Campfire Safety: 13 Things You Need to Know

In this post, we reveal all the safety tips that every camper ought to know about campfires, covering everything from how to choose the safest spot right through to the proper way to extinguish your fire.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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There are few things better than a glowing campfire on nights in the great outdoors, whether it’s for heat on a cold night, roasting marshmallows, or to elevate the ambiance.

However, while having a good fire burning is one of the most enjoyable parts of all camping trips, it’s not without its risks. Without proper care, your humble campfire could soon become a raging wildfire, or at least do serious harm to your camping gear or companions.

In this post, we aim to help you avoid letting that happen by revealing 13 safety tips for campfires that every camper should know.

Campers standing around campfire in the snow
Who doesn’t love a campfire? Read on to find out how to do it safely.

1. Abide by the Rules & Fire Regulations

Every national park, state park, national forest, state forest, and wilderness area has specific rules regarding campfires. These often vary from season to season, so it’s best to check what fire restrictions are in place before you leave home. You can do this by calling ahead or checking park or forest service websites for information.

2. Check Current Fire Danger Levels

Nobody wants their campfire to become a fully-fledged forest fire or wildfire. The best way to avoid this is to follow all the rules listed in this article. Beyond this, it’s always a good policy to check the risk level of any area where you plan on camping. 

As mentioned above, most national or state agencies will have specific rules regarding campfires. But if you’re camping outside of these you can reduce the risk of causing wildfires by sourcing the most up-to-date fire danger level forecast from the USGS, which takes into account current and antecedent weather and uses a rating system to grade varying levels of fire risk.

Nevada fire danger rating sign
Check the most up-to-date fire danger rating designation before your reach your destination.

3. Use a Fire Pit or Ring

Fire rings are metallic installations at campsites that are designed to help prevent wildfires by containing campfires. Pits are very similar, but usually take the form of a small, circular hollow surrounded by rocks.

Further Reading: If you fancy the smell of the outdoors at home then try a campfire cologne spray!

If your campsite has a fire ring or pit, be sure to use it. Campsite authorities will have placed the fire pit/ring in the safest spot, and in all likelihood, they’ll do a better job of containing a fire than anything you can build with your shovel and stones or rocks sourced from the surrounding area. 

Using established pits or rings also minimizes damage to the habitat – if every visitor built their fire wherever they pleased, the area would soon come to resemble a bomb site.

Small lit fire in fire pit beside a river
A fire pit or ring helps to keep your fire contained.

4. Clear Debris

Small twigs, pine cones, dead leaves, and fallen branches are all flammable materials that could easily lead to your campfire getting out of hand if inadvertently lit by a spark. Before starting your fire, make sure to remove these from the area around the pit and also be sure to shift any logs or extra wood to a safe distance. 

It’s also wise to water down the area around your fires just in case you miss anything. Even if there’s nothing flammable there, displaced embers could burn your feet if unnoticed!

Ground covered in pinecones and twigs
Remove all flammable tree debris from the area before even thinking of creating a spark!

5. Build a Small Fire

If you are dispersed camping and there are no existing fire circles or rings, build your own by digging a pit (6 inches deep) and encircling the pit with rocks. When choosing a spot, avoid areas near dry brush, with low-hanging branches above it, or within 12 feet of where you’ll pitch your tent (tent walls burn easily…and fast!).

It should go without saying, but never put anything but wood on a fire. 

Burning plastics might seem like a good way to get rid of trash, but burnt plastics emit dangerous chemicals like sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, and heavy metals, as well as particulates, all of which can cause respiratory ailments and are potentially carcinogenic. Anything paperlike, on the other hand, could blow into the surrounding brush and light a wildfire.

What about the size? Small fires, as you might expect, are easier to contain than large ones. Building a small campfire will also allow you to sit closer to the flames without overheating, which might be necessary if you are using the campfire for cooking or boiling water.

Once you’ve lit your campfire, make sure you dispose of your matches with care. This means either tossing them into the fire or letting them burn completely before returning them to the box. Whatever you do, don’t just toss them on the ground.

Small campfire in fire pit beside a tent and a river
Keep your campfire size to the absolute minimum for your camping needs.

6. Keep Flammable Materials at a Safe Distance

In addition to the natural biomass mentioned above, there are plenty of other flammable objects that could catch fire around camp. Some of these include lighter fluid and other flammable liquids, clothing, stuff sacks, food packaging, extra firewood, and gas canisters for your camping stove. If you have a plastic storage container to keep these in, all the better!

As with your tent, you should keep these at least 12 feet from your pit or ring.

7. Have Water and/or a Shovel Handy

Fires of all kinds are unruly things. Take your eye off them or drop your guard, and the next thing you know a spark has lit up your campsite or flames have spread onto your shirt sleeve. 

Just in case your campfire does the above, or misbehaves in any other way, we recommend keeping a pail of water or a shovel nearby. That way, you’ll be able to put it out quickly if need be by dousing the flames with water or smothering them by tossing dirt into your pit.

Camping shovel with serrated blade and axe
Keep a shovel handy in case you need to put out rogue sparks quickly.

8. Watch Out for the Wind

Wind can turn your under-control campfire into an out-of-control wildfire in the blink of an eye. 

When making your fire, pay attention to the wind direction and make sure your fire is at an absolute minimum of 12 feet from your tent, foliage, bushes, camping gear, and other flammable materials. If strong winds kick up while your campfire is burning, or the wind changes direction, the best policy is to put it out and build it in a safer spot.

9. Never Leave Your Fire Unattended

If there’s one cardinal rule of campfires, it’s that you should never leave the campfire unattended. A single spark or a gust of wind could easily and quickly spread the fire, so make sure there’s someone keeping an eye on it at all times. This applies whether there’s high fire danger in the area or not.

Heading to the camp store? Have a neighbor watch it. Taking a leak? Have one of your camping companions take over watching duty. Heading further afield? Fully put out your fire and restart it when you return.

Camper sitting beside campfire in the snow
Make sure there is always a pair of watchful eyes on the campfire.

10. Move With Care

To help ensure nobody trips into or accidentally steps too close to your campfire, it’s a good idea to let a maximum of only two people approach it at a time. Skirting around other campers and being unable to see where you’re stepping (campers cast shadows!) could lead to a fall and a hot landing!

Also, make sure that nobody in your crew is wearing loose clothing like scarves or ponchos and have long hair tied back when close to the pit.

11. Lay Down the Rules

If you’re camping in a group, it’s essential that you ensure everyone knows the rules for keeping a safe campfire. This applies particularly to kids or any late arrivals to camp who might have missed any “briefing” when setting up camp.

Campers around campfire in the dark
Make sure everyone at camp knows all the fire safety protocols.

12. Ensure Your Fire Is Completely Extinguished

Perhaps the most important part of having a safe campfire is properly putting out the fire when you move on or are done with it. Get this bit wrong, and there’s a high risk of waking up to a blaze and becoming an accidental arsonist – not something you want on your résumé!

Here’s how to completely extinguish your fire:

Douse the area in water to extinguish the embers and coals. Fires can continue burning long after they have stopped producing flames and smoke, so this is an essential step.

Next, using a stick or your shovel, give the pit or ring a stir whilst sprinkling on more water. This will help to ensure you extinguish any buried embers. After this, do a quit heat test by hovering your hand over the area. If you feel any heat, add more water.

Finally, if you built your own fire bed, try to restore the area to how it was beforehand. This means returning any rocks you used to create a fire ring, scattering burned-out embers and ash, and covering the fire site with earth.

Extinguished campfire
It may look fully extinguished, but make sure to stir up the remnants and put out any remaining embers.

13. Forget the Fire Entirely?

If you have any doubt about your ability to build and extinguish a fire safely in any location, give it a miss. If you’re anxious about the safety of your fires, or the well-being of your pet or kid when in the fire’s vicinity, you’re likely to be anxious for as long as it burns, which is a surefire way to ruin your trip.

And there are, of course, plenty of reasons not to build a campfire that are just as compelling as the reasons to build one. 

Wildfire and burn aside, fires pose a serious health risk. Smoke from fires carries microscopic particles that can damage your eyes and respiratory system, and even cause more serious issues like asthma attacks, heart attacks, and strokes. Wood fires also produce toluene, which can cause insomnia, nerve damage, inflammation of the skin, and liver and kidney damage.

Needless to say, campfires also aren’t great for the environment. In addition to their ability to decimate forests, if they get out of hand, campfires pollute the air by releasing compounds of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and other potentially toxic VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Tents pitched under rock overhang
The safest option? Ditch the fire entirely!

Campfire safety: Happy Camping!

There are few things better than enjoying a roaring fire at camp. We hope the above campfire safety tips for campfires will let you enjoy yours with peace of mind on future camping trips!

If you liked this article or have any questions, let us know in the box below. And if you’d like to share it with your friends, please do!

Last update on 2024-06-20 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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