There’s nothing quite like arriving at your campsite after an exhausting hike, sliding your boots and socks off and replacing them with comfy camp sandals, and gazing at the starry skies above a forested canopy with a piping hot meal and a blazing campfire.
And there’s just something about twisting hot dogs over an orange flame, smushing toasted marshmallows and chocolate squares between two crumbly graham crackers, and circling around a campfire in a comfortable chair that lures millions of campers to gather wood and light a fire.
Whether you’re at a crowded campground, a remote backcountry site, in northern Michigan, or southern Arizona, it’s important to follow campfire safety rules each and every time you start a campfire in the Great Outdoors.
In this guide, I am going to share valuable campfire safety tips. Some of these campfire safety rules include how to decode current fire danger levels, how to build a safe campfire, and how to properly collect and burn wood.
Campfire Safety Tips
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Know the Fire Restrictions
Before lighting a campfire, verify all of the rules in the area you’ll be recreating in – this includes being aware of up-to-date fire restrictions.
You can find this information on the following websites: the Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service, National Park Service, state/county park sites, or the county’s page.
Unsure of whether or not a fire is allowed? Contact the closest ranger station. If you can’t get ahold of anyone to confirm that a campfire is allowed, don’t start a fire.
Be Aware of the Current Fire Danger
Look for posted signs at forest entrances (like the one above ⬆️) that indicate the current fire danger level and check the ranger station or area website to learn the current restrictions.
Current restrictions could include no fires above a specific elevation, no fires within a certain distance of a natural feature, no fires without a permit, or fire limitations on certain days, times, or seasons.
IMPORTANT: Restrictions are always subject to change so just because you are allowed to light a campfire in an area during one visit may not mean that you can do the same next time.
Meanings of Fire Danger Levels, According to the NPS
🟢 Low – Green
Fire starts are unlikely.
Weather and fuel conditions will lead to slow fire spread, low intensity, and relatively easy control with light mop-up.
Controlled burns can usually be executed with reasonable safety.
🔵 Moderate – Blue
Some wildfires may be expected.
Expect moderate flame length and rate of spread.
Control is usually not difficult and light to moderate mop-up can be expected. Although controlled burning can be done without creating a hazard, routine caution should be taken.
🟡 High – Yellow
Wildfires are likely.
Fires in heavy, continuous fuel, such as mature grassland, weed fields, and forest litter, will be difficult to control under windy conditions.
Control through direct attack may be difficult but possible, and mop-up will be required.
Outdoor burning should be restricted to early morning and late evening hours.
🟠 Very High – Orange
Fires start easily from all causes and may spread faster than suppression resources can travel.
Flame lengths will be long with high intensity, making control very difficult.
Both suppression and mop-up will require an extended and very thorough effort.
Outdoor burning is not recommended.
🔴 Extreme – Red
Fires will start and spread rapidly.
Every fire start has the potential to become large. Expect extreme, erratic fire behavior.
⚠️ NO OUTDOOR BURNING SHOULD TAKE PLACE IN AREAS WITH EXTREME FIRE DANGER. ⚠️
Use an Established Fire Ring
Established fire rings are typically provided by most frontcountry campgrounds and can even be found in some backcountry campsites.
Established rings are the safest places to build fires, but they are not always available.
To build a DIY fire ring/pit, use a trowel to dig a one-foot-deep hole in an open area that is at least ten feet away from overhanging branches, power lines, or other hazards that could catch on fire. Stay fifteen feet away from your tent and gear. Once you have dug a pit, gather rocks and circle the pit with them.
⚠️ IMPORTANT: Before you dig, make sure that this action is permitted in the area.
Build a Small, Safe Fire
Before you light your campfire, ensure that there are no dead leaves, twigs, branches, or other fire hazards within a ten-foot diameter around your ring.
Keep water and a shovel nearby; the water can be used to douse runaway flames, and the shovel can be used to throw sand or dirt on embers that escape the ring. Wet the outside perimeter of your ring with water so that if stray ash shoots out of the pit, it won’t spread.
Before you collect wood, ensure that you are allowed to do this in your area. Never cut down live trees; always use dead and downed wood. Tearing down live wood could wreck an animal’s safe habitat.
Ensure that your stack of firewood is placed upwind and away from the fire.
Keep the fire small and never leave it unattended.
How to Build a Safe Campfire
- Start the fire with tinder in the center of the pit: dried leaves, small twigs, grass, and needles.
- Add kindling: small sticks and twigs that are less than one inch in diameter.
- Ignite the tinder with a match or lighter.
- Begin to add pieces of wood and more tinder once your fire gains momentum.
Use Only Local, Dead, and Downed Firewood
Purchase firewood at one of the nearest locations to your campsite. Many campgrounds and camp stores sell firewood while local vendors often advertise wood sales on the side of roads leading to backcountry sites, forests, and other public lands. Nearby gas stations, convenience stores, and grocery stores sometimes sell local wood, too.
Never bring wood from home as the logs could be infected with tree-killing insects and diseases. For example, if you transport firewood from your hometown to a forest many hours away, you could be introducing those harmful diseases and insects to the new area.
If you’re gathering firewood at your campsite, follow the four Ds of responsible firewood collection.
The Four Ds of Responsible Firewood Collection
- Dead. Collect only dead wood.
- Down. Collect only downed wood from the ground. Do not cut off tree branches.
- Distant. Find your wood a good distance from camp.
- Dinky. Use only small wood (about 1 inch in diameter).
Drown the Fire in Water Before Departure
Before leaving your campsite or going to sleep for the night, drown the fire ring in water so that all the flames and embers are extinguished.
Stir the ashes with a shovel and then douse more water in the pit. If you’re still hearing hissing sounds, it’s still hot so it needs more water. If you don’t have enough water, stir dirt or sand into the embers with a shovel to bury the fire.
Don’t leave any glowing or smoldering embers in the pit; this could cause the fire to reignite and spread into a dangerous wildfire. Touch just above the fire materials with your bare hand; if they’re too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave. Leave the ashes cold.
Leave No Trace
It’s important to always leave your campsite exactly as you found it.
To minimize your campfire impact, follow this campfire etiquette as indicated by the Leave No Trace organization.
- Leave standing trees, dead or alive, intact.
- Avoid cutting or breaking branches from standing or downed trees. Dead and downed wood burns easily, is easy to collect, and leaves less impact.
- Don’t bring firewood from home.
- If building a fire, camp in areas where wood is abundant.
- Allow the wood to burn completely to ash.
- Use existing fire rings.
- Show no evidence that a fire was constructed.
- Pack out any campfire litter.
- Don’t burn plastic, foil-lined wrappers, or other trash in the fire.
- Put out fires with water, not dirt.
- Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years.
- Thoroughly extinguish all fires.
- Keep the fire small.
Fire bans are common. Millions of acres of precious land have been destroyed by wildfires, and the fires have been sadly increasing in recent years.
Though campfires are cozy and inviting, avoiding campfire builds altogether is the best way to prevent wildfires. After all, nearly 85% of all wildfires are caused by humans and are preventable.
So if you arrive at your destination and find out that fires are banned, or you decide to skip the fire this time around, fear not! There are other ways to stay warm and snug at your campsite (and even one option that still involves snacking on toasted s’mores!)
- Use a camp stove and pan to toast marshmallows for s’mores!
- Stay hydrated, and fuel up with caloric snacks and warm drinks.
- Stay a little active.
- Bundle up in layers.
- Wrap your body in a sleeping bag, blanket, or quilt. (The fire-resistant Rumpl blankets are amazing!)
- Cozy up next to your partner or friend to share body heat!
Do’s and Dont’s of Campfires
In summary, here are the do’s and dont’s of campfire safety!
- DON’T bring firewood from out of town to burn.
- DON’T start a fire when it’s windy.
- DON’T leave a fire unattended.
- DON’T start a fire in a fire-danger area.
- DO keep pets and children away from the fire.
- DO keep your fire a safe distance from personal gear and flammable materials.
- DO keep your fire small.
- DO keep water and a shovel nearby.
- DO make sure the fire is cool to the touch before going to sleep or leaving your campsite.
- DO use an established fire ring.
- DO leave no trace.