Campfire Safety 101: How to Safely Build and Maintain a Campfire

A campfire by a lake Nothing beats the feeling of gathering around a campfire with a few friends or family under a clear sky. The concept of building a campfire sounds easy, right? You only need a pile of wood and a match. Anyone who has ever been out camping knows that starting a campfire is not as easy as you think, especially in wet conditions. Creating the perfect campfire is an art that requires patience, expertise, and suitable supplies.

In this guide, we discuss all there is to know on how to start a campfire as well as campfire safety protocols and procedures.

The Importance of Campfire Safety

Campfire safety begins long before your fire begins to roar. The Insurance Information Institute estimates that 90% of the wildfires that happen in the U.S. are triggered by people. Among the main causes of human-induced wildfires are unattended campfires. Normally, there are about 100,000 wildfires in the U.S. each year. Therefore, starting a campfire comes with its fair share of responsibilities. Below are the top six campfire safety tips that will help you during your next camping adventure.

Preparatory Steps Before Leaving For Your Camping Trip

If you are among the 61% of U.S. households who are active campers, you are probably familiar with the preparation process. If you are a new camper, you are in the right place. You will need to:

Research Burn Bans & Droughts

While picking your camping destination, steer clear of destinations with burn bans and droughts if you intend to light up a campfire. These have a higher chance of unruly campfires.

Burn bans can either be partial or full. In a partial burn ban, open fires may be permitted in the campsite at certain times of the day. On the other hand, no open fires are allowed within the campsites at any time in full burn bans.

Check Weather Reports for Dangerous Weather

Someone checking the weather on their phone Extreme or unusual weather is quite unpleasant, especially if you are unprepared for it. To minimize the chances of unexpected weather surprises, check your destination’s weather forecast. Luckily, you can do this over the internet.

Research Firewood Regulations at the Campsite

Some campsites have firewood regulations. For instance, some may forbid you from bringing in your own firewood. They argue that the firewood could have a hazardous disease or pest, which could destroy the trees at the campground. To be safe, plan to buy, gather, and prepare the firewood near the camping ground, preferably in the same county.

Building a Campfire Ring

An ideal campfire ring should be:

  • Located on dry ground and preferably on a flat surface
  • Should be protected from wind
  • Close to a source of firewood
  • Close to your shelter
  • Close to a water source­

Use an Existing Fire Circle When Possible

If your camping ground already has a fire pit, you will need to safety-proof it as long as it is in a safe place. Start by clearing all the debris around it, including any grass and garbage. Keep any flammables such as pressurized containers or aerosol cans far from your fire.

Campfire Ring Safety Steps

Always keep the fire small and under control. Make sure you have some water, a shovel and a bucket near the fire at all times.

Position the Fire in a Safe Place

A lit campfire with a cooking pot surrounded by wood A perfect campfire ring should be:

  • Free of any grass or have minimal grass
  • No overhanging tree branches
  • Located far from any bushes
  • Protected from high winds, if possible
  • Surrounded with large stones to create the illusion of a fire pit (If you can’t find any stones, dig a trench, which is about 30 cm deep. This will enclose your fire and minimize the chances of fly-out embers.)

Position Gear Upwind of Fire

Your gear, including the camping tents, are flame-resistant. For this reason, place all your gear at a safe distance upwind from your open campfire. Clear the ground around your gear from debris so that fly-away sparks do not ignite anything.

Position Nonflammable Terrain Downwind of Fire

Nonflammable terrain such as rocks and lakes should be positioned downwind of the fire. This way, it is less likely that sparks or embers will land on a flammable item.

Clear the Ground Around the Fire Ring

The area around your campfire should be as clear as possible from leaves, grass, tree branches, and twigs.

When breaking thick and larger logs, avoid doing it using your knee, as this will only result in injuring yourself. Rather, place one end of the log against a rock and your boot and body weight to try to break it. You could also break it by finding two trees that are in close proximity to each other. Place the log between them and use some force until it breaks. If none of these methods work, feed it into your campfire and let the fire consume it slowly. Make sure you collect twice as much as you think will be necessary to avoid a scenario where the wood runs out.

Safety-Proofing the Campfire Pit

Brush and dry leaves are a hazard around camp fires. Many parks will have fire rings or designated campfire areas to keep camp fires contained, and campers are required to build their fires inside these rings. Even when building a fire inside a ring, it’s still important to keep brush away from the flames. Flying sparks can cause fires to spread beyond the scope of the fire ring. Wild fires spread quickly in wooded areas, especially in the summer when conditions outside are very dry. Alternatively, a camping grill can help eliminate some (not all) of the risks posed by cooking over a campfire.

Here are some of the ways you can safety-proof your camping fire pit to guarantee safety:

  • Choose a spot that is far from shrubs, dry grasses, trees, and anything flammable
  • Take note of any prevailing winds and select a camping spot that’s protected from the wind. This will keep your coals from being blown away from the fire pit
  • If possible, build the fire pit on top of bare soil, gravel, or sand
  • Choose a spot that is free of overhanging branches or tree roots that could catch fire

When clearing the area, it’s also important to remember that overhanging branches can catch fire as easily as brush on the ground. To ensure that the area is clear, campers must lookup at the leaves and needles overhead. If branches are too close for safely building a fire, then campers must relocate to a different area before building a fire.

How to Build a Campfire

It’s obvious that you will need dry wood for your campfire. Avoid wood or twigs that are wet, too green or don’t bend without snapping. Try using fallen wood. Apart from burning more effectively, it helps conserve the environment.

Tools You’ll Need

  • Tinder – this refers to dry grass, leaves, tree barks, and wood shavings. If you are a regular camper, you might want to bring along your own tinder, which could include firelighter and dry lint.
  • Kindling – by moving directly from tinder to your campfire’s main fuel, you will only succeed in smothering out your fire. Kindling refers to small twigs and branches that should be only a few inches long.
  • Firewood – choose logs of different sizes.
  • Matches/Lighters – this is what will light up your fire.

Starting a Campfire

Depending on your needs, there are different ways you can lay out your fire. These include:

Teepee fire

A campfire being started with tools This is perhaps the most basic campfire design. It is ideal if you want longer-lasting fires or if you intend to cook, roast marshmallows with marshmallow roasting sticks or boil some water. A teepee fire resembles a cone, where the wide circular base allows plenty of oxygen flow. Once the logs collapse, put what you want to cook or boil on top of the coals. You can add some kindling around the pot to sustain the fire.

Lean-to

In the lean-to campfire, you use a large piece of wood as a prop for smaller pieces. This is the simplest method of building a campfire and is ideal in adverse weather conditions. Simply lay down a thick log on the ground and place the tinder beside it. Lean the kindling perpendicular to the log.

Star

This is ideal for those times when you are low on campfire fuel. Rather than burning the wood all at once, the star method burns the logs bit by bit, thus keeping the fire burning for longer. Once you’ve laid down your tinder and kindling, you only need to lay down your logs like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. Start the fire at the center and push the logs toward the fire as the ends keep burning.

Criss-Cross/ Log Cabin

While this is the type of campfire that needs minimal effort, you might need to cut up the wood with an axe. Use your logs to form a hashtag (or pound sign) shape. Place some tinder in the middle of this shape. Make sure the center has enough space for proper airflow. Continue stacking smaller logs in the shape while making sure you leave some space between them.

Platform

This is more or less like the log cabin. However, the logs are arranged closer together as platform campfires are normally used for cooking. Unlike in the log cabin type, you can start your fire on top of the platform.

All of these strategies can be made easier by utilizing a fire starter to get the fire going.

How to Cook Using a Campfire

When you want to cook with a campfire, there are a few important preparatory steps you need to take to ensure your campfire cookout goes smoothly. From getting the right supplies to using the right tools, make sure you start your campfire off right.

Supplies to Cook With a Campfire

To cook on a campfire, you can do things as simply or as complexly as you want. Whether you throw some foil-wrapped hobo packets in the fire or go all out with the latest gadgets, you have a number of options.

If you want to cook over a fire, consider the following options:

In addition to cooking equipment, you should also invest in a firewood stand to make your firewood easy to transport and keep it off the ground while you’re camping.

Can You Cook on a Gas Fire Pit?

While technically you can cook on a gas fire pit, many gas fire pit manufacturers recommend avoiding it. The gas can create a sooty coating on your food that affects the taste, and grease drippings from your food can clog the gas valves in the fire pit. If you want to cook over a campfire, we recommend sticking to wood camp fires.

You can either bring your own firewood or buy firewood on-site. If you bring your firewood, make sure you learn beforehand about the regulations your campground has about outsourced firewood and study firewood gathering and seasoning basics before doing so.

How to Extinguish a Campfire

To put out your campfire entirely, you need to plan. You need to stop adding wood to the fire for about 30 to 45 minutes before you retire. This gives the fire sufficient time to die down to just hot coals and ash. You can extinguish your campfire using water or sand.

Extinguishing a Campfire with Water

  1. Spread the remaining coals of fire using a stick or a shovel. They are likely to extinguish quicker if they are not in contact with one another.
  2. Pour water over the fire. Make sure you hold the water container a few feet above the fire to avoid getting burnt by the hot steam that rises.
  3. Stir the ashes. This mixes all the embers of the fire and the ash with water. Check your ring of stones for any remaining embers. If they’re still there, douse them with more water.
  4. Pour water on any smoldering areas.
  5. Scrape the burnt parts off sticks and logs to ensure that there is no fire in the logs’ crevices.
  6. Pour more water on the fire until everything stops sizzling completely.

Extinguishing a Campfire with Sand

Someone putting out a campfire with sand You can also put out your campfire with dry or wet sand by following the steps outlined below:

  1. As you would when you are extinguishing the fire with water, let the fire die down
  2. Mix the ashes and the coals together and pour the sand over them. This cuts off the oxygen supply to the fire, thus smothering it.
  3. Stir dirt or sand into the embers and repeat both processes until the remnants of the fire are cool to the touch. If the coals are too hot, it might not be safe to leave them just yet.

Emergency Steps if the Fire Spreads

Even with all the above campfire safety precautions, your campfire could spread.

Precautionary Steps

  • Always keep water nearby. In the unfortunate event that your campfire spreads, you can always douse it with water.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in your car. However, this may only be possible if car camping.
  • Don’t use lightweight fuel.
  • Keep flammable items away from the fire.

Reactive Steps

  • Warn nearby campers.
  • Alert the local authorities.

Important Fire Safety Tips

Camp fires smell great, look wonderful and are fun to sit around on a cool night in the woods. Campfires are great for cooking and making a steamy pot of coffee.

They are great for cooking. That said, camp fires can be hazardous as well. Knowing how to take care of a fire and how to stay safe around a fire is important for anyone who spends time around camp fires this summer while cooking.

Here are a few fire safety tips to ensure that you and everyone else stay safe around the campfire.

Keep All Fires Contained

You can do this by keeping your fire as small as possible. A small fire will keep you warm and cook your food with a campfire grill grate. Also, small fires are relatively easy to control.

Once The Fire Is Lit, Don’t Leave

Whether you want to prevent wildlife from invading your space or you want to keep yourself warm while you sleep, you should never leave a campfire unattended.

Make Sure Your Campfire Is Fully Extinguished Before Leaving

Burning fires left unattended are a serious safety hazard that could lead to the destruction of property and loss of life. Campers should always extinguish fires before falling asleep or leaving the area. To extinguish a fire, campers must follow this procedure:

  1. Douse the area thoroughly with water.
  2. Use a shovel to mix the ashes and embers with the soil.
  3. Use the tip of the shovel to separate any remaining sticks and logs, then cover them in wet ashes and soil.
  4. Continue to douse the area with water and cover the sticks with soil if the area is not yet cool.
  5. Repeat step four until the entire area is cool.

You will need to ensure that all the fire is completely extinguished before you leave the campsite. Simply apply water until all the coals and logs stop sizzling once they come into contact with the water. Turn them over using a stick and continue pouring the water.

Following this procedure can help campers to ensure that the fire they’ve made is completely extinguished.

Wear Tight Clothing

Loose fitting clothing can be a hazard when cooking or working around an open flame. For safety’s sake, campers must wear tight clothing when building, tending to and cooking over a camp fire. Even those who are not primarily caring for the fire should still wear fire-safe clothing to sit in the vicinity of the flames.

In the event that clothes do catch fire, it’s critical to remember the “stop, drop and roll” policy. Parents who camp with small children can practice this together with their kids as a fun safety exercise. This can be done by making a game of shouting “Stop! Drop! Roll!” and then mimicking the actions.

Enforce Basic Safety Rules

Children should never play in the vicinity of a camp fire. All rough housing and physical activity should take place away from the fire. If someone does get burned, it’s important to have procedures in place and a camping first aid kit on hand to treat the injury. Campers must cool the area with cool water, then apply dressing and seek medical help immediately.

Follow Park Rules

Different parks have different rules to prevent forest fires. Following all rules and regulations is crucial for the safety of everyone in the park. Forest fires can cause millions of dollars in damage as well as loss of life. During times of drought, many parks will tighten their fire safety rules to prevent forest fires. Campers who have been to a specific park before must still check up on the rules with every visit, in case the conditions have changed and the rules are different. This helps ensure that everyone in the camping party can stay safe.

Conclusion

While campfires are undeniably a lot of fun, you have a responsibility to keep the campsite safe by making sure you keep it in control. This is particularly important during dry and windy weather conditions. In such conditions, you’d be better off foregoing the campfire entirely. If the conditions are safe, the above safety tips and suggestions will enable you to enjoy your next camping expedition to the fullest.