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Along the Shore

Navigating campfire bans: Cooking and staying warm while camping in northern MN

Campfires have long been a cornerstone of outdoor activities, providing warmth, a means to cook food, and a gathering place to swap adventure stories or ponder the world’s greatest wonders.

From the simple pleasure of toasting marshmallows to sharing stories under the starry sky, campfires evoke a deep sense of connection and tradition at the heart of the camping experience.

Generally, this tradition for campers is disrupted each summer in northern Minnesota due to ongoing drought conditions or active wildfires, leading to campfire bans across the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Fortunately, the 2023 fire season was one of the slowest wildfire seasons nationwide in nearly 25 years, according to the 2022-2023 Superior National Forest’s Fire Report, creating a minimal amount of campfire bans during the summer season. With the relatively wet start to the 2024 spring and summer season across much of Minnesota, the outlook for another slow season with minimal campfire bans looks promising at this time. With that said, conditions can quickly change. As campers prepare for mid to late-summer trips, having a backup plan for preparing food and staying warm is beneficial.

Whether you are car-camping, backpacking, or traveling deep into the backcountry on a canoe trip, there are a handful of campfire alternatives to prepare a meal while camping. Here’s a look at a few go-to options:

Cooking: Portable Stoves

Two-Burner Propane Stove: The classic car-camping option is the two-burner Coleman propane stove. If fire bans are in place, insufficient wood is available, or fire-starting conditions are unfavorable, a two-burner stove is a suitable option for preparing a meal, boiling water, and cooking the fresh fish from the trip. The two-burner stove requires a small, green, compact propane tank, easily found at gas stations, local hardware, or outdoor stores.

Hawkins cooks with a lightweight backpacking stove. | KALLI HAWKINS

Lightweight Stoves: If you are leaving the car at a trailhead or BWCAW entry point and heading into the backcountry, a lightweight compactable stove is the best option while camping. Jetboil systems and lightweight backpacking camping stoves, like Primus and MSR, are compact and require a much smaller propane tank. The stoves generally have one burner, which limits the extensive cooking recipes, and are ideal for a one-pot recipe or boiling water to prepare a dehydrated meal. However, a delicious, fancy backcountry feast is certainly still attainable with careful and creative pre-trip preparation.

Staying Warm: Heat

When it comes to camping in the shoulder seasons, in early spring or late fall in northern Minnesota, temperatures can hover in the 20 to 30 degree range, making for a long night in the tent trying to stay warm. Generally, many backpackers and overnight canoeists headed into the backcountry will forgo the portable heater options and pack thermals, extra thick socks, a warm hat, and an appropriately rated sleeping pad and bag. The reason is that weight is at the top of the mind. Lugging around a portable propane heater with extra fuel and other camping gear isn’t the most feasible option on a hike. Instead, a few hand warmers and extra layers do the trick.

The tried-and-true way of staying warm is to layer up and have properly rated gear. | UNSPLASH: SCOTT GOODWILL

Depending on the circumstances, a portable heat source is more feasible for car campers where weight isn’t an issue. The technology of various portable heating sources has advanced in recent years, and campers now have a wide variety of options for staying warm while camping. Despite the added level of comfort, each heat source option, however, comes with its own set of hassles and safety concerns.

In recent years, solar-powered generators have emerged that can power electric blankets or small space heaters. While this setup will undoubtedly provide a cozy camping experience, it leads to a slew of electrical cords in the tent and potential noise from the generator. Propane heaters like Mr. Heater Buddy are a popular option for winter camping and ice-fishing folks, but proper ventilation is required to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Many butane gas-powered or propane heaters are generally not advised to be used in any enclosed area and, if so, to make sure the area is well-ventilated.

Ultimately, in the circumstances of a campfire ban, the tried-and-true way of staying warm is to layer up and have properly rated gear. It also doesn’t hurt to bring your four-legged best friend along to keep your feet warm while in the sleeping bag.

As the summer season continues and your camping trip nears, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website has the latest information on fire danger and burning restrictions

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