Campfires on the Pacific Crest Trail

Campfires on the Pacific Crest Trail

Heading out of Walker Pass, the last break before the base of the Sierras, we ascended to a ridge line walk, stopping only once to munch on some snacks. While eating we spotted a rattler slowly snaking across the path up ahead and Indiana, despite his eponymous fear of snakes, couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a picture.

Money shot!
Money shot!

As he scouted around the snake, keeping a good distance, another hiker approached cautiously. Indiana showed her the scene from the viewfinder and we began chatting with her. She was a forest fire fighter from California, an elite member of the Hotshots, to be precise. The job had been good training for hiking the trail. I’m sure the job was, in many ways, quite like hiking the trail.

Along the ridgeline ahead we passed some campsites, covered by a few pines and could hear fellow hiker Texas Star talking to someone else. It was a young couple and right next to one of the most amazing sleeping arrangements I’ve ever seen on the trail was a small fire they were building.


The coolest, most unusual sleeping shelter I've seen on the PCT yet.
The coolest, most unusual sleeping shelter I’ve seen on the PCT yet.

Smoke churned from the single log in the rock pit and filled the air around us. The young couple looked happy with their campsite; staring at it as they stood arm in arm, the guy typically fussed with the angle of the log in the pit.

Moments later the fire fighting hiker walked past on the trail, paused and came forward into the campsite area.

“Do you have something to put that out with?”

The couple looked up, a bit startled by the sudden question. “Yeah I think there’s enough dirt here,” the guy answered optimistically.

“You should always use water, dirt doesn’t put it out all the way. I camp a lot out here and it usually takes buckets and buckets for us to douse the fire completely.”

There was a short, silent tension on the air.

“I don’t think camp fires are permitted in this area,” she told them flatly.

“Aren’t they allowed here?” the girl questioned in response. “We have the California fire permit.”

“Camp fires aren’t permitted in this area or any part of the Southern California trail. If you guys are caught you could face a huge fine for this.”

“We have the fire permit,” the girl repeated.

“The fire permit is just for stoves,” she said, shutting them down. She leaned up off her poles and continued, “There’s a lot of wind right now, and in these conditions this is a terrible idea.”

“I can understand the wind,” the guy said, trying to keep his cool under the sudden surprise inspection, “but we’re in an open area with existing fire pits. You can see people have already had some fires here.”

She ignored him and continued, “And these embers,” she gestured to the bits of ash in the stream of smoke, “all it would take would be for a piece of this to catch on something dry.” She dropped her poles, strode over to the side of the fire pit and picked up a clump of dry, tinder-like material. “Like this?”

Texas Star, Indiana and I quickly started up a conversation to dissolve some of the second hand awkwardness we were starting to feel. In the meantime the couple had acquiesced on their fire and helped the unexpected inspector put it out with handfuls of dirt.

Texas Star's dog, Bear Chaser, also feeling uncomfortable with the campfire.
Texas Star’s dog, Bear Chaser, also feeling uncomfortable with the campfire.

I looked around at the grove of pines. Half of them were brown and dry. I wouldn’t have chewed them out over it (I’m not a professional fire fighter), but it was obviously not a great idea to start a fire near a bunch of dead trees. Didn’t they pay any attention to the miles and miles of burned forests we walked through?

The second fire pit in the area, the one the guy had used in his defense was full of ash and crushed cans of Bud Light, the beer of ignorant dumbasses.

I was glad to see the couple comply with the Hotshot, and that they had helped to put the fire out.

What are the Campfire Restrictions on the PCT?

Straight from the Pacific Crest Trail Association website, “Campfires are generally not allowed on the PCT in Southern California. Only the rare developed car-camping campground, with official fire amenities, allow fires.” If you’re thinking of thruhiking the PCT, or section hiking it, please read up on fire safety on the trail.

The California camp fire permit is $10 and requires the passage of a simple, multiple choice test. I couldn’t verify the Hotshot’s claims about the permit only allowing the use of stoves, but camp fire restrictions are in place and stated along much of the trail.

Why Build Campfires?

A sense of comfort and macho accomplishment I guess?

We haven’t felt the need to build a campfire while hiking the PCT. Not once.

After hiking all day, I have just enough energy to set up the tent, make some quick food and fall asleep. No time to build and lounge in front of a camp fire at night. I’m no mile nazi, but if you have that kind of time, just keep going and put in some more miles.

Thruhikers and Campfires

Thruhikers especially, do not need to build campfires. We are a different breed of hiker, possessing highly efficient camp stoves, ultralight ultrawarm clothing and protection, and supposedly the grit needed to hike through 2,650 miles of wilderness. That’s enough grit to deal with some bugs and a dark night.

Thruhikers build fires anyway. Case in point, friends of ours camped at a small site with a fire pit back in the San Bernadino National Forest in the desert section. Even though they were the first hikers to the site that night, the fire pit was hot enough for a piece of paper tossed into it to burst into flame.

That means the previous user did not properly put out their fire, and probably didn’t know how. According to the Hotshot (whose name actually became “Hotshot” that day), it takes buckets and buckets of water to put out a campfire all the way. Otherwise, it’s just staying hot, waiting to catch on fire again.

Sadly enough, the same forest, the San Bernadino National Forest, fell victim to arson with over one hundred acres burning when we were just a few weeks ahead on the trail. That stretch of trail included a long canyon filled with a strong creek and lush vegetation, a nice oasis and respite from the heat of the desert.

Why Shouldn’t You Build Campfires?

Despite the vegetation that they destroy, wildfires kill any wildlife that aren’t fast enough to escape. The ones that do become refugees and will have to find new sources of food, water and shelter.

Wildfires also destroy property and can and have killed humans, both civilians and firefighters. The Station Fire, a massive Southern California fire in 2009, killed 2 members of the fire fighting crew.

We walked through a portion of the Station Fire, as well as past the memorial. It was a miserable, miserable walk. The fire damage completely destroyed the forest, so what tree cover would have been there was gone, meaning zero shade from the relentless sun. Another problem, the Poodle Dog Bush, a member of the forget-me-not family and the psychotic cousin of Poison Ivy and Poison Oak, is a significant obstacle of the desert sections of the PCT and a “fire follower.”

Doesn't look like much, right? Don't touch it!!
Doesn’t look like much, right? Don’t touch it!!

The plant causes a harrowing allergic reaction if touched, making the trail where it is prominent much slower and more difficult to navigate. It thrives in the disturbed and charred soil left behind by forest fires. The Station Fire section of the PCT was by far the worst example of Poodle Dog growth we’d seen on the trail to date- and this includes being contained by volunteers who work to keep the plant at bay along the trail.

I wondered if the hikers building campfires considered how all of the sections covered with Poodle Dog Bush got to be that way.

A Fire Could Cost You

According to the National Park Service, 90% of all forest fires are started by humans.

Despite restrictions, despite statistics, people do it anyway.

And there are consequences for causing wildfires. As Hotshot told the couple with the campfire that day, a Marine was found to have caused a forest fire near Big Bear Lake a few years back, and faced wage garnishment for the rest of his life, in order to pay for the multi-million dollar cost of containing the blaze.

If you’re found to have caused a campfire- and it’s amazing what modern forensics investigations are able to prove- you will foot the bill.

In 2014, a group of 3 men were fined a collective $9 million after they made an illegal camp fire (as many in Southern California are) that turned into a large scale forest fire that destroyed property. In Wyoming a 77 year-old man was fined $6.3 million for a 5 square mile fire, and two cousins in Arizona, whose poorly planned, unattended campfire caused the largest wildfire in the state’s history, face monthly payments in order to cover $3.7 million in restitution.

If you don’t care about the damage your fire might cause to the land or property, consider the amount you would have to pay to the Forest Service for the efforts required to fight the fire. More if the fire reaches and destroys homes and property.

The beginnings of the massive 2009 Station Fire remains along the Pacific Crest Trail. It's not a pretty site, and it's unpleasant to walk through.
The beginnings of the massive 2009 Station Fire remains along the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s not a pretty site, and it’s unpleasant to walk through.

For the young couple, the signs were there. Dry, dead forests, lack of available water, dry kindling nearby, and strong winds. If they had just walked a little further, literally just turned around the very next corner, they would have seen a mountainside covered with charred, black, barren pines.

After some very recent events, well past the heat of the desert, I think that couple perhaps would have set up a campfire anyway, even if they were camping in the middle of a burned forest. I have seen many groups of hikers with campfires, and a startling lack of respect for the wilderness they, and nearly 2,000 others, will call home for the next 5 months.

Just a few days ago, in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we walked up on a group of hikers building a camp fire. There had just been significant rain, a strong creek surged just a few feet away, and the mosquitoes were relentless. I could see the reason for the fire there, even though long sleeved clothing and a bug net (which everyone was wearing) protected against the bugs enough. Mostly though, I think they wanted the idyllic charm of the fire: to sit around it and smoke and play the guitar as it got dark.

“You don’t build fires?” one of them asked us, almost bewilderedly. No, we don’t, but we didn’t want to be those people by explaining why. “We only build them when there’s plenty of water nearby.”

Two days later a different group of hikers was complaining about them. How on Sonora Pass (a beautiful, otherworldly section of the trail, but one of the few dry stretches in the Sierras), they had barged through and built another camp fire that night. The conditions on the pass were much different: no water for miles, barely any soil (the pass is basically pure rock), significant wind, oh and they were above the 10,000 foot elevation automatic fire restrictions- for which there was prominent signage.

Just past South Lake Tahoe, where the majesty of the Sierras fades and gives way to the long, dry stretch of Northern California, we ran into another hiking couple that we liked at a campsite one evening. I was disappointed to see that they were tending a fire.

That stretch of trail was part of a forest restoration project and covered with fallen trees, many years old and completely stripped of all foliage. I knew, just based on remembering Hotshot’s lecture, that it was a bad place for a campfire. It made me nervous. Indiana and I provided soft words of caution over the fire, especially as the wind began to stoke the flames and hot ash blew outside of the pit.

What makes people think that they won’t cause a fire? That the worst case scenario won’t happen to them, even when conditions are ripe?

If I had to sound curmudgeonly about it, I’d say it’s a problem with our society. It’s an American characteristic to think we know better than the experts. Sound, expert advice stands in the way of our convenience and desire, so we rationalize our actions by saying that we understand the warnings and restrictions, but we know better. Nevermind that statistic again- that 90% of all wild fires are caused by humans.

I think it’s also a problem with thruhikers. Overwhelmingly, I’d say the attitude and ambitions for thruhikers on the trail is to finish a very long, difficult race first, and respect the wilderness second, if at all. The amount of pointless campfires on the trail alone is testament to this.

2 thoughts on “Campfires on the Pacific Crest Trail”

  1. I liked this post for its honesty and content. I have not always considered the consequences of my actions while in the wild, either.

    Once, my kid had to make a poster about leave-no-trace camping for Cub Scouts and we learned that a campfire somewhere other than an established pit does not meet the criteria for leave no trace. Nevermind the fire regulations that were violated in the above example.

    I wonder, though, about this shelter that the couple was using . Certainly gathering that much wood is not leave-no-trace camping and I bet the next hikers to camp in the area will not appreciate the pile. I have heard of making a barrier like that to protect oneself from prowling animals but I would imaging that one would really only need to do that in survival situations. Of course, I don’t know the situation these people were in; maybe they didn’t even make the pile.

    Anyway, keep on sharing your experiences. I enjoy reading them.


    • Hey Chris! Yes, you’re right, the shelter is probably not in compliance with Leave No Trace principals. The couple staying at the site claimed it was there when they walked up. I believe them, as it looks like it was a lot of work to assemble. The entire site was big enough to hold the structure as well as other tents though, but especially on the southern parts of the PCT, many hikers prefer to cowboy camp. So this structure wouldn’t have fit a tent, but was big enough for two hikers to lay down in just their sleeping bags for the night.

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