Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Starting Fire

Confessions of a Backcountry Pyro

Forgive me, Smokey, for I have sinned.

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.

Where do I begin? I’d like to say that all my conjurations of flame in the backcountry have been noble, leave-no-trace efforts—small, controlled teepees within designated fire rings, used solely to warm the bluish toes of sodden, hypothermic orphans.

But I am a pyromaniac. I confess it, for my sins are beyond count. My troubles began in youth, when I used a microwave to interrogate a tight-lipped G.I. Joe. Like artistic talent or psychosis, my fire lust flowered in adolescence: I tipped arrows with acetone and bottle rockets. Errant blazes inspired neighbors to update shopworn idioms: “Where there’s smoke, there’s Ted driving down property values.” 

Camping and backpacking saved me from a remedial stint in the volunteer fire department. I learned to cloak my addiction in the responsibility and language of backcountry survival. “It’s important to keep your core warm, especially at night,” I told a shivering hiker in the Wind Rivers as I exhaled into a crackling, 5-foot-tall ziggurat of burning pine. “Now stand back.”

I’ve made punky torches to “keep mosquitoes away.” My fire-starting potions—flint, Fritos, Vaseline, olive oil, alcohol, feathersticks, Wet Ones, magnifying lens, batteries—practically require a pack of their own. 

But addiction isn’t all glowing eyes and smoky highs. Wilderness fire withdrawal can be embarrassing (my neighbors once caught me roasting a Nalgene over barbecue coals in an attempt to boil water), and there’s nothing more pathetic than a pyro struggling in vain for a fix. I hit rock bottom in the Canadian Rockies a few summers back, striking dim sparks into a nest of soaked newspaper hours after everyone went to bed. The pouring rain hid my tears.

I have found no cure. But I take solace in knowing that I’m not alone. My kind abounds, hiding our lights inside backpacks and tinderboxes. Say, won’t you join me by the fire?

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.

Keywords: