Scorched earth policy

Of all the things sea kayakers do in the wilderness campfires can be the most destructive.

Often it is the jokes around a fire that are most recalled during an expedition into remote areas and uninhabited islands – campfires are a wonderful moral boost and, in extreme circumstances, a lifesaver. However, a campfire kills the grass and the layer of live earth beneath and the patch, apart from looking very ugly in ‘pristine’ wilderness, takes a couple of years to recover.

Some of this grassland on Hebridean coastline is a habitat unique to Scotland called machair and quite often it has protected status due to its importance as a bird breeding ground. It should never be necessary to scorch the cliff top grasslands or machair because there are methods of making campfires that cause no damage at all.

High tide mark campfire

The highest point of the high tide mark is a drier part of the beach than most and, scorched by the sun and seldom wet by the sea, it is also an ecological desert. Building a campfire here ensures that no damage to the ecology is done and all traces of fire can be removed afterwards. Build the fire as follows:

  1. Dig a 12 inch deep trench 1 foot square
  2. Line the trench floor with fist sized pebbles
  3. Line the trench parapet with a wall of pebbles
  4. Build, light and enjoy the fire
  5. Cook on hot embers and oven hot pebbles
  6. Burn scrap foods, carry out plastics
  7. Fill in the trench with sand returning to original state
  8. Drench with water
  9. One storm during high tide will flush the area

Many wilder beaches in Scotland have no fallen dead wood within miles due to the scarcity of trees. Some sea kayakers buy a sack of logs for the trip and pack them in the boat deck, they do however take up valuable space.

Grassland campfire

If building a campfire on grassland cannot be avoided there are precautions that should be always taken.

  1. Remove a circle of turf large enough for the fire
  2. Line the edges of the exposed earth area with stones
  3. Build, light and enjoy the fire
  4. Clear the ashes afterwards (wetting them first)
  5. Replace the turf and the ground will recover in a couple of weeks with rainfall

Stone ring

If it is not possible to remove the turf easily because the ground is rocky and the earth is thin build the fire as follows:

  1. Make a ring of stones
  2. Fill the ring of stones with 6 inches of sand
  3. Build, light and enjoy the fire on the heat insulating protective bed
  4. Remove the ashes and charcoal afterwards
  5. Remove the sand and ring of stones

Sensitive machair

If the area is machair grasses you should consider whether it is appropriate to have a fire at all – portable gas cookers are more suitable to this environment.

Always dampen a fire after use as, in summer, disused fires can build up a heat and spontaneously re-ignite. Never burn fence posts even if they lie abandoned – they are treated with weather protective liquids containing arsenic.

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