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Camping Without a Trace: Wildlife, Campfires and Safety

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I am quite the lone wolf wandering around the concrete jungle I live in, always dreaming about forests.

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).

Up on a ridge looking south, on the Bruce Penninsula with the Georgian Bay mostly to my left.

Up on a ridge looking south, on the Bruce Penninsula with the Georgian Bay mostly to my left.

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.

Boiling some water for tea and food. Lunch-time in the forest.

Boiling some water for tea and food. Lunch-time in the forest.

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.

I actually drank water from this spot and sat down to have a snack. I do not use any water filters, pills or anything of that sort. The water was good.

I actually drank water from this spot and sat down to have a snack. I do not use any water filters, pills or anything of that sort. The water was good.

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.

No bear around.

No bear around.

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Respect

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.

Fences to farmer's fields and the forest.

Fences to farmer's fields and the forest.

camping-without-a-trace-wildlife-campfires-and-safety
camping-without-a-trace-wildlife-campfires-and-safety

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.

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on January 13, 2020:

Data tracking is a concern I agree. Many are becoming worried about the information gathered by digital home assistants like Alexa.

Mr. Happy (author) from Toronto, Canada on January 13, 2020:

Thank You for the visit and for taking the time to leave a comment, Mrs. Liz. I certainly leave no trace in order to maintain the forests I pass through in good health and not necessarily to not be tracked. Although, I do not like being tracked overall. Hence I do not use the Google service, I do not frequent social websites, or have any of my phones with the data turned on. I am a bit of an invisible man and I like it. Haha!!

All the very best!

Liz Westwood from UK on January 13, 2020:

This is an impressively environmentally friendly article. When I read of you taking litter back with you, it reminded me of books I have read, written by ex-special operatives in which they describe doing similar when on covert ops, more for remaining undetected than saving the planet though.

Mr. Happy (author) from Toronto, Canada on June 12, 2019:

I am happy You enjoyed the read, Mrs. Genna. Your comment brought a smile. Thank You for your visit and comment.

All the best!

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on June 09, 2019:

I admire this interesting and helpful article, Mr. Happy. Especially, your closing lines, "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 pass through." Excellent.

Mr. Happy (author) from Toronto, Canada on June 09, 2019:

Thank You for the visit and for taking the time to leave a comment, Mr. Hansen.

I would be more concerned about hiking and camping in Australia than here in Canada because You guys have a lot of snakes and poisonous crawlers. Here, it's more the bigger animals we gotta watch out for but those are at least easy to see. I don't have to wonder if a spider can climb up my pants while sleeping, haha!!

You have a wonderful week ahead - cheers! : )

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 08, 2019:

Good advice in this article, Mr Happy, and wonderful photos too. I always strive to leave the forest campsite the same way I found it or better (if it appears someone has been there before and left traces.) Fortunately here in Australia, we don't have bears, coyotes and wolves. The only real predator is the dingo. They are not to be underestimated however, they have snatched babies from tents and campervans.