Do Campfires Pollute?

Closeup of a small campfire

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Campfires are indeed a source of air pollution. Burning wood releases a surprisingly large number of compounds, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matters, benzene, and many other potentially toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Wood fires also release large amounts of carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. For people sitting by a campfire, or even just staying at a busy campground, the air pollution may be intense enough to cause eye and respiratory inflammation and trigger asthma or emphysema attacks. The problem is serious enough that many jurisdictions (municipalities, counties, parks) restrict or even ban campfires to alleviate air pollution problems.

Not Just Smoke

There are several other environmental impacts caused by campfires:

  • In areas where campers build fires regularly, dead wood is often collected so heavily that local ecosystems are affected and soil erosion becomes apparent. Perfectly healthy vegetation is also cut and used as firewood, despite the fact that it burns very poorly.
  • Partially burnt, charred wood and blackened stones remain visible for a long time along trails, diminishing the wilderness experience sought by the next visitors coming along.
  • Forest fires are commonly started by out-of-control or poorly extinguished campfires.
  • Many try to burn trash in campfires. Not only does it cause even more air pollution, but half-burnt trash is often left behind in the fire pit.

Should You Stop Building Campfires?

You don't need to stop having campfires altogether. For some, a campfire is a profoundly human experience shared across cultures and generations. For others, it is simply the culmination of a great day spent outdoors. It brings friends and family together like few other activities do, away from work and electronic entertainment. As the amount of time we spend outdoors is being reduced, so is our appreciation for nature. We all need meaningful experiences outdoors once in a while to remind us of the importance of preserving wild places. Campfires are one of those special activities, especially for children—instead of doing away completely with this occasional environmental indulgence, we should follow a few simple rules to lessen the negative impacts.

What Can You Do?

  • Use dry wood. It burns hotter and releases fewer pollutants
  • Keep your fire small. Thin sticks lead to a hotter fire which burns unwanted gases more effectively.
  • Put out your fire completely when you are done. Generously douse it with water, stir the ashes, then flood those with water again.
  • Instead of a wood fire, use a camping cook stove to prepare hot meals. It is one of many important leave-no-trace principles for outdoor enthusiasts.
  • Consider enjoying the evening outside without a campfire. By not having all your attention focused on the flames, you can sit back, observe the stars, watch the fireflies, and listen to the night sounds. It is a completely different way to experience nighttime in the wild, and it is worth it—just make sure you bundle up.