Open campfires are the highlights of every camping trip. They provide the much needed heat on a cold night, and enable you to cook your favorite stews or meats with nothing but a pot or a skillet at hand.
However, before lighting your campfire, it’s important to consider the safety. Are open campfires allowed in the area? Are you in the safest spot on the camp ground? Do you have water available if something goes wrong?
We’ll go through these questions and more with the safety tips gathered in this article. These tips are given by actual outdoor experts and authorities, and we always make sure to make use of them wherever we go.
1. Know what the campground rules are
Not two campgrounds will ever be alike, and with the way fire rules are constantly changing, it’s safer to assume that there might be new laws where building campfires are concerned since the last time you went to a campground. Pay attention to signs where you can or cannot set up your fire, and make sure to check in with the visitor center or information signs about current fire bans in the area.
Before going to a campsite, it’s best to check what the rules are so you know if there are any additional items to bring aside from your basic camping gear. If you’re going to a campsite you’ve visited before, check out their website anyways to see if they have updated their guidelines and regulations since your previous visit.
If you’re in the US, the National Park Service has a comprehensive directory with information about parks across all states. Find a park here.
2. Pick a good spot
When it comes to choosing a good spot for your campfire, it’s best to go where fire circles or fire pits are available. That way, you know that someone has built a fire before you or the rangers have chosen and checked the spot with safety procedures in mind.
Recreation.gov, a website dedicated to exploring the great outdoors of America, says that it’s safest to build fires at least fifteen feet away from tent walls, shrubs, and other flammable materials. Keeping that in mind every time you go camping will spare you from unnecessary anxiety, and you don’t have to worry about things catching on fire unexpectedly.
Although you picked the perfect spot and think you’re safe, it’s always recommended to monitor the fire and extinguish it properly before moving on.
3. Use a fire pit
After you’ve found the perfect spot, with a fire circle or pit, build your fire in it (not in any other locations that might seem just as ideal), especially if you’re on campgrounds that do provide a pit as these have been placed in strategic locations.
In case you’re in a remote area and there is no pit readily available, dig a fire pit (but check first if it is allowed) in an open area that’s away from low overhanging branches or other hazards, that could catch fire. Avoid making your pit anywhere near powerlines or even heavy fuels, such as logs, decaying leaves, and bushes. After digging the pit, encircle it with rocks to create a barrier between the fire and the forest. You can also opt to bring handy fire pits that will fit in your backpack and car trunk, and can easily be assembled once you reach the campsite.
4. Pay attention to the direction of the wind
When you’re out in the wild, the wind can change directions with no warning at all. Make sure that a sudden gust of wind coming from any direction won’t turn your campfire into a wildfire. This is why it is advised to keep flammable things at least ten to fifteen feet away from the campfire.
The same goes for your tent, tables, and other camping accessories. All your items must maintain the same distance, ten to fifteen feet, for your safety and so that they won’t catch fire in case the wind should suddenly shift directions. As much as possible, choose a spot that’s protected from gusts of wind.
5. Keep water close by
Don’t start a campfire with wood, your matches, and whatever else you will be using without even having a bucket of water or a shovel nearby. In case your flames leap high and the fire gets out of hand, you can use the water to quickly douse the flames or the shovel to pour sand or dirt on the flames.
Before you get started with building, make sure you have all the safety precautions in place. Even when your fire is up and roaring, keep the bucket of water and shovel close by. Others recommend bringing a fire extinguisher as an alternative if you can’t bring a lot of water with you on the trip. Make sure the fire extinguisher is still good, by keeping check on the expiry date and pressure gauge.
6. Mind the match
After you’ve sparked some heat over the logs you’ve gathered, don’t just toss your match anywhere. If it is still smoking and lands on some dry leaves, logs, or other flammable materials, it could start a wildfire that could quickly grow out of hand.
Pour water over it so you don’t have to worry about it spreading fire, or throw it directly into the fire to burn with your logs. Reserve America also warns against using lighter fluid, gas, kerosene, and other flammable liquids to start a fire.
7. Be careful with kids and pets
If you’re camping with family, especially young kids and a curious pet or two, make sure you teach them the danger of fire before you go. According to Reserve America, campfires are the leading cause of children’s camping injuries in the United States.
Don’t allow your younger kids and even your pets to come anywhere near the campfire unless supervised by an adult. Teach them how to stop, drop, and roll as well, in case a wayward spark lands on their clothes, causing it to catch on fire.
8. Always keep an eye on your fire
There’s an assumption that it’s all right to leave a campfire unattended for a short period time. That assumption is a false and dangerous one to make. You shouldn’t leave your fire burning unattended for more than a few seconds.
All it takes is a weather change, a sudden gust of wind, and your campfire could turn into a raging wildfire. A study shows that nearly 85% of wildland fires in the United States are caused by human carelessness. If you have curious little kids with you, turning your eyes away could result in something equally disastrous.
9. Extinguish the fire properly
Once you’re done with the campfire and ready to call it a night or head home, you should take some time to carefully put out your fire. It isn’t as easy as you think, and it can involve quite a meticulous procedure, but the good thing about it is that you’ll be safe and you’ll leave the campsite safe for others to enjoy.
Fire Safety Tips suggests setting aside at least 25 minutes to put out the fire properly, and recommends the following steps:
- Move the mixture of soil, wood remains, and ash into the center of the pit. Thoroughly soak them with water and use a shovel to stir them. This ensures that all the remains get soaked.
- If there isn’t enough water or a nearby water source (lake, river, etc.), cover the embers with sand or dirt. ONLY cover them if they’re in a fire pit though, because otherwise the surface can get extremely hot and cause severe burns on anyone who steps on it.
- To determine if a fire is out, place your hand or finger close to the fire pit. If the it’s still hot, pour more water on it. A good rule of thumb is if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.
- Move the stones around the campfire to check for hidden burning embers underneath. But leave the stones in place, so other campers know there was a fire recently.
- Once the fire is out and the pit has cooled down, you can leave the camp ground with peace of mind..
Awareness, presence of mind, and compliance with the rules and regulations of the campsite where you are going, matter a great deal and will save you from many accidents when you go camping.
Always do your research beforehand and don’t try anything you’re not sure of. No matter what you’re doing and where you’re going, always remember that safety should be your top priority.