Camping Without a Trace: Wildlife, Campfires and Safety
As I just returned from an over 100km/62 mile hike on the Bruce Trail, on the Northern part of the Bruce Peninsula, here in Ontario, I thought about the need to get the word out there about “camping without a trace”. For those of us who venture in the bush, there are rules to abide by. You can take your chances jay-walking in a city or across a highway but never take your chances by leaving food when you go to bed in your tent, out in the wild. Nature is unapologetic and unforgiving if we are careless. We can get injured, or worse.
“Camping without a trace” means exactly just that: when you pack up your things to leave the place you camped at, it should look exactly the same as when you got there. I am not playing with words here, or exaggerating. After all my things are packed up and back in my backpack, I look at the spot I stayed at and I rejoice in seeing that there is absolutely no trace of me having been there, other than some flattened grass (if the spot I placed my tent had grass on it).
Waste and Trash
Any garbage I end up with, be it empty bags, wrappings, bottles, etc, all comes back with me. Hence, I use plastics sparingly and make sure all my containers are as light as possible. I do not take canned food, or glass bottles and I reduce packaging as much as possible. As a smoker, on this last hike, I kept the bottle of a protein milkshake and used it as a portable ashtray along the way. When I had a smoke, I put the filter in that bottle and closed it: no smell, no trace.
Fire in the Forest
Of course, sometimes when we are hiking, or camping we want to make a live fire. Humans have been making fires for at least a million years (evidence from the Wonderwerk Cave site in South Africa suggests that). I often cook on live fires when I am out camping and although I make it look easy and fun, I have built up my own set of rules when I make fires in the forest. This I learned from others over many years; watching those with more experience often helps.
When I want to make a campfire I chose a spot that is clear of bushes, branches of trees hanging low or dead twigs, or leaves and brush sitting around. I prefer to clear the ground (unless the ground is wet, as it was in the photo I posted here with the fire) where I am making my fire so I only have earth. Depending on the situation, I might dig a hole a few to several inches deep, like a fire-pit (it depends on the use and size of the fire I make). What I always like doing though, is finding rocks and building a wall around my fire. That way red coals don’t go flying everywhere if the wind blows and please, keep the fire low as a method of wild-fire prevention. (We’re struggling with the amount of forest fires here in Canada over the last few years.)
Fires are pretty easy to start here in Ontario. Most places I go I find birch trees (unless I am really far north where birch no longer grows) and their white bark is what is sometimes known as “Indian fuel”. It burns fairly fast and with a strong flame, leaving behind a dark smoke as that from burning a car tire. This is what I mainly use with some twigs, dry leaves, or whatever small (dry) things I find around to get the fire going. If it’s raining the situation changes a bit and involves a little more work. Sometimes I use pine sap as well to help out. Pine sap burns good too when I put some on the pieces of wood that go in the fire.
When done, we need to put out the fire properly with lots of water, or earth on top to suffocate it, and make sure there are no red coals left, or coals that may re-ignite.
Doing Without Fire
Now, fires do leave a trace. They leave a black spot, or burn the grass where they are made but that is only temporary. Grass does eventually grow back. To leave absolutely no trace, we nowadays have small portable stoves at your local outdoors store and those will help leave absolutely no trace when you are done camping, or hiking. The other option one has is what I did on this last hiking trip: use dehydrated food, or dried food. I made myself pemmican, which is dry game meat, with dry berries and fat/grease. I also added bee pollen because I like pollen and find it helpful. So, by carrying this type of food, I did not need to make campfires. I could have just eaten that but ultimately in four days I did make two fires, one for lunch on one day and one in the evening on another day. Other than that I just ate things which did not require any fire.
Living With Other Creatures
Leaving no trace when hiking and camping is not only good for the forest or nice because the people who come after us will be able to have a pleasant experience as we did but it is also safe. The forests here in Ontario have everything from bears to wolves, to coyotes, to raccoons, to foxes. I only saw wild rabbits and turkey vultures on this last trip (other than tens of kinds of birds, of different colours, with different songs, which I do not know the name of) but I saw bear scat once along the trail. Other creatures are out there.
So, if you leave a trail of crumbs behind you, do not be surprised by the bear circling your tent in the middle of the night, or the bear that climbs through the window of your car demolishing everything inside when you are out on a hike. It happens way too often! So, for your own safety keep all the garbage packed away and at night the food needs to be off a tree branch fifteen feet off the ground and ten feet away from the main trunk of the tree, away from where you have your tent to sleep. Do not leave bits of food lying around, dirty dishes, or anything of that sort. Bears like chocolate bars too.
I suppose my main rule is to be respectful. Be respectful to the forest, to those who live in the forest and to those who visit and will visit the forest a long time after you pass through. Now get out there (if You’re not already there)! The Forest is calling and it has many things to teach. All the best to everyone! Mitakuye Oyasin.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.