A camp fire is the centre of social life in the Swedish outdoors, a focal point for conversation, a place to cook and eat, a source of heat, and a hypnotic and endlessly fascinating thing to watch. Without a camp fire, life in the outdoors is a colder experience in all senses of the word. A fire at the end of a long day out in the wilds will lift the spirits and soothe the body.
Wild camping and the freedom to light camp fires is one of the great joys of any outdoor experience in Sweden, and one of the many things which attracts visitors to this vast and beautiful country. But with this freedom comes important responsibilities – the responsibility to guard effectively against the risk of your camp fire spreading out of control, and the responsibility to take only what you need and in the least damaging way from the local environment. Sweden’s forest resources may seem endless, but their ecology is fragile. In northern and mountainous regions where temperatures are low for much of the year and available daylight limits the growing season, trees just a few centimetres high may be surprisingly old and ecosystems can take a very long time to regenerate after any damage.
Potential for the most dramatic problems comes from the risk of forest fire. While natural fires are vital to the fertilisation and regeneration of some forest ecosystems, as with everything in nature, it is maintaining a balance which is important. Large fires can have an enormously damaging impact on local wildlife, in some cases destroying whole populations of threatened species, and the ecology of the area can take decades to recover. In addition, of course, they can pose an enormous risk to human life and property.
While the UK has had a rather damp start to the 2008 summer season, Sweden by contrast has been basking in the sunshine, with above average temperatures and an extended dry period. This is good news for visitors (our early season canoeists had some truly wonderful weather for their tours in May!), but with the sun and the lack of rain comes the increased risk of forest fire. This has already led to serious problems in some parts of Sweden. As we write, large fires caused by the extended dry spell are raging in the northern province of Hälsningland.
The potential for forest fires was illustrated dramatically recently when one of our clients was unfortunate enough to have a problem with his camp fire during a canoe tour, resulting in the complete destruction of his sleeping bag, rucksack, camera and clothes and melting the paddle for their canoe. He and his travelling companion acted quickly to bring the fire under control, narrowly avoiding a much more serious incident, and to their great credit then spent what must have been a most uncomfortable night at the spot to ensure that the fire was completely out before returning to base the following day. Fortunately, the key to their hire car, which had also almost completely melted, was still functioning!
With this in mind, here are a few hints and tips for enjoying the warmth and comfort of your camp fire safely and limiting your impact on the local environment during your experience in Sweden:
When not to light a fire
Observe any local or temporary restrictions regarding the lighting of fires. During particularly dry conditions when there is a high risk of forest fires, local restrictions may be imposed prohibiting the lighting of fires. Check notices and local information for the latest situation. Certain protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves may also have their own rules regarding the lighting of fires and use of forest resources.
How to make a fire
When lighting your fire, please make sure you observe the following guidelines:
1. Choose a suitable place for your fire, with a base of gravel or sand. It should also have easy access to water in case you need to put the fire out quickly. Check the wind strength and direction – sparks can carry some way and ignite the surrounding forest or grassland.
2. You should not light your fire on a bed of peat or moss, which burn very easily. Peat fires can smoulder and burn underground for a very long time, and may still be burning below ground level even when the fire seems to be out from above. Similarly, you should avoid lighting your fire in any earthy, forested area. You should also avoid lighting your fire near to anthills or old tree stumps, both of which may catch fire very easily.
3. Do not build large bonfires – this is a waste of resources and extremely dangerous. Keep your fire small, focused and controlled (this also makes it much better for cooking on if you are planning to make food on your fire). Dig a shallow hole in which to make your fire or make a circle of stones around the fire to contain it. Do not use wet stones, which can crack and explode when heated. Also, do not light your fire on or next to flat rocks. This chars and may crack the rock and looks very unsightly, and the marks will remain for a very long time.
4. If there is a strong wind, do not light a camp fire.
5. Do not burn rubbish of any kind on your fire. Even cardboard and paper is difficult to burn completely and will leave an unsightly residue. Burning paper can be carried into the surrounding trees by small gusts of wind. Do not try to burn plastic or food waste. Please take everything with you and dispose of it correctly.
6. When collecting fuel for your fire, it is permitted to use small branches, twigs and pine cones which are lying on the ground. Bear in mind that dead wood provides an extremely valuable habitat for a wide range of species – more species of insect can be supported by dead wood than live wood – so avoid larger branches and stumps. Just because they are no longer on the tree, doesn’t mean that they are not still extremely important to the local ecology!
7. You must not take any material from live trees or damage them in any way.
How to put out your camp fire
Do not leave the campsite before the fire is completely extinguished – it must burn down completely before you leave. Use water to put the fire out, then poke it to extinguish any embers. Use a small trowel to dig up the earth under the fire to ensure there are no embers or smoke remaining.
What to do if your fire gets out of control
If you can, call the fire brigade immediately. In Sweden, the number is 112. It is important to stop the fire spreading in the direction of the wind. Take some bunches of branches from pine or juniper trees (these are better than leafy branches). Wet the branches if possible. Use the branches to sweep the burning pieces towards the fire while pressing the branches against the ground to put out the flames. Clear brushwood and twigs out of the way and remove moss from the path of the fire. DO NOT beat at the fire with large strokes, as this will spread sparks.
What to do if your clothes catch fire
Get down on the ground and roll over and over. If someone else’s clothes catch fire, lay the person on the ground and smother the flames with a blanket or jacket. Protect their face by covering from the head downwards. Bear in mind that some fabrics, e.g. nylon, can catch fire and melt and may increase the risk of injury.
Use cold water to cool burning clothes and soothe burn injuries. If clothes are stuck to the skin, do not try to remove them. You should keep affected skin in cold water for at least 10 minutes.
General camp safety
You should never have an open fire or any glowing coals inside or near your tent. Have a knife to hand to cut your way out in case of emergency.
If using a camping stove, wait until any unused fuel and utensils are cool before packing the stove away or pouring the fuel back into the bottle.
A last word…
A camp fire on a long Swedish summer evening (or a short winter one if you’re winter camping!) is a wonderful experience. If you follow the simple guidelines above when collecting your fuel and lighting your fires, you will be able to enjoy your fire safely and ensure a supply of fuel and a pristine environment for those who come after you.
The Nature Travels Team
Nature Travels offers a wide range of outdoor experiences in Sweden, most of which offer wild camping. In the summer, we offer a range of self-guided canoeing holidays and guided sea kayaking expeditions, all of which include wild camping. In winter, it is possible to experience the joy and challenge of winter camping on our Go Camping by Dogsled, Winter Mountaincraft in Jämtland, Snowshoeing in Wolverine Country and Dog Sledding and Winter Bushcraft experiences. For information, please see our website at www.naturetravels.co.uk