Collecting Firewood on Guided Yellowstone Backpacking Trips

For many folks, campfires are an integral part of the wilderness backpacking experience. On most of our guided Yellowstone multi-day backpacking treks, we enjoy the warmth of a morning and evening campfire. Yet fires are illegal at some camps, either because of a dearth of available dead wood or because of localized heavy use in some areas of the park. In these areas, fires are illegal simply due to the need to reduce impacts, and also because heavy use increases the odds that one or more idiots will carelessly let their campfire escape to create a major conflagration. And make no mistake, idiots abound, even in the Yellowstone back-country (however, anecdotal evidence suggests that the idiot factor is considerably higher in the front-country; just look at how roadside tourists behave when one of them spots a bear or a bull elk or a bison within road shoulder viewing distance).

But I digress. This post is about collecting firewood in areas where campfires are legal.

So, please consider the following: whatever you do, do not seek out live trees or branches. Green wood creates lots of smoke and little flame. And collecting live plants goes against the “leave no trace” ethos. Do not look for redwoods or their equivalents to drag into camp. OK, there are no redwoods in Yellowstone, despite what you may have read in Backpacker Magazine. But my point is: for most campfires, especially if you are cooking on a fire, anything larger in diameter than a human wrist is too big. Keep your fires small — and confined to the “official” fire pit! That way, it is unlikely to escape and you are less likely to be classified as part of the idiot factor.

Moreover, collect only dead and down wood, preferably wood that’s neither rotten nor fully in contact with the ground. That’s because the ground is usually far wetter than the air, so dead wood with air circulating around it is usually the driest wood available. And here is one more thing to consider, and this applies just to Yellowstone. No matter how tempting it may be, no matter that the small dead twigs hanging down from the lower branches of a live spruce or fir tree might be the only dry kindling in the forest, do not — I repeat, do not, under any circumstances, collect this perfect kindling supply as fire-starter. If a park ranger is hiding in the bushes watching, you’ll get a ticket. Worse, you’ll also get a lecture. Remember, while some Park Service bureaucrats think it is OK to build paved roads and tacky resorts in our national parks, they are quite sensitive about dead twigs remaining on trees. They may allow trails to be rebuilt with chainsaws; they may allow horse-packers to bring in upwards of 25 horses or mules to a back-country camp , trampling the vegetation and causing horse-shit covered trails to erode into stream beds, but again, they are quite determined to make certain that all trees at backcountry camps have their full compliment of dead twigs hanging down (rest assured, though, on our guided Yellowstone backpack trips we avoid the areas heavily used by horse-packers). Of course, the backcountry rangers did not build the roads and resorts, and it is usually the front-country bureaucrats who set the policies……


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