How to Build a Responsible & Safe Campfire

campfire in the mountains
campfire in the mountains

One of the perks of camping is being able to sit around a campfire with friends, watching the stars above and roasting marshmallows. Some of the best dinners I’ve had weren’t in 5-star restaurants, rather made over a campfire in the mountains.


But as enjoyable as campfires are, it’s important to be responsible to minimize damage to wilderness areas and to reduce the risk of wildfires. In this blog, I’m going to break down things to consider when creating a safe campfire, and how to have one responsibly.


Check Fire Conditions in the Area

Before leaving home, check the area that you’re visiting to see if there are any fire bans in effect in that area. If you’re planning to cook over a fire, you don’t want to get there and find out that you can’t. This way you can be prepared before even leaving home.


Fire bans prohibit campfires from being built in a given area. They’re usually put in effect during times of the year where there is a high risk of wildfires happening, like when it’s hot and windy. This helps prevent more wildfires.


Although it may put a damper into your plans, it’s important to follow fire bans to help do your part to prevent wildfires. Wildfires happen, and they’re essential for the ecosystem, but let’s do our part together to prevent unnecessary ones from happening. This helps prevent wilderness areas from burning down, doesn’t put extra stress on our firefighters and other first responders, and protects wildlife.


If you can’t have a campfire, bring a couple of lanterns and hang out in camp with those!


If you can’t cook over a campfire anymore, bring pre-made food or bring a camping stove with you. I use the MSR Windburner stove for backcountry cooking.


Building A Campfire

The best place to build a campfire is in an existing fire ring or fire pit in an established campsite. This helps minimize the impact on our land.


Another option if there are no existing fire rings where you’re heading and there are no fire bans in effect is to have a fire pan. Metal oil drain pans and some backyard barbecue grills make effective and inexpensive fire pans. The pan should have at least three-inch high sides and it should be elevated on rocks or lined with mineral soil so the heat doesn’t scorch the ground. Avoid building fires next to rock outcrops where the black scars will remain for many years.


Keep the fire small and burning only for the time you’re using it. Never leave a campfire unattended. Later in this blog, I cover how to completely put out your campfire.


Do some research before heading out and if you need to, don’t hesitate to call the local ranger office. They’re there to help you.


Choosing Firewood

Make sure there is an abundance of wood for building a fire. You don’t want to bring firewood from home because it can introduce tree-killing insects and different diseases to that environment. So always buy it locally or source locally.


Avoid building a campfire at higher elevations or in the desert where there are fewer trees. Following Leave No Trace literally means that there should be no trace that you created a fire there.


When collecting firewood, don’t break or cut standing trees or living branches. Only use what’s already fallen. Gather wood over a wide area so you’re not overdoing it from one area.


Putting Out The Fire

You need to put out a campfire completely before going to bed. Even one burning ember can create a massive forest fire, especially on a windy day.


If possible, allow the wood to burn completely to ash. Then pour lots of water on the fire to drown out all of the embers, not just the red ones. Keep pouring water until the hissing sound stops.


Then stir the campfire ashes and embers with a shovel and scrape the sticks and logs to remove any embers. Keep stirring to make sure everything is wet and cold to the touch.


If you don’t have water, use dirt but do not bury the fire. It will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire that will create a wildfire.


If you’re backpacking, once the fire is completely put out, scatter the remains over a large area away from camp. Ashes may have to be packed out in river corridors. But remember, it needs to be completely put out. Then replace soil where you found it when cleaning up, and scatter unused wood.


Peeing on the fire is not an effective way to put it out. Just saying. Make sure to drown it in water.


Make sure to also pack out any trash. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen plastic and wrappers and other trash in a fire pit that someone tried to burn and leave there. Don’t be that person. Just carry a baggie for trash and pack everything out. To minimize how much trash you have, plan ahead!


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