Leave No Trace: Tips for Having a Safe Campfire

Learn how to be fire smart while camping whether you're cooking over the fire or making a fire for warmth read more to be prepared.

For most of us, some of our best camping memories have been made while huddled around a campfire on a cool night, roasting marshmallows, cooking food, and sharing stories with friends and family. It’s a ritual that brings people together — symbolizing the end of a great day spent outside and embodies the quintessential camping experience. It’s important to know the basics of how to be fire smart while camping.

Sights, smells and perfectly made s’mores aside, it can also be a hazard. In 2017, there were over 63,000 human-caused wildfires that burned nearly 5 million acres. Has anyone been to the Columbia River Gorge lately? Those are some big numbers that we can dramatically reduce simply by knowing and practicing the basics of safe campfire procedures. At Bearfoot Theory, we believe you should respect and care for the outdoors as much as you enjoy them and understanding how to be fire smart is at the top of the list.

Ready for some campfire safety 101? We’re channeling our inner Smokey the Bear and getting down to the nitty gritty of how to be fire smart while camping.

6 Basic Tips for having a Safe Campfire

Straight from Smokey the Bear himself, these basic campfire safety rules are good for every camper to know and will help you be fire smart while camping. They may seem obvious but you’re better off knowing so you can pass your campfire wisdom along to other campers.

  1. Do not build a campfire or dig a fire pit if it’s prohibited. Often times digging a fire pit is not allowed purely to preserve archaeological sites or other concerns
  2. Do not make a campfire in dry or windy conditions
  3. Always find out or look for an existing fire pit to make your campfire
  4. If there is not an existing fire pit, and ONLY if pits are allowed, choose a site at least 15 feet from tent walls, shrubs, trees and other flammable objects. Beware of low-hanging branches.
  5. Choose an open, level location away from heavy fuels such as logs, brush or decaying leaves.
  6. Take wind, and its direction, into account when choosing the site. Choose a spot that’s protected from gusts.

Don’t Make Fire Rings Where They Don’t Exist

When campfires are permitted in the area, a fire ring is your best option for a safe campfire and maintaining control of the flames. Existing fire rings are crucial to campfire safety because they limit the impact on the land should a fire get out of control. The campfire ring will be at a campsite or designated area that has been surveyed and deemed safe by park rangers or other authority figures and making your own is simply not a good idea. Parks get busy and experience a high volume of visitors, so imagine if every single one of them created their own fire pits and the impact that would have on the area. In short, just don’t do it.

Learn how to be fire smart while camping whether you're cooking over the fire or making a fire for warmth read more to be prepared.

Don’t Burn Your Trash or Food in the Fire

This may seem harmless or even like a good way to get rid of your extra food, baggies and items but burning trash and food in your campfire is neither safe nor smart. First and foremost, this negatively affects you and your fellow campers. Remember this: Anything that you burn you breathe. Many times, trash like plastic containers, baggies and other miscellaneous items release harmful carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) and other toxins into the air. Even if it may not seem like a big deal, be respectful of your body and your friends and don’t burn your trash.

In that same vein, burning single-use plastics do leave a trace behind. Like all plastic, there really is no away and burning them in your fire leaves a lead residue that can be poisonous. While we advocate against using single-use and disposable plastic in the first place, many campers still do and it is important to be mindful of this as an outdoor advocate and lover yourself.

Burning your food waste can also attract unwanted visitors to your campsite. Wildlife, critters and other scavengers can get a whiff of your food scraps and come right over. Plus, you’ll be putting these animals at risk if the fire pit or ash is contaminated with plastics, lead, or other toxins. So just don’t do it.

Finally, leaving your trash and food waste in the fire pit is just disrespectful and encourages the same behavior from future campers who may not know it isn’t okay. Follow the basic principles of Leave No Trace by carrying in and out everything that you bring. The outdoors is not a dumping ground but a place to be respected and enjoyed.

A trash-filled campfire ring I found on one of my trips last summer. This is lazy, disrespectful, and dangerous. 

Learn the basic principles of Leave No Trace

Do Check the Campfire Rules and Regulations for Your Local Area

This summer I’ve seen more FIRE BAN signs than ever before. If you’re going camping, it’s your responsibility to know the current regulations. If you are camping in a state or federally-owned and operated park, there will be information on their website about making campfires for you to refer to beforehand. This is a good place to brush up on what’s allowed and what’s not in the park, plus, best practices for being fire smart while you’re there. Every environment is unique, so it’s safe to assume that there may be different do’s and don’ts for that area.

If there is a fire ban in place, it’s for a reason – meaning the fire risk is too high and it is not possible to have a safe campfire! Please follow the rules and don’t have a fire during a fire ban. 

Don’t Bring In Firewood From Out of Town

This isn’t an odd request, nor a way for locals to swindle money out of you. It’s a very basic and important rule to remember. Bringing firewood from out of town risks introducing invasive species to the area. Invasive species can wreak havoc on habitats and it’s best not to take a chance. Buy your firewood from the town you are staying in if possible, or at least try to purchase it from somewhere close by to keep the risk of invasive species low. If the park allows you to collect it in or around the campsite follow the 4 D’s of responsible firewood collection:

Dead– Use only dead wood

Down– Use only downed wood on the ground and do not cut off tree branches

Distant– Find your wood a good distance from camp

Dinky– Use only small wood that is about the size of your forearm

How to Safely Extinguish a Campfire

Putting out a campfire is just as important as safely building one and prevents unintentional wildfires from occurring. Never leave your fire unattended and always put it out COMPLETELY before you go to bed and leave your campsite. Here’s a step-by-step guide to safely extinguishing your campfire.

  1. Always bring enough water to put out your campfire
  2. Allow the wood to burn completely into ash which won’t be able to hold any internal heat
  3. Drench your fire with water. We mean it. Pour it all in there until any hissing stops and all embers and ashes are covered with water.
  4. Use a shovel or stick to stir the ashes around and leave the stick in the fire
  5. Carefully hover your hand over the fire to test for any heat. If it feels hot repeat these step 1-4 again until the heat is gone


Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

One comment on “Leave No Trace: Tips for Having a Safe Campfire

  1. It’s good to know that out of town firewood can contain invasive species and it might not burn properly as a result. My son and I want to go camping for his birthday and we want to stay safe because the forest fire risk is so dangerously high. We’ll be sure to find a fire consultant that can help us achieve this goal!

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