SRU professors spark conversation about Campfire Day


People around a campfire

Campfire Day is the first Saturday in August, and Slippery Rock University professors are sharing their thoughts on the many benefits of campfires.

Aug. 2, 2019

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Campfire Day is observed on the first Saturday in August each year and those celebrating the occasion Aug. 3 will no doubt enjoy the flickering flames well into the night. In preparation for the big night tomorrow, gather 'round, everyone, as two Slippery Rock University professors spark a conversation about the benefits of campfires.

First, some numbers. According to the 2019 North American Camping Report, an annual survey conducted by the Cairn Consulting Group, there are 78.8 million households in the United States with people who go camping at least once, a figure that has grown 22% in the last five years.

"Campfires are, of course, an institution of camping and enjoying the great outdoors," said Shawn Davis, assistant professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy. "There are a lot of useful benefits of a campfire such as cooking your food; boiling and purifying your water; keeping away mosquitos and bugs; and in the nighttime they provide light and warmth."

While those uses may seem obvious to veteran and novice campers alike, there are a number of social and psychological benefits that may not seem so apparent.

"When we are sitting around a campfire we are generally experiencing comfortable emotions: we're happy, we feel content, we are calm and we feel connected," said Jennifer Willford, associate professor of psychology. "Also, because we are rarely sitting around a campfire by ourselves, that feeling of social connection is really important for our well-being."

Willford cited a theory developed by American psychologist Martin Seligman to identify five domains of positive psychology that predict well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationship, meaning and achievement, which form the mnemonic "PERMA."

"Positive emotion and relationship tie into what happens when we are around a campfire," Willford said. "The campfire can elicit positive emotions that allow us to be more open, rather than situations that might be more anxiety provoking. If camping is something that people did with their families, it's going to bring up memories of positive emotions and social connection that will influence a current situation. Also, when we are around a campfire we tend to be very present and mindful, which also is important for well-being, and not being distracted by cell phones and other things that cause stress."

Davis noted that because campfires are normally built in a circular shape and people face one another, as opposed to, say, people sitting together watching a movie or a ballgame in a linear fashion, the physical structure supports people connecting with one another.

Campfires also provide therapeutic benefits as a sensory experience. Davis conducted a forest therapy workshop at SRU last spring teaching participants the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor environments.

"Fires give off one of the 'crackling' nature sounds that tend to calm humans and act as a de-stressor, much like the sound of trickling creek waters or a breeze rustling the leaves on a tree," Davis said. "The visual aspects of fire have a calming effect as well; the glowing coals erratically change like a lava lamp and it's something that captivates your vision like watching fish in a tank."

Davis will be teaching two sections of an Outdoor Leadership class at SRU this fall, during which students will plan and execute an overnight hiking trip in the Hickory Creek Wilderness area near Tidioute in the Allegheny National Forest. As part of the class, Davis teaches students how to make different types of campfires - for warmth or cooking - with a single match strike using the proper tinder.

"It's a fun class where the students learn basic back country skills for camping and backpacking," Davis said. "(Students) who have camping experience really benefit from that trip as a refresher for their skills, but for those students that come to us without that prior knowledge, it's essential for them to grasp those skills so they can be more knowledgeable if they want to become rangers. People can resort to fire starters or fuels, but I show them how to do it with natural materials."

Davis and John Lisco, associate professor of parks, conservation and recreational therapy, took 20 students on a tour of three national parks in May, visiting Sequoia National Forest, Yosemite National Park and Death Valley National Park. Each summer, the Park and Resource Management program hosts similar trips to national parks such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

"With our trips to national parks, the campfire is something everyone looks forward to and almost every student will gather around to tell stories and spend time together to talk about the day or what's coming up," Davis said.

And campers on Campfire Day might want to talk about the next week, too, which includes a tribute to another camping essential - National S'mores Day, which will be celebrated Aug. 10.

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