Campfire Safety for Overlanders

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There’s nothing like being out in the wilderness with a roaring campfire, good friends, a glass of your favorite adult beverage, and a night sky full of stars. But your campfire is a huge responsibility, too. Responsible use of fire keeps public lands open for everyone. 


Photo: Jean Beaufort - Public Domain

Photo: Jean Beaufort – Public Domain

The west coast is on fire yet again during a tragic fire season. People have lost their homes and their lives. It is up to you as people who use our national forests to know how to prevent wildfires. That way you can become part of the solution, not the problem. Though many of these current fires were started by nature, most forest fires (87% according to the U.S. Forest Service) are caused by humans.

It is your responsibility to check with local ranger stations, forest service offices, or visitor centers for fire restrictions or area closures. Burn bans are in place for a reason. If regional officials ask you to not have a fire, please heed these warnings. The bans are there to protect property, wilderness areas, and human and animal lives. We all love the forests and we want to be sure there’s enough for everyone to enjoy.

If you’ve checked with the Forest Service and fires are permitted, there are some very important things to consider before you light it up for the first time.

Picking a Spot for a Fire

The first thing to think about is where you’ll have your fire. If your campsite has a fire ring — whether provided by the Forest Service, or a man-made rock ring, that is the spot you should use. 

If you are digging your own fire pit, be sure to research whether digging is permitted. Some public lands forbid digging due to archeological or other concerns. If you can dig, choose a site at least 15 feet away from tents, shrubs, trees, and other flammable objects. The site should be open, level, and free from pine needles or leaves that could catch on fire easily.

Never build a campfire in hazardous or dry conditions — even if there is no burn ban. That’s just common sense. Also take wind into account and choose a spot that is free from gusts (or use a product like MC Ranch Overland’s Original Fire Reflector) to provide a wind barrier.

Preparing Your Campfire Pit

Find a level spot and clear a ten-foot diameter area around your campfire pit. Remove grass, twigs, leaves, and downed wood. Don’t keep your fuel or firewood within ten feet of your fire either. Grab your shovel — (I recommend the DMOS Collective shovels as they fold up for easy storage) and dig your pit at least a foot deep and circle the pit with rocks that you find nearby.

You’re now ready for a campfire.


Photo: Amber Oliver - Public Domain

Photo: Amber Oliver – Public Domain

Building Your Campfire

Once you’ve scouted a great spot and prepared the area, it’s time to build your fire. Make sure you have a source of water, a bucket, and a shovel nearby at all times. Bring your own firewood that you purchase nearby (don’t bring wood from home as it can introduce invasive pests into the local environment.) 

If you’re allowed to gather wood in the National Forest, choose three types of wood from the ground. It is a good time to mention that you should never cut whole trees or branches from live trees (live wood won’t burn and you’ll just be damaging the forest.) Dead standing trees are often home to birds and other wildlife. There should be plenty of tinder, kindling, and fuel available right on the forest floor.

  • Tinder: Gather small sticks and dry leaves, grasses, and pine needles — enough to catch your kindling aflame.

  • Kindling: Gather sticks smaller than one inch around — again, just enough to get your fuel lit.

  • Fuel: These are larger pieces of wood including branches and larger pieces. Keep these stacked upwind and away from your fire.

Loosely pile your tinder in handfuls in the center of your fire pit. Criss cross (or build a ‘log cabin’ with) your kindling around the tinder. Ignite your tinder with a match, lighter, or flint. Add more tinder as the fire grows and then add kindling and fuel to keep the fire going. Keep it small and under control. Pay attention to the weather, as sudden wind gusts can blow embers into nearby vegetation.

Maintaining and Extinguishing Your Campfire

Keep your fire to a manageable size and be certain that pets and children are supervised near the fire. Never leave a campfire unattended by an adult. Add wood as necessary to keep an enjoyable fire going. Allow your wood to burn completely to ash if possible.

When you’re ready to go to bed, hit the trails, or leave camp completely, it is time to extinguish your fire. Pour water from your bucket (here’s a great two-gallon bucket from Granite Gear that folds flat when not in use) drowning all of the embers and unburnt wood. Keep pouring until the hissing sound stops completely. With your shovel, scrape any remaining sticks and logs to remove any embers. Make sure nothing is still smoldering. If it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.

Before you go, scout your site and fire pit for any trash. Pack out everything you packed in. No one wants to see your eggshells and beer cans when they find your incredible campsite later on.

Always be responsible when you light a fire in the backcountry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found a campsite with a fire pit that is still hot to the touch. If we all just follow some simple rules, we can prevent the loss of property and life due to wildfires and keep our public lands open for all for years to come.

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Photo by Brett Willhelm

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