Campfires are wonderful things in the right setting. The dance and flicker of the flames in the darkness, the radiance of warmth into the cold night, the sharing of tales between friends, the quiet contemplation. Sitting beside a campfire is undeniably wonderful – an experience I would not begrudge anyone.
However, in the context of today’s world, when the landscape is coming under increasing recreational pressure and nature itself is under threat, we must learn to walk the line between our desires and our responsibilities. If we do not do so, it’s possible for our campfires to do real and lasting harm to the landscape. With that in mind, we’ve prepared this blog on campfire best practice to help inform you about the rules and responsibilities of having a fire outdoors in Scotland.
Lighting a campfire is legal under the right of responsible access, as set out in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, provided it is done responsibly.
However, that does not mean we can light a fire everywhere because a right of access exists. To put it another way, just because you can walk, ride, paddle or camp in a particular place doesn’t mean it’s also legal to have a fire there.
A campfire may be considered irresponsible in some locations or at certain times. In some areas where land has special protection, lighting a fire is outright illegal and therefore considered an act of trespass.
Campfires are not permitted on land that is protected by special legal designations, known as Natural Heritage Designations. These include Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Areas (SPA), and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). Many areas in Scotland are covered by multiple such designations, such as Rothiemurchus Forest in the Cairngorms, which is covered by all three.
To find a map of these Natural Heritage Designations, you can visit the NatureScot website here.
Fires are also not permitted on farmland, in woods or within 30 metres of a road. Building a fire anywhere it can be considered a threat to property or life or give ‘reasonable cause for annoyance’ is a criminal offence.
The most disastrous outcome is obviously that a fire spreads out of control, damaging a wider area or even growing into a wildfire. Wildfires kill plants and animals and can present a risk to life in extreme circumstances.
Wildfires can spread easily if the fire has been laid on peaty soil, as is found in much of the Highlands. Peat will burn freely once dried out, and prolonged dry spells are becoming more common as a result of climate change. A peat fire tends to smoulder underground, spreading gradually with very little visible sign above ground, until it comes back to the surface and breaks out as a wildfire.
In woodland, the soil is often combustible, being a mixture of peat and dead materials such as old pine needles. A fire that looks extinguished can, in fact, be burning its way into the soil. If it encounters tree roots – often full of resin – it will follow them back to the trunk. Smoke may be seen coming from the ground, which will be the only warning before the whole tree starts to burn.
Even if a fire does not spread out of control, it will leave a scar if made on living soil. A fire scar that was laid over grass or other plants can take up to seven years to heal. In the meantime, it will also tend to attract people to make other fires in that same spot, meaning the fire scar can permanently disfigure the land.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code states:
“Wherever possible, use a stove rather than light an open fire. If you do wish to light an open fire, keep it small, under control, and supervised – fires that get out of control can cause major damage, for which you might be liable. Never light an open fire during prolonged dry periods or in areas such as forests, woods, farmland or on peaty ground or near to buildings or in cultural heritage sites where damage can be easily caused. Heed all advice at times of high risk. Remove all traces of an open fire before you leave.”
If you have decided to go ahead with a fire, you should also follow the best practice of Leave No Trace. Preparation and Planning are crucial to minimising your impact.
There are effective tools and methods of preparing your fire that will help avoid doing any damage. For example, you could use a folding firebowl that is lightweight enough to carry – meaning you can raise your fire above the ground and avoid burning it. These fantastic bits of kit also help keep the fire contained, and you can use them for cooking too.
Alternatively, you could carry a heatproof mat and prepare a mound fire. This is done by gathering a mound of non-combustible material such as sand or gravel and making a heap on the heatproof mat. You then flatten the middle and build your fire on the mound.
Both these options are effective, but in either case, you should also try to build the fire in a place that minimises the risk of causing damage. For example, a gravelly beach is a much better place to have a fire than the woodland by the shore.
As far as possible, burn all the fuel to ash. Try not to leave part-burned sticks.
After the fire has cooled, scatter the ashes and any unburned fuel over a wide area. Cover the fire site with nearby loose material from the ground, such as pine needles, earth, dead leaves etc to erase all visual evidence of the fire.
Your site should look exactly as it did when you arrived. The next person there should have no idea there was ever previously a fire in that place
Fire remains before they were tidied away.
Fire remains after the fire was put out, scattered and covered.
I hope this post clarifies the legal position and best practices for having a campfire in Scotland. My final piece of advice for anyone who cares about minimising their impact on our landscape during their adventures is to consider attending a Leave No Trace training course, which is not only informative but also great fun for outdoor lovers.