Dark Camping

A look at my disdain for campfires…

Certain people who follow this blog are aware of the fact that, in my youth, I took advantage of any opportunity to play with fire. But some of these people may not know just how much my interest in fire has waned over the years…to the point where I no longer own a grill, I don’t use candles in my home, and I think that fireworks belong solely in the hands of professionals.

As for campfires, they are certainly obligatory in the eyes of the camping public—the universal symbol of “Look, we’re camping!” Seems like every depiction of camping in advertisements and entertainment includes happy people sitting around a fire. For the record, when I’m camping, I’m happy too. But, as with travel and…well, lots of other stuff, I can’t follow the popular script when I camp. I avoid developed campgrounds and opt instead for dispersed camping, getting as deep into the middle of nowhere as the Pontiac can take me, where I can savor the silence and solitude. And, while I’m there, I don’t build fires. I think the last time I started a campfire was back in my Boy Scout days.

This post is not a lecture decreeing that you shouldn’t be building campfires (even though parts of it may read that way); rather, it’s just a look at the reasons why I find campfires undesirable. I raise the issue simply because I was asked about it during one of my camping adventures back in May, when I was touring Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.


One of the primary motivators that leads me to these desolate areas is the reward of viewing incredible starscapes that I could never see here in the light-soaked Midwest. Cloud cover, horizon clutter, and (especially) proximity to light sources all weigh heavily on the when and the where of my campsite selection.

A sure way to destroy your night vision during an evening of skywatching is to spend a couple of hours staring into a campfire. After that, you’d be lucky to resolve anything in the sky smaller than the Moon. But when you go easy on your eyes and give them a fair opportunity to adjust to the darkness, you might be surprised at just how well you can see by starlight alone. There have been nights out on the grasslands when—even in the absence of moonlight—the night sky had illuminated the countryside to the point where I could discern the colors of nearby plants and rocks. And on moonlit nights, navigating the terrain is a breeze…no flashlight or lantern required.

Beyond my campfire moratorium, I further preserve my night vision by avoiding the use of traditional flashlights with blinding white light. Instead, I carry an assortment of red flashlights which are much easier on the eyes. Once the sun is down, I use these red lights exclusively, both inside my tent while setting up shop and outside while fiddling with my camera and/or telescope.

Those of you who camp are likely familiar with the many labels used to differentiate the various modes of camping, such as “boondocking,” “dry camping,” “wild camping,” “stealth camping” and so on. Scanning the Internet, I’m not finding any consensus on a term that denotes fire-free camping, nor am I seeing any meaningful use of the phrase “dark camping.” So, this blog post serves as notice that I’m officially taking credit for applying the term “dark camping” to the act of camping without fire. (Notary Seal)

Safety & Liability

It makes sense that a skywatcher like me would set up camp in those regions where clear, dark skies are a common occurrence—deserts, grasslands, the Great Plains in general. It also makes sense that locations with frequent fair weather see much less precipitation than other parts of the country. As you’ve probably noticed from the photos I’ve been sharing for many years, a lot of the places I visit appear quite brown and dry. They also tend to be fairly flat and wide open, which lends them another quality—they’re windy. Prairie winds can be both strong and unpredictable, going from zero to sixty with no warning at all. Dry grass, high winds and campfires…not a good combination.

When you’re dispersed camping in the middle of thousands of wild acres, you can’t just build a fire anytime or anywhere you please. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the current fire restrictions that are in place at the county and state level, as well as restrictions issued by the various US agencies when you’re camping on federal land. Of the locations where I camped (or wanted to camp) back in May, nearly all were under county-wide burn bans at the time. Such bans apply to campfires and can sometimes prohibit the use of grills.

Burn bans are increasingly common in this part of the world as the West continues to heat up and dry out, and they’re not to be taken lightly. Find yourself responsible for sparking a wildfire and there’s likely more than a ticket in your future…you’re looking at the possibility of financial ruin, maybe even incarceration. I’m happy to report that people were taking the bans seriously during my journey in May; I did not see any campfires or open burning in those areas.

Food & Cooking

One day while scouting online for potential wilderness campsites, I caught a glimpse of a developed campground listing in the area. Though I bypassed it automatically, the most recent review for the place caught my eye and made me chuckle. It came from one very unhappy camper who, quite upset over the burn ban in place at the time, asked indignantly, “How are we supposed to cook our food?!?”

Well, a great way to avoid that problem in the future is to pack food that doesn’t need to be cooked.

With camping, I prefer the simple and light approach; I don’t want to be bogged down with a ton of gear. That’s partly why I cringe at the sight of campers lugging around store-bought bundles of firewood and unpacking bulky, heavy cast iron skillets and dutch ovens. That feels like overkill for a camping adventure. If full-blown cooking is that important to you, I think you’d be better off just renting a well-equipped wilderness cabin…or putting up a tent in your backyard.

On top of that, the idea of turning your campsite into an outdoor kitchen seems so unnecessary when you consider the sheer abundance of food items that require no cooking whatsoever. There are thousands upon thousands of options, and before your mind leaps right for the junk food, those options include plenty of items from the healthy side of the aisle. Sure, you can live it up on Slim Jims, donuts and beer for the entire weekend, or you can go the other way and fuel yourself on nothing but organic produce and nuts. Throw in everything in between and the possibilities are limitless.

I’m not about to list each of those possibilities here, but I’ll give you the broad strokes based on the foods I carry into camp as well as those I eat at home in the summer when it’s too hot to use the oven:

~ Fresh fruit, fruit cups, canned fruit, dried fruit
~ Fresh vegetables, canned vegetables and baked beans, dried vegetables, pickled vegetables, pickles, olives
~ Fresh salads, bagged salad kits, cold deli salads (potato salad, pasta salads, cole slaw, etc.)
~ Nuts…so many nut choices, as well as a wide variety of nut butters
~ Trail mix, snack mixes (packaged or homemade)
~ Bars…bars by the thousands…granola bars, keto/protein bars, energy bars, nut bars, fruit bars, oat bars, rice bars, breakfast bars, crunchy bars, chewy bars (The bar aisle in some stores should have its own zip code.)
~ Bagged and boxed snacks…potato chips, vegetable chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, popcorn, crackers
~ Baked goods (packaged or homemade)…bread, cornbread, rolls, croissants, donuts, pastries, pies, cakes, cookies
~ Jerky…beef jerky, bison jerky, deer jerky, bacon jerky, salmon jerky, trout jerky, even vegan jerky made from mushrooms
~ Shelf-stable meat and seafood…Underwood Deviled Ham, Vienna Sausages, dry-cured whole salami, boxed pre-cooked (real) bacon, tuna and salmon (cans or pouches), canned sardines, mackerel, herring, oysters, shrimp, crab, etc.
~ Canned pasta (Is there anything better than eating SpaghettiOs straight out of the can?)

And like most campers, I don’t head into the wilderness for weeks on end; the majority of camping adventures in this country are only one, two or three nights in duration. So I don’t haul much food when I’m on the road, other than a few small snack items for the car. When it’s time to gather my meals for the campsite, I stop at a grocery store in the last town en route to the backcountry and load up on fresh food in the deli and produce sections, where I might purchase a salad kit or a ready-made Caesar salad for that night’s camp dinner, a big sandwich for the following day, a pint of seafood salad or some other cold deli dish, and a pint of fresh blueberries (maybe even a six-pack of those tiny donuts for breakfast).

The menu changes from one place to the next, with each store stocking different selections and each deli counter and bakery offering its own unique tastes. Plus, each small town that I pass through has one or more mom-and-pop restaurants to explore; I have no shortage of opportunities a grab a take-out order and haul that off to camp…maybe a plate of BBQ or some beef lo mein. There are even gas stations that have sold me some surprisingly tasty hot and cold sandwiches. It’s no exaggeration to say that I could camp every day for the rest of my life and—without ever lighting a fire or using any type of cooking gear—I’d never have to eat the same thing twice.

As for the irate camper mentioned above, if he was carrying food which needed to be cooked, then he must have had a cooler or mobile refrigeration to keep that food from spoiling before it arrived at the campfire. And when you have access to cold storage on your camping trip, your no-cook food choices increase substantially. Now you can pack even more fresh food; you’re not limited to the amount that has to be eaten on your first day in camp. Load up with more salads/salad kits, more fresh produce, more deli salads, and then throw in cold cuts, smoked salmon, fried chicken, hard-boiled eggs, cheeses, yogurt, dips, spreads, milk and milk alternatives, OJ and other fruit juices, and so on.

If you’d like to have a go at flameless campsite cooking, there are plenty of solar ovens and related devices on the market, but even those don’t interest me; that’s just one more thing to buy, one more thing to pack, one more thing to take up valuable vehicle space. On those rare occasions when I do want to warm up half of my sandwich, I get along fine with the old standbys: placing it on a sun-baked rock, parking it on the hood, trunk or dashboard of the Pontiac (all of which are black), and on cloudy days, I can just set it right on the engine block.

I’ve warned you that a van is in my camping future, which will allow me to reach those rugged and remote areas where the Pontiac just can’t cut it. And as the van research moves forward, friends and family are helping me with interior layout suggestions. Certainly, I’ll be reserving space for a small refrigerator, but I can’t imagine that I’ll ever want to carry any sort of cooking apparatus in this van…not even a simple gas-fired camp stove. I truly have no need for such things.

What about the fish we just caught?
Yes, you’ll need a way to cook those. Personally, I don’t fish.
What about coffee?
Never touch the stuff.
What about s’mores?
Bleh. Little Debbie Zebra Rolls are far superior…

Warmth & Social Gathering

Unless a coyote and a scorpion wander into camp to hang out with me, my campsites have no social component.

As a heat source, a campfire will indeed warm you up while you’re sitting nearby drinking coffee, roasting marshmallows or telling stories, but it’s a poor choice for keeping you warm throughout the night. Sleeping close enough to a campfire to feel its heat is not a great idea. And it’s a downright reckless idea to leave any fire burning unattended while you sleep.

The key to staying warm while camping is quite simple: dress for it…be prepared for the worst weather that could possibly show up. By investing in the proper clothing and camping gear, you’re assured of being warm, dry and comfortable no matter what surprises the weather may throw your way.


Like a magnet, smoke from any fire finds me every time. Bonfires, patio fires, campfires…it makes no difference. If I stand upwind, the wind will slowly turn until I’m in the crosshairs once more. Then I’ll move again, and the process repeats…and repeats. My throat, my sinuses and my eyes aren’t built to handle smoke of any kind.

I know that the aroma of wood smoke holds a special charm for many, but I can do without it. A breath of clean, sage-scented prairie air is much more to my liking.

Low Profile

If you’ve experienced wide-open places in the dark of night, you know that a campfire or any other light source becomes a beacon that can be seen from miles away. There are many instances in old Western TV shows and movies, as well as in Western fiction and even non-fiction books, when outlaws, a posse or other travelers on the range will stop for the night and camp without a fire so as not to betray their location.

Of course, the West was a much more hostile place back in those days. When I camp, I’m not doing anything nearly as exciting as running from a bounty hunter. All the same, I seek out these deserted areas to enjoy peace, quiet and solitude, and once I find a campsite, it’s my nature to avoid calling attention to my presence. Though not too likely, it is possible that my lonely campfire might provide an excuse for folks to say, “Hey, someone is camping over there. Let’s go check it out.” No, I prefer to blend in with the terrain and be swallowed by the darkness.

Bonus points: Find my campsite in the photo below…


Campfires are a storied part of 19th century cowboy and pioneer life. Along the cattle trails and along the emigrant trails, the songs that rang out around those campfires are still being recorded and enjoyed today.

To the cowboys and families traversing the wild West for weeks and months on end, fire was a necessity, and the tenet of Leave No Trace was far from the thoughts of those who were focused on day-to-day survival in a harsh landscape. But this is not 1857. We have options today that were not available to those travelers.

I find nothing lacking in my camping experiences by the absence of fire. The West provides its own romance; it’s always there in the sensory splendor of my surroundings.



(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)


One of my favorite quiet and beautiful corners of the West—a corner that, I’m happy to say, seems to be underexplored by the majority of the traveling public—is the mesa country of northeastern New Mexico and the farthest western reaches of Oklahoma.

My autumn journey brought me into this wonderland once again, and I enjoyed my third and final night of grassland camping in 2020 with a return to southeastern Colorado’s Comanche National Grassland; my campsite less than two miles north of the Oklahoma line…

If you’re a fan of Level III Ecoregions, this location lies on the boundary between the Western High Plains and the Southwestern Tablelands. More simply put, the area doesn’t appear very “grassy” as compared to nearby grasslands, such as Cimarron to the east and Rita Blanca to the south. (These three national grasslands sit right in the bullseye of the Dust Bowl.) This part of Comanche certainly has a desert feel about it—plenty of pale sun-baked soil and exposed rock, plus cactus, yucca and other such plants common to arid regions…

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)


I rolled into Colorado by driving north from the Black Mesa area on a scenic dirt road that passes through Cañon Gallinas, home to a dry creek that feeds the Cimarron River. Winding through the narrow, peaceful valley, I took a few moments for lunch in the shade of a creekside tree and enjoyed looking at the rocky wall of the low canyon just across the road. Moving on, the road soon made a short climb and I was back on the high plains. The whole area was nicely absent of other travelers as well as any sound of human activity. Finally entering national grassland property, I started scouting for the perfect place to set up camp.

With the help of the official grassland folding map, I found a Forest Service “road” leading to some high ground that looked promising. I slowly nosed the car up this fairly steep and rocky two-wheel track, which was well beyond the Pontiac’s skill level. After several squeaks, scrapes and clunks from below, we arrived at the top without any damage to the oil pan or other vital underside components.

I stopped the car and walked ahead, verifying that the road becomes even more harrowing beyond this point. Happily, there was no reason to go any further. The pullout of bare packed soil was the perfect place to leave the car for the night. And pitching my tent here would not only offer maximum silence and solitude, but also the opportunity to explore two playgrounds of beautifully eroded sandstone. A stone castle to the north of camp (seen in the second photo above, beyond the car) stood about 30′ tall. South of camp was a maze of unusual rocky features, all under 20′ in height. It was like looking at southern Utah in miniature…a collection of little chimneys and buttes and canyons. Seemed to be the kind of place where some outlaw might have attempted to dry-gulch Jim Hardie

(Kodak Ektar 100 35mm film)


Once camp had been established, there was enough daylight remaining to explore the nearby rock formations for a couple of hours. While I was hiking and climbing over the stone shapes, I noticed that many of the rocks were hosting lichens in neon lemon-lime…

Someone (perhaps a mantid?) tucked her eggs into these cases for the winter…

Last year’s road trip set a record for clear skies; apart from one rainy day in South Dakota, a big blue empty ceiling was the norm for more than three weeks. This October day was no exception, and as I was at the southern apex of my journey up to that point, the temperature had reached the low 90s by the time I made camp. Not a problem, though, as the bone-dry Sonoran air was exquisitely comfortable. Hot or cold, summer or winter, I’ve never been a fan of humidity or precipitation; I hope to add much more desert hiking and camping to my future western adventures.

With a clear sky and a warm, still night on tap, there’s was no doubt that the next several hours would be devoted to skywatching. Here in one of the darkest areas of the country, many miles from the nearest tiny town, a great show was guaranteed.

And the nearby rocks provided the perfect place to enjoy the show; a small natural amphitheater, just a short walk from the tent, was centered by this convenient pedestal of flat stone, about waist high and probably 8′ in diameter. Wouldn’t be surprised if this slab had occasionally seen use as a dining table by those who camped here in centuries past…

So I had a quick dinner, gathered the few supplies I’d need for the evening and walked over to the rock garden. I took my seat in time for yet another sunset colored by the wildfire smoke that had been hanging over the country for several weeks…

As usual, the coyotes were on schedule with their post-sunset serenade, then fell silent.  This was going to be a comfortable night; along with the warm rocks, the warm air and the absence of wind, I was happy that there were no biting bugs around to spoil the party. I never saw or felt any flying insects during my entire stay here. Plenty of crickets, though, and I was glad of their company; they provided a superb and gentle soundtrack for the show. And a soloist showed up to further enhance the mood: a solitary bird hiding in a nearby shrub, who kept hooting the same triplet of low, lonely tones throughout the night.

Each evening’s progression through the three stages of twilight is typically a 90-minute affair. It’s my favorite time of the day, but I always catch it in segments of varying length while driving or hiking or capturing photos or talking with friends or otherwise partially occupied.

Here, I was totally alone and focused on nothing but the sky for the full duration of the evening—the first time I’ve ever done so. And in this setting, my sense of time was completely distorted. That 90-minute transition felt as though it passed in a matter of minutes. I watched as a blank canvas of graduated color was pierced by a single point of light (Jupiter?), followed by a bright star off to my right. Then a dozen more winked on, which became one hundred, rapidly accelerating to ten thousand, until, much sooner that I thought possible, I was looking into the Milky Way.

Though the moon was hours away from cracking the eastern horizon, there was so much starlight pouring down that I could easily see the rocks and plants all around me. But looking at the ground was a rarity on this night; the sky was filled with amazing stuff, so much so that I stared into it for hours without boredom intruding for a single second. I was having a wonderful time, with laughter and expletives flowing freely. I counted several meteors streaking high above, which were probably pieces of Halley’s Comet…the earliest days of the annual Orionid Meteor Shower. I rotated my position frequently so I could enjoy all 360 degrees of this spectacle. However, my eyes returned quite often to a favorite reference point—the bright “W” of Casseopeia as she whirled around Polaris.

I can’t say exactly how many hours I spent sitting on that rock, but I’m quite sure it was the longest skywatching session of my life. And there was more to be seen after turning in for the night; I watched a while longer from my sleeping bag, gazing through the tent’s screened skylight, and spotted another shooting star or two before sleep arrived.

(I have no starlight images from this evening to share with you; I did not pack a DSLR or telescope on this trip. And even if I had, I was just too engrossed in the stunning overhead scenery to have taken time out for imaging. I recall previous nights in the wilderness when fiddling with cameras and optics proved to be a distraction that prevented me from fully appreciating the experience. So, in lieu of photos from Comanche, please enjoy this starry sky that I captured in western Texas five years earlier.)

After a peaceful night’s sleep, I was up and out in time for the sunrise…

…and another opportunity to climb around the rocks as they soaked up the early sunlight…

I’m certain that I’ll return to this spot once I get my campervan; one night here is just not enough. I lingered that morning, not wanting to leave. Putting the stone table to further use, I found it to be a great place for my morning stretches and exercises.

Best night of camping ever. We’ll see if my next visit to this area is just as memorable.


Grand River

My second night of grassland camping this fall was spent in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland—over 150,000 acres of beautifully desolate terrain in the state’s most sparsely populated quadrant. The silence here is deafening; this was easily the most silent night of camping I have ever experienced. The only sound that came to me in the darkness was the sweet twilight music of the coyotes (I shared that audio recording with you two months ago in this post).

If the skyline in the photo above looks familiar, it’s because I had previously written about my ascent of that butte on the left back in October of 2018. I had not planned to end up in this location once again…it was a happy accident. I drove in from the northeast this year, rather than from the west, and after several hours of looping across these wide open spaces on deserted gravel roads, I crested a hill and immediately recognized these buttes. Remembering the wonderful silence and solitude I experienced here two years ago, it seemed the perfect choice for my campsite.

I pitched my tent at the base of the hill you see above—a gentle but long grassy slope, topped by a rocky summit. Naturally, there was no way I’d leave the area without hiking to the top, so after striking camp the next morning, I walked up to check out the panoramic view of my neighborhood. Turns out that the summit of this hill was much more intriguing that the view from below suggested. Just on the other side of the peak, I found a garden of large and unusual rock formations…

Just a bunch of unnamed rocks atop an unnamed hill—a hill that likely sees very few visitors in any given year. But finding and exploring this hilltop was a wonderful surprise and a memorable experience. These small and unsung pieces of wilderness are responsible for my lack of interest in the popular and obvious destinations found in National Parks that draw tourists by the thousands.

On my next trip to Grand River, I hope to spend less time driving and more time hiking. I’m sure that other satisfying discoveries await me there.

A small, solitary wildflower growing near my tent.



That is the number of National Grasslands in the United States. They are places I visit frequently when I’m on the road…places that offer great opportunities for driving and hiking and stargazing, and are hard to beat when it comes to enjoying solitude and blissful silence. This year, I decided that I need to experience a quiet night alone in each of the twenty grasslands through the joy of dispersed camping.

On my 2020 journey, I was able to check three of them off the list. I started with a return to the first grassland I ever visited many years ago—Sheyenne National Grassland in eastern North Dakota.

Above: View from my tent at dawn; a still mist hovering above the grass


The spot I chose for camping was nicely isolated in sprawling ranchland; there were no houses or farms or moving vehicles visible in any direction, no sound of human activity. After a colorful sunset, with the waxing moon riding through the twilight, the coyotes started their chorus.

Above: My campsite in the late-day sun


The stars on this night were wonderfully brilliant. And my choice of a tent with screen windows paid off yet again. I awoke briefly at one point late in the night, and just as I opened my eyes, a bright shooting star zoomed directly overhead, flying from east to west.


Night Music

Here in the eastern US, I have never heard a coyote sing. But on my western road adventures, I’m lucky enough to hear them most evenings if I’m lodging in a rural setting. Happily, they always put on a show whenever I’m camping in the grasslands. They begin singing shortly after sundown, and the music usually surrounds me—one or more coyotes off to the left of camp, and others calling from my right. Lying alone in my tent, halfway between them, I often wonder if they’re talking about me.

So it was on that night last month when I slept in South Dakota’s Grand River National Grassland, a beautifully silent place to hike and camp. Once the coyotes began their chorus, I activated my phone’s audio recorder.

To give you something to look at while you’re listening, I’ve married the recording to this time-lapse video of the rising Harvest Moon, which I captured a few nights later in Wyoming. Note: You may want to send your dog or cat out of the room before you play this video…