it difficult and time-consuming to actually find comments relevant to the thread's true topic. Hope the practice of packing irrelevant comments (chaff) into a thread doesn't spread to other threads.

    Perhaps I'm just too dense to appreciate how and why the relative merits of the Hummer or Prius automobile have anything to do with a thread for an article on how to build campfires responsibly.

    On the other hand, perhaps the concept of "chaff" is too abstract to recognize and moderate in practice, aggravated by the chaffer's sense that writing graffi on a wall labelled "write graffiti here" loses its impact — and limits its potential "chaffees" to the lovers of chaff.

    Aside from obfuscation, the injection of chaff into a thread foregoes basic courtesy in favor of the chaffer's personal gratification, similar to:

    lighting up in non-smoking areas;
    talking aloud in theaters;
    tossing litter;
    or creating a fire ring in the wilderness.

    On that final note, this post attempts to be more relevant to campfire building than Hummers and Prius automobiles.


    J Phillips
    BPL Member


    Locale: Rocky Mountain Nat'l Park

    Rocks DO 'explode'- I was eye witness to a friend receiving an inch long cut above the eye from 'exploding' rock shrapnel. Culprit was the fire ring. I cannot vouch for where the rock come from before inclusion in the fire ring and we were within a couple of hundred feet of a body of water (may have come from the shoreline?). I also can't tell you what type of rock it was as I arrived after dark. However given the distance to the water, how lazy my friends are who built the ring, the sheer number of nearby available rocks, and the fact I live in a semi-arid area that had not received unusual rainfall- I do not accept that it has to be a water logged rock. On the other side of the coin, that was one event out of many, many opportunities. I lean toward the belief that if smooth, uniform, nonporous stones are used there will be no problem. But then again, I don't build fires anymore- I take the weight hit for the 4 or 5 days I'm out and use a stove.

    Dean F.
    BPL Member


    Locale: Back in the Front Range

    Matthew Swierkowski wrote:
    "They usually had a few rocks close together with the pot straddling the rocks and the fire underneath. They would feed in minimal amounts of fuel (usually small pieces of wood…like maybe finger diameter), and the method was extremely efficient…"

    That sounds similar, in principle, to a Rocket Stove:

    This site describes a rocket stove designed for use in third world countries. From other reading on the subject I know that they are very efficient, but it takes a lot of attention to keep it properly fueled to maximize that efficiency.

    Richard Scruggs wrote:
    "Aside from obfuscation, the injection of chaff into a thread foregoes basic courtesy in favor of the chaffer's personal gratification"

    So, does your entire post count as "chaff", too? Don't go casting stones, He-Who-Dwells-in-Glass-Houses. No one likes a scold, either, so you can add that to your list of unacceptable behavior. I agree that things got WAY off topic, which was why I moved it, so please don't lecture. We environmental jihadists are now happily attacking one another in a very civilized manner on another thread, where we won't upset the masses.

    So, in the spirit of what we both just wrote, please respond if at all on "The Carbon Flame War", under, appropriately, "Chaff."


    As a once-upon-a-time user of wood fires only, I would observe that burning dead branches, pine cones, etc deprives the soil of nutrient and water holding compost that results from the natural decomposition process. Stable organic matter is a relatively small but vital, component of any healthy soil, but assumes even greater importance in the marginal soils typically found in alpine environments. I started out building relatively large fires to produce a bed of coals for baking fish, then migrated to small, twig fed fires enclosed by a compact horseshoe of rocks spaced out just enough to hold a pot, then to a gas stove as the impact of what I was a party to gradually began to sink in. This journey paralleled my immersion in serious organic gardening and the resulting acute appreciation of the importance of healthy soil to healthy plants. But, darn, I do miss having a fire, for all of the reasons that have been mentioned in this thread. It's in our genes, methinks.

    Walter Underwood
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Our Boy Scout troop camps during fire season (really "no fires allowed" season) in California, so I get to see the group with and without campfires.

    The article talks about cooking and eating together around a campfire. Preparing food and eating it together is a very powerful thing, very different from one person cooking at a stove then everyone finding their own comfortable rock to sit on. It is possible to cook and eat together without a campfire. One of the (desired) effects of the NOLS cooking style is to require cooperation in the cook group. With or without a wood fire, cooking and eating together is one of the fastest ways to build a group.

    Sitting around a fire is not as powerful as food, but is a great way to end the day. With a group, it is a good time for "thorns and roses", for planning the next day, or telling jokes.

    In fire season, I pack an "LNT campfire", several votive candles and a sheet of aluminum foil. It won't keep you warm, but it is enough to provide a focus and gather the group.

    Our local campsites forbid wood gathering. Packing in firewood changes the weight equation just a bit.

    Personally, I find campfire smoke to be one of the least pleasant parts of camping, but the guys love a campfire and it works well to end the day.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Bumping the article and thread that started the Carbon Flame War. Been going now for almost eight years and over 140 pages of responses. Eight years on the 29th of March.

    Thanks Dean!

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