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Backpacking Trail Tips: Fires, Tents, and People in the High Sierras | High Sierra Backpacker

Backpacking Trail Tips: Fires, Tents, and People in the High Sierras

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 27 February 2010

High Sierra Camp Fires

Making camp fires in the High Sierra is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Besides the long time bans on campfires above certain elevations to preserve the thin biomass, generally at 9000 feet, we are seeing the spread of policies banning all campfires in the National Parks and Forests up and down the High Sierra.

This started as policies requiring fire permits for stoves and campfires, even in locations where backpacking permits were not required. These permit policies were directed towards keeping backpackers aware of the deepening fire conditions.

Changing long term weather patterns over the past four decades have seriously dried out the High Sierra forests and brought pine blights and beetles, as well as West Nile Disease.
These changing environmental conditions have brought changing fire policies. The deepening of drought conditions from 2011 on have hardened into outright camp fire and even smoking bans up and down the Sierra by 2014.

This is not incompatable with my personal fire policy, which only calls for fires in time of emergency or society. I have always prefered to go fireless. But these fire bans will bring sadness to many backpackers who cherish the feeling of laying back with their buddies in front of a warm campfire  after a long day of beautiful backpacking.

Having the ability to make a fire is wise, if you use it or not. Anyone with a wet-fuel backpacking stove will have no problems making a fire, if great caution is exercised.

The rapid rate of evaporation of White Gas makes it a very dangerous fire starter. It evaporates into a great plume of fumes before you can ignite it. This creates a great standing fireball when ignited.

I once watched a buddy of mine lose his facial hair and eyebrows when he poured white gas on his wood and unwisely ignited the huge plume of invisible white gas fumes. As soon as I knew I would not have to drag his wounded ass out of the mountains I could not stop laughing.

You should have seen the look on his stupid face after being "flame-shaved!!"

No eyebrows. The moustash, gone. I can't stop laughning, even now.

What does not kill you does not necessarily make you stronger, but it sure as hell can make you laugh... haha.

I call them:
"Stupid Human Tricks."

It's funny when it doesn't kill you!

Jason and Pete's Fire Tip: Backpacking Wisdom from the Trail 

(from the Showers Lake page of the trail guide)  Post Your Comments at the bottom...

Jason using lichen as kindling at Showers Lake in the Meiss Country Roadless Area

Pete: "I included this one for the trail tip - the green moss/lichen at the base of the fire makes GREAT starter material." (quote & photo: Peter Skaff, Jason prepping the Fire. See Peter's photos on this page and the previous page.)

Also see
Jason and Peter in Emigrant Wilderness

Alex note: When you encounter the fallen snags that have dried and cracked into little dry cubes, you have encountered nature's fire starter. Pop out a few of these wood cubes, put them in a plastic bag, and keep them in your pack. Split shards off a cube to kindle one of the cubes. They virtually burst into flames.

You know you have the right stuff when the cube you observe is dried to almost the density and weight of Balsa Wood. Along with dried moss picked dead and dry from trees, cubes and moss are two of nature's pyrotechnic fire starter materials. Having a bit of both stored in a plastic bag in your pack is good policy.

On Fires, Tents, and Company


Fire Policy

I never make fires, except for emergency situations, or during the rare times I backpack as part of a group. That is rarely, as I am a dedicated solo backpacker. I have only considered making an emergency fire twice in my life, and on each occasion ultimately decided that fire was not necessary. I have made plenty of social fires, but I believe that fires take away from the natural experience. 

My reasoning behind forgoing fires is simple. Fires create a sphere of light that limits your vision to within that sphere of light. You are virtually blind outside of the sphere of light. When you forego fires and allow your eyes to adjust to the falling darkness, your sight, and the things you see, will amaze you.

After adjusting to natural darkness, artificial light will seem like an insult to your senses. If you pick the right campsite, you will see the natural equivalent of the changing of the guard, as the day critters bed down and the night life comes out. You cannot watch this, or anything else, from within the sphere of light. This trail guide will be peppered with stories about nighttime in the High Sierras. 

More: The Cone of Stupid

Moon over Tuolumne River


  I apply the same minimalist principal to tents. If you cannot see past the light of the fire, you have no chance whatsoever to observe from within a tent. If no weather or mosquitoes are threatening, I do not put up a tent. I have been known to tent up after a few nights exposed under the fullness of a bright moon.

Social Considerations

Many consider fires and tents as indispensable parts of the camping experience. I do not. I put social considerations into second position when traveling through nature. This is not to say that I am anti-social on the trail. Far from it. I am generally the most social long-distance backpacker on the trail. I pack extra food so that I can take the time to explore both the personality of the natural terrain, and the personalities of the fine people who travel through it.

But when I travel through, camp, or just sit in a remote wilderness area, I want my mind tuned to, and reflecting the natural environment, and not the people around me. When an individual travels lightly and quietly, things do not notice your presence.

This Summer I had a bobcat walk through the edge of my camp near the headwaters of the E fork of the Carson River. The bobcat was totally unaware of my presence. This has happened with bears, birds, and people. Groups will never have this happen, unless they are being targeted for food. The noise and bustle of a group would have warned off the bobcat long before anyone observed her. 

Maybe I enjoy company more after not seeing anyone, or saying anything, for three days to five days. The longest I have gone without seeing anyone in the High Sierras is five days. This happens mostly in Winter, late Fall, and early Spring, when traffic in the High Sierras goes way down.

Enjoy it all: The People and The Environment
This is not to say I condemn fires or company. I do not. I enjoyed two fires between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney during the Summer of 2009. The first, when I shared a campsite with a USGS Small Mammal counting team in the Emigrant Wilderness near Latopie Lake. They were a great crew, and I still thank them for the shots! That experience makes up a funny trail story, and explains why there was a fire at all, in that fire-restricted area. See the 1st night in the Emigrant Wilderness, further down the trail guide, for the story.

 USGS Small Mammal Team and Erin (BUG) around fire, 2009 Latopie Lake.

The other fire I also shared with BUG, (Erin, snug as a bug in a rug, walking from Sonora Pass to Yosemite Valley-a break-then the JMT to Whitney. Erin! Did you do the whole trip?

Trail Guide
Latopie Lake

and two late-season meandering Pacific Crest Trail hikers, CHILE AND PARTY DOG, know as the CHILEDOG PCT HIKING TEAM, seen below in "action poses," exercising my no-tent philosophy. 

The CHILEDOG PCT trail team in action...Note the poor placement of the Bear can! Dudes!

Trail Guide
Stubblefield Canyon

I know a lot of you are too scared to travel alone, or not put up a tent at night. But those fears will pass, if you give yourself enough time and experience in the High Sierras. If you do not travel alone in the Sierras, you are missing 60% of the experience.

What's your philosophy on Fires, Tents, and People in the High Sierras?


 Fire Up Your Comments Below

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