A crackling campfire is one of the most enjoyable parts of a camping trip. There’s simply nothing like sitting around the fire with friends and family, telling spooky stories, roasting marshmallows and enjoying the way the flames dance in the night.
But you must be sure to keep your campfire contained and employ sound safety protocols. Otherwise, your charming campfire may turn into a raging wildfire, which will not only threaten countless plants and animals but those people living near wilderness areas too.
Fortunately, it isn’t terribly difficult to keep your campfire safe. Just follow the tips and suggestions detailed below, and you’ll be able to enjoy a safe campfire that doesn’t threaten the very wilderness you’re trying to enjoy.
Use Existing Fire Circles When Possible
The vast majority of popular campsites will already have fire circles in place. As long as the fire circle is in a safe and logical location, it is usually best to use the existing one rather than building a new one from scratch. This will help keep the campsite as natural-looking as possible, and it’ll save you time that you can devote to different tasks.
Additionally, by using existing fire circles, it’ll help keep all of the potentially dangerous coals and embers in a single place. If you construct a new fire circle, you’ll just be setting up an additional place that requires care and monitoring.
Design the Fire Properly
If you have to build your own fire circle, be sure that you do so in the proper manner. Make the fire circle by scraping away all of the leaf litter and vegetation from a circular area about 10-feet in diameter. Be sure to locate the fire circle in a safe place – don’t, for example, situate it under overhanging trees. Line the circumference of the circle with rocks.
Then, before starting the fire, clear the ground outside of the fire circle. An extra 5 feet is usually sufficient, but 10 is preferable in fire-prone regions.
You’ll also want to make sure that you keep any other flammable items a safe distance from the fire. This includes things like your tent and backpack; also, be sure your stove fuel isn’t anywhere near the fire.
In fact, it is often wise to consider the fire ring your first priority when laying out the campsite – you can move your tent, you can’t (easily) move the fire pit. So, check out the fire pit location first, and then set your tent and other gear up accordingly (and upwind of the fire).
Keep the Fire Contained
Above everything else, you need to keep the fire inside the fire circle. Do this, and you’ll eliminate many of the potential problems and hazards that campfires present. Accordingly, you’ll want to keep the size of your fire modest and be sure that all of the logs and sticks completely fit inside the fire circle.
Don’t drag a 10-foot log to the fire and try to keep pushing it farther into the fire as it burns – doing so courts disaster. Simply put, all flammable items should be kept inside the fire circle and the area surrounding the fire circle should be completely free of flammable items.
It’s also important to prevent flaming embers from escaping the fire circle by floating upward. You can’t completely eliminate floating embers, but you can reduce the number produced by being careful what you add to the fire. Don’t, for example, add dead leaves, pine needs or other lightweight items to a burning fire. They’ll quickly ignite and be carried upward by the fire’s updraft.
You can use dead leaves or similar types of tinder when you are starting the fire, but once the fire is burning, you should only add relatively thick sticks or logs.
Be Careful What You Burn
Not every stick or branch you find in the forest is suitable for your campfire. You must be careful of things that could be toxic when burned, such as poison ivy vines or poison sumac branches (the smoke produced by either can cause you to suffer severe respiratory distress).
It’s also important to avoid burning some species of wood because they’re apt to pop and crackle in the fire, potentially sending flaming embers in all directions. These kinds of sounds may be romantic when they occur in a fireplace behind a metal screen, but they spell danger in the forest.
Hemlock wood is one of the most notorious such species, but most softwoods, including several pines and firs, will also throw a lot of sparks. If you have your choice of woods, oaks and hickories are both reliable options (in fact, most hardwoods make good and safe fuel for the fire).
And although it should go without saying, don’t burn anything besides wood, dead vegetation or paper in your fire. Throwing plastics, metals, glass or liquids into the fire can often be extremely dangerous, so don’t try to use your campfire as a trash incinerator.
Once the Fire Is Lit, You Can’t Leave
You should never leave a burning fire unattended – even for a moment. It only takes a few seconds for a fire to grow out of control, and you’ll need to be present and paying attention to prevent this from happening.
Want to leave the morning fire going while you day hike? You better leave someone behind to tend it. Need to go get more firewood? Someone has to stay behind to keep an eye on the fire.
Keep this rule in mind when you’re gathering firewood too. You don’t want to have to extinguish your fire because you need to go looking for more firewood – always collect twice as much as you think you’ll need.
Extinguish the Fire Properly When You Are Finished
Always have a supply of water on hand when you start a fire. Even if you are camping mere feet from a water source, you’ll need to have a supply of water that you can quickly bring to bear – you don’t want to have to go fetch water when your fire jumps out of the ring.
How much water you need to have is difficult to pin down, but clearly, you’ll want as much as you can reasonably collect and store. You don’t need to fill a 55-gallon drum with stream water, but it’s probably wise to have at least a couple of gallons on hand.
Collapsible five-gallon water containers are relatively affordable, weigh very little, and won’t take up much space in your pack, so they’re perfect for the job. They’re also helpful in myriad other applications during the average camping trip.
Once the fire is over, you can use the water to put out the fire. But, plan ahead, if you can, and try to let the fire die down around the same time you’ll be retiring – the cooler it is, the easier it’ll be to extinguish. Just stop adding sticks once the last round of scary stories has started, or when you’re done cooking s’mores.
Five to ten minutes before you crawl into your tent, go ahead and start slowly pouring the water on the fire. Stop once you think you’ve completely extinguished the fire. Give the fire a few more minutes, and then use the rest of the water, being careful to hit any spots that are still smoldering. It should only be considered completely extinguished when you cannot see any glowing embers at all.
If you are extinguishing the last fire of your trip (or you are heading to another location), go back and douse it with the same amount of water that you used the first time. Make sure that there is no possible way that the embers will begin glowing again.
Emergency Steps for Escaped Fires
You must always take steps to keep your fire contained – you never want to be faced with a fire that’s escaped and is now threatening large swaths of habitat. However, it is important to know what to do in a worst-case scenario.
First of all, you’ll need to protect any people in the vicinity. Make sure that you warn them immediately, and that all parties are accounted for. Not only will this help prevent human casualties, these people may be able to help you bring the fire back under control.
If you are car camping with your blanket, it is a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher in the car. A fire extinguisher will only be helpful for a brief time – once the fire grows too large, the fire extinguisher won’t be able to put out the flames. Accordingly, you’ll want to act quickly and grab the fire extinguisher at the first sign of trouble.
If you are backpacking, your options will be more limited. You likely won’t have any reasonable way to bring the fire back under control, so you’ll need to prioritize two things:
- Ensure that you and all other people in the vicinity escape the fire’s path and reach the trailhead unharmed.
- Contact the authorities as soon as possible, so that firefighters can begin trying to tame the blaze.
This illustrates the importance of bringing a working cell phone (or satellite phone, if you are venturing into remote wilderness areas) with you during camping trips.
Consider the Conditions: Sometimes, You Shouldn’t Start a Fire at All
Unfortunately, there are plenty of occasions in which you should just skip the fire and enjoy the nighttime sights and sounds the fire would normally preclude. This may put a bit of a damper on your evening, but that’s clearly preferable to putting a thousand-year-old habitat at risk.
For example, anytime you are camping in an area that is experiencing a drought or unusually dry period, you should probably think twice about starting a fire.
This is often a concern for those camping in the western half of the US. Many parts of California, for example, experience near droughts (or full-fledged droughts) each winter. However, all parts of the country occasionally suffer from droughts, including the normally humid forests of the east coast.
It is also wise to avoid starting fires in high winds. It doesn’t take a very strong gust to catch an ember and carry it high into the tree canopy. So, to be on the safe side, you’ll want to consider the winds before deciding to build a fire.
Of course, local officials will occasionally take the decision out of your hands entirely, by prohibiting the use of campfires in a given area. Follow these and all other instructions by the relevant authorities so that they can do their job and protect the habitat you are enjoying. Besides, the penalties for breaking these rules can be severe.
Miscellaneous Campfire Safety Tips
In addition to the general guidelines discussed above, there are a variety of miscellaneous fire safety tips you should embrace during your next camping trip. Some of the most important include:
- Keep your extra firewood stacked neatly – you don’t want anyone tripping over the pile. Organize it into three small piles, consisting of tinder, kindling and fuel, and be sure to place all three upwind of the fire.
- Don’t throw hot matches into trashcans. It is usually wise to simply toss them into the fire; just be sure that they burn completely.
- Build your fire upwind of relatively nonflammable locations, such as lakes or rock outcrops, whenever possible. This way, flying embers or sparks are less likely to land on something flammable.
- Never throw rocks in the fire. Some rocks contain small droplets of water inside their pores. These water droplets can boil thanks to the heat from the fire and cause the rock to explode, sending sharp fragments in all directions. If you need to warm a rock (to help keep you cozy through the night), keep it a reasonable distance from the fire. Let it get warm but move it away from the fire if it begins to get hot.
- Sand can be helpful for extinguishing a fire in a pinch. You won’t be able to snuff out a large fire with sand, but a shovel’s worth of sand may help you smother embers that escape the fire circle. Accordingly, it can be helpful to keep a camp shovel at the ready.
- Be careful if your campfire is located near old tree stumps. Although stumps often take a while to begin burning, once they start combusting, they can keep smoldering for weeks.
- Move around the rocks and sticks in the fire circle when trying to extinguish the fire. Sometimes, smoldering embers can remain hidden, so stir the cooled fire circle around with a long stick to ensure the fire is completely out.
- Keep your fire relatively small. A relatively modest pile of glowing coals will produce enough heat to keep you and your companions warm, boil water or cook food. Small fires are easier to control, represent a better use of resources, and they allow you to sit closer without getting too hot.
- Don’t burn gigantic logs. Very large logs take forever to ignite and once they start burning, they can be difficult to put out completely. You just don’t need this much fuel for a quaint little campfire. Instead, stick to logs that are no larger than your wrist.
Remember that while fires are certainly fun, it is your responsibility to keep the fire safe and prevent it from growing out of control. This is especially important during dry weather. In fact, when the conditions are especially problematic (such as windy weather during prolonged droughts), it is wise to forego the fire entirely.
But, if the conditions are safe for fires, and you follow the tips and suggestions above, you should be able to enjoy a safe campfire during your next camping trip.