Campfires are often the centerpiece of your camping experience. They serve a multitude of purposes. They provide needed warmth and light, ward off dangerous wildlife, cook your meals to perfection, and boil water for those precious cups of joe. But with great joy comes great responsibility.
Campfires are becoming an increasing threat to your favorite landscapes. So before you gather ’round the fire, learn how to master campfire safety and enjoy the flame without burning down the forest.
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Why Is Fire Safety so Important?
Fire safety has never been as important as it is today. The U.S. has experienced rising temperatures, ever-expanding droughts, and unpredictable climate conditions. Our forests are proverbial tinderboxes waiting to ignite. And camping is more popular than ever, with over 50 million Americans camping yearly. So we all have to work together to keep our forests beautiful and healthy.
A whopping 85% of wildfires are caused by humans, many of which are direct results of unsafe campfires. In the past ten years, an average of over 7 million acres of our beautiful lands have gone up in flames each year. That’s equal to burning down the entire state of Maryland. Depending on wind and topography, wildfires spread at an average rate of (over) 14 miles per hour. The best measure against wildfires is to never let them spark.
This guide walks you through everything you need to know about campfire safety, so you can enjoy your flames while minimizing campfire impact and saving our precious forests.
Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires.
Before you can master making and breaking fire, you should be familiar with the conditions and tools that make a fire safe.
Elements of a Fire
There are three basic elements, or ingredients, to create the chemical reaction that makes fire:
- Heat. Heat ignites the initial fire and allows it to spread and grow through its interaction with oxygen.
- Fuel. Fuel is a combustible substance that stimulates the process between heat and oxygen.
- Oxygen. Oxygen acts as a catalyst by providing oxidation (the process wherein fuel interacts with oxygen to create and sustain heat).
Put simply, fuel creates heat, which interacts with oxygen to make and sustain a fire. Without these ingredients, your fire will fail to start or burn out.
Tools of the Trade
Most of your campfire tools fall into the “fuel” category of the three elements, as fuel is the element you have the most control over. You’ll also need tools to ignite the chemical reaction, such as a firestarter or flame.
- Tinder. Tinder is the first tool you’ll use to make your fire. It’s a combustible substance that lights quickly and easily, making it great fuel for igniting your fire. Since it burns fast, it can’t sustain your fire for long, but it paves the way for more robust fuel sources. Tinder is placed at the center of the fire so the flames can spread throughout other fuel sources for a more sustained burn. Examples of tinder include dry leaves, grasses, moss, twigs, or pieces of bark. You can also make tinder from everyday household items like newspaper, toilet paper rolls, wood shavings, or dryer lint.
- Kindling. Next, you’ll use kindling to shape your campfire and give the flames a chance to spread. Kindling ignites easily and burns longer than tinder, allowing your fire to grow. It’s the middleman of your fuel sources. You can find kindling by gathering small twigs and branches near your campsite. Check with the camp host to make sure gathering kindling is allowed. Only gather dry fallen sticks. If gathering isn’t allowed, you can use wood shavings or smaller pieces of firewood for kindling. Since kindling needs to ignite quickly, aim for sticks no thicker than an inch and no longer than 12 inches.
- Firewood. The final and primary source of fuel is firewood. It’s the backbone of your fire and the energy that keeps it sustained over time. Once your tinder and kindling have ignited, the flames will spread to the firewood. Most firewood logs are at least two inches thick and one-to-two feet long. Many campgrounds allow you to gather local firewood. Never cut firewood from a live tree; it’s harmful to the tree and won’t burn anyway (since it’s not dry). Alternatively, you can buy firewood from the campground host, local vendors, or gas stations. Bringing firewood from home is not a good idea, as it can contain dangerous chemicals or foreign species that harm the ecosystem. Some popular firewood species include oak, birch, ash, or hickory.
- Optional: woodcutter. If you’re gathering kindling or firewood, consider bringing a small saw, axe, or hatchet to cut the wood into smaller pieces. Cutting tools can be particularly handy if you’re working with damp wood. Use the hatchet to carve off the wet bark, uncovering dry wood underneath. If that doesn’t work, use the axe or saw to split the wet firewood into smaller pieces with exposed dry sides.
- Firestarter. Your fuel sources are only useful if you have an effective tool to ignite the fire. A firestarter is any tool that creates a spark or flame. Some campers can make fire by rubbing sticks together, but there’s a much easier way to get your fire going. The best firestarter tools are matches. Be sure to use waterproof matches, or store your matches in a moisture-proof container. Always carry a backup firestarter, like a lighter. More experienced campers can also use flint and steel.
- Optional: fire catalyst. It’s never a good idea to pour a flammable liquid (like gasoline or lighter fluid) on your fire. But you can use tools to help catalyze the fire if you’re having trouble getting it started. Fire catalysts can be great if your firewood is moist or you’re lighting a fire in wet conditions. Exercise caution when using a catalyst, as it can easily get out of control. You can buy firestarter kits from outdoor retailers or make your own using common household items. Popular homemade catalysts include cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, drops of hand sanitizer, and cotton string soaked in wax.
How to Prepare for a Campfire
- Make sure campfires are allowed. Before you leave for your camping trip, check local fire rules and regulations. Some campgrounds and land hosts don’t allow campfires because they aren’t safe. Even if they allow fires as a general rule, they may impose seasonal restrictions. Ranger stations, visitor centers, or campground hosts can inform you about restrictions. And don’t assume your favorite camping spot allows campfires because they did the previous year. Restrictions constantly change, so checking before heading out on your adventure is best.
- Choose the right location. The location of your fire is one of the most underrated, important factors in campfire safety. If you’re in a developed site that allows campfires, build your fire in the campfire ring or pit. Campsites are designed to maximize efficiency and safety, so the campfire ring will be the best place for your fire. If you’re camping off-the-grid or on an undeveloped site, try to find a location with a crude fire ring. It’s not uncommon to see rings left over by previous campers. If that’s not possible, you’ll need to build a fire ring to keep it contained. Building your own campfire ring is a last-resort option that should only be exercised in emergencies. Campfire rings can scorch the ground, leaving permanent environmental damage and increasing fire hazards. You can reduce your impact by building a mound fire instead. Lay down a White Duck tarp and build an eight-inch thick small dirt mound on top of it to serve as your base. Your dirt mound should be between eight and ten inches thick to protect the ground underneath.
- Use or build a fire ring. If you’re camping in a developed campground, use the fire ring provided. If you’re backcountry camping in an area with no established fire rings, you’ll need to build one. Aim to make your campfire on a dry, flat surface clear of debris. It should be at least 15 feet from anything that could catch fire (e.g., plants and tree branches, tents and other gear, food, garbage, etc.). You may also need to consider the direction of the wind or possible rainfall. If the wind is an issue, build your fire downwind from any potential hazards (i.e., anything flammable). Don’t build a fire if you’re experiencing wind gusts over 15 miles per hour or the wind direction changes more than 45 degrees. It’s not worth the potential danger. You can protect your fire from rainfall by choosing a rain-resistant campfire, like the lean-to. Keep your fire contained by digging a small fire trench (about a foot deep) and surrounding it with large rocks. Strive for a circular ring between 24 and 36 inches in diameter.
- Gather your materials. Keep all your fire materials in the same area, at least 15 feet from the actual fire. Preparing your materials before building your fire is a good idea. The last thing you want is to be grasping for things halfway through the process. If you’re in an area that provides firewood, use that. Some campgrounds allow you to collect firewood and kindling. Check with the local camp host or ranger. If you’re collecting kindling, only collect dry, downed wood. Stack your firewood and kindling together in a firewood log carrier, upwind from your campfire. Pull out any tinder or fire starter tools. It’s also a good idea to have a bucket of water and a shovel nearby in case you need to extinguish the fire quickly.
How to Build a Campfire
Building a safe campfire is fun and easy. There’s nothing better than the sense of pride you feel after making that perfect fire. Follow these five steps to build a safe, beautiful campfire your whole group can enjoy.
- Choose your campfire. Not all campfires are equal. Different campfires serve different purposes. Some are ideal for cooking, some are better for warmth or light, and others are designed to withstand wind and rain. Check out our guide on the best campfires for every purpose to choose the campfire that serves your needs. And make sure your water, fuel, and tools are nearby.
- Gather the tinder. Tinder is the fuel that gives your fire that initial spark, so it’s the centerpiece of your campfire. You can pile it, stack it, build a teepee with it, or spread it out. Use enough tinder to sustain that first flame for at least a few minutes. Make sure it’s dry, so it ignites easily. As you build around the tinder, make sure it remains accessible. Leave openings in the kindling and firewood where you can reach through and light the tinder.
- Add the kindling. Once your tinder is in place, you can start adding kindling in the desired shape of your campfire (be it a teepee, log cabin, star, etc.). Kindling will go around or on top of the tinder with most fires. Make sure to use dry kindling so it ignites as quickly as possible. Add enough kindling to carry your flame for about ten minutes until it can spread to the firewood.
- Top it off with firewood. Now that your tinder is ready and the kindling is set up, build out your fire using firewood logs. It will take a few minutes for the flames to spread, but once they do, the firewood will keep things going for a while. With most campfires, the firewood is built around the tinder. Make sure your firewood is as dry as possible. Use the minimum amount necessary to get your fire going; you can always add more later. Your fire will flourish as long as there’s enough room for oxygen to flow through it. Try not to stack your firewood logs too close together. Add some gaps here and there to ensure oxidation.
- Light the fire. Now that you’ve built your fire, light it up. Grab your match, reach between (or under) the kindling, and light the tinder. With some campfires, it can be easier to light the tinder first, then add kindling and firewood as the flames grow. The safest method is building a fire and lighting it under controlled circumstances. You’ll minimize the risk of burns or unnecessary collapse. If the fire isn’t starting, you can use fire catalyzers. It can also be helpful to light a few pieces of kindling. You can help initiate oxidation by gently blowing on the tinder. Be very cautious; blow on it like a hot cup of tea. You don’t want to spread sparks or flames, which can quickly lose control. Wait until your match is fully extinguished (or, even better, cold) before tossing it into the ring.
How to Maintain a Campfire
Once your campfire roars, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the spoils. But wait! Campfire safety doesn’t end here. Campfires, for all their joy, can be very dangerous. Here are five steps you can take to ensure safety well into the life of your fire.
- Never leave the fire unattended. It’s surprising how fast a campfire can wreak havoc. It takes no time for an innocent campfire to transform into a multi-state wildfire disaster. Unattended campfires are the number one human cause of forest fires. You can avoid mishaps by keeping an eye on the fire while it burns. Remaining beside the fire allows you to catch potential hazards before they become detrimental. And never leave children or pets alone with the fire, not even for a minute.
- Feed the fire. You’ll probably need to add fuel to the fire once in a while to keep it burning. Stick to dense firewood logs to keep the fire raging safely. Be conservative with your firewood; adding too much can smother the fire, causing it to burn out. Begin with smaller pieces, working your way up as you burn through fuel. Wait until the fire is under a foot (in height) to add fuel.
- Keep the fire under control. To avoid burning down the forest, keep your fire from burning any higher than three feet (from the ground). Smaller flames are easier to control, and you’ll minimize damage caused by runaway sparks.
- Don’t treat the fire as a trash receptacle. Keep your trash out of the campfire. That means no wrappers, plastic containers, aluminum cans, foil, glass, or other trash. And especially no aerosol cans or pressurized containers. That’s a fast track to wildfire city. Most trash items are unpredictable in how they burn. Glass can shatter, slicing anyone nearby. Many plastics release dangerous chemicals into the air as they burn. Food waste also releases hazardous gasses and entices unwanted critters. The only things you should be burning are tinder, kindling, and firewood. Paper and cardboard are safe (and make great tinder), but check to ensure they aren’t coated in plastic.
- Watch the weather. Keep a close eye on weather patterns. A sudden gust of wind can spread flames, allowing them to ignite nearby brush. Even changes in wind direction can catch you off guard. If the flames spread suddenly or become unpredictable, extinguish the fire immediately. Don’t try to control the flames by kicking the firewood. Just grab your bucket of water and douse that baby.
How to Extinguish a Campfire
One of the most important things you can do for campfire safety is extinguishing your campfire correctly. Never, ever leave a fire burning. It’s against the law and incredibly dangerous. Even after you’ve walked away, your fire poses a risk. Being a responsible camper means taking steps to ensure your fire is inert, so it doesn’t burn down the forest after your exit. Follow these five steps to extinguish your campfire properly.
- Take your time. It can take up to 30 minutes to extinguish a campfire. Make sure you start the process long before you’re too tired to pay attention or ready to leave camp. Give yourself ample time to thoroughly extinguish the fire before walking away.
- Let the fire burn down. To ensure your fire is completely extinguished, let it burn down to ash. Stop feeding the fire about an hour before you’re ready to sleep or leave camp so it has time to burn down completely. By the time you’re done enjoying your fire, all that should remain is ash and coals.
- Add water. If you’re short on time, you can speed the process by adding water. Grab your bucket and pour water onto the fire, drowning any remaining coals or firewood. Even if you take the time to let the fire burn down, you’ll still want to pour water on the remaining ashes to prevent smoldering. Using your shovel, stir the water around until it covers anything that could still be hot. You might need to rotate leftover logs to ensure you’ve doused every inch of the fire. Keep pouring water onto the fire until it’s completely extinguished. By the time you’re done, you shouldn’t hear any hissing or see any smoke rising from the pit.
- Blanket the fire. Using your shovel, scoop up some dirt or sand and pour it on top of the soupy pit to bury any leftover coals. If you don’t have water nearby, you should definitely utilize this step. Shovel a pile of dirt or sand onto the fire and stir until it stops hissing or smoking. The soil will suffocate the fire, rendering it inert.
- Check the fire’s temperature. Don’t worry, you don’t need a thermometer for this step. Hold your hand about two inches above the extinguished fire and check for heat. If there’s any heat coming off the fire, repeat steps three and four until the fire is cold. Do not leave the fire ring unattended until it’s completely cold.
What to Do if You Can’t Build a Campfire
There may be times when you can’t enjoy a campfire (e.g., fire bans, low fuel supply, or time constraints). It doesn’t have to ruin your camping adventure. Here are some great alternatives to keep you comfortable and entertained.
Campfire Alternatives for Cooking
The best way to cook meals without a campfire is to bring a camping stove. One of the most popular options for front-country camping is the classic propane stove. They’re one of the most robust camping stoves on the market, allowing you to perfectly cook your favorite camping recipes.
If you’re short on space, you can opt for something smaller, like a canister stove or liquid fuel stove. Canister stoves are great options if you’re backpacking or relying on dehydrated meals for nutrition. They can boil water in minutes, allowing you to enjoy your favorite camp cocktail or cup of joe.
No matter which stove you choose, make sure you bring enough fuel to get you through multiple meals. It’s always a good idea to have an extra canister on hand.
Campfire Alternatives for Warmth
The best way to stay warm without a campfire is to bundle up in cozy layers. We recommend a base layer of moisture-wicking insulation, a down or fleece mid-layer, and a weather-resistant outer layer. And if you’re still cold, wrap yourself inside your sleeping bag or fleece blanket.
Staying inside your canvas tent will help warm you up as well. It does a great job of trapping heat while keeping cold elements at bay. Filling up your water bottles with hot water will give you environmentally-friendly heaters to place throughout your tent. Or you can place them inside your sleeping bag for more warmth.
Don’t be afraid to take advantage of hand and foot warmers or electric blankets. And if you’re still cold, consider investing in a portable tent heater.
Campfire Alternatives for Lighting
There are many ways to enjoy lighting and ambiance beyond the campfire.
You can use any type of camping lantern to light up your campground. The most popular options for ambiance are propane lanterns and electric lanterns. But you can also use string lights, electric disc lights, or flameless candles.
For more acute lighting, your best bets are flashlights and headlamps.