The National Wildlife Federation

Campfire Basics

To many campers, the campfire is a beloved and indispensable outdoor tradition—a kinetic, luminous, dreamlike force of nature that for generations has served as the centerpiece of backwoods gatherings.

Campfires remain a cherished institution among visitors to drive-in campgrounds. In backcountry settings, though, their use has diminished greatly for a number of compelling reasons. Read on for REI's advice about fire etiquette in either setting.

REI Campfire image

Campfires at Campgrounds

  • If camping at a developed site, check with the campground operator to make sure fires are permitted. In some areas, severe dry periods can cause campfires to be prohibited even in campgrounds.

  • If car camping in an undeveloped site (a so-called "dispersed" area), check in advance with the agency that administers the land (U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, et al.) to make sure fires are allowed. A campfire permit may be required. It is your responsibility to know the regulations and how to maintain a fire.

  • Bring your own wood or buy it locally. Nearby convenience stores usually carry it, and sometimes campground hosts offer bundles for sale. Be aware, however, that some campgrounds ban bring-your-own firewood. Why? Usually it's to avoid introducing potentially troublesome insects into a forest.
    Transported firewood may harbor hitchhiking insects that can escape into a new environment and, distanced from native predators, become invasive pests. Call in advance to see if any restrictions are in place at your chosen campground. If you decide to forage for firewood, gather only downed wood far from your site. Never cut live trees or break off branches from standing trees, even dead trees. Birds and wildlife makes use of dead branches and snags.

  • Build fires only in designated fire rings, grills or fireplaces. If you're at an undeveloped camp, evaluate the site before starting a fire. If the site is brushy or has low-hanging branches, keep your fire small or skip it altogether. In dry conditions, fly-away embers could easily ignite a wildfire.

Campfires in the Backcountry

At high-elevation wilderness destinations (typically those above 4,000 feet), campfires are rarely permitted. Why? The reasons include:

  • Repeated wood-gathering has depleted the high country of soil-stabilizing, nutrient-building ground cover.
  • Human-built fire rings, with their sooty residue, have tarnished many natural settings with scars of human intrusion.
  • Poorly tended fires have escalated into ruinous wildfires.
  • Today's backpacking stoves are lightweight, clean, convenient and fuel-efficient, making backcountry fires nearly obsolete.

Campfires, though, can be lifesavers in emergency situations. If you are wet, cold, without a working stove and unable to find shelter, a fire can help you fight off hypothermia. Follow these guidelines when building a fire in the backcountry.

  • Know fire restrictions before you leave the trailhead. Rangers usually provide fire-related information when they issue wilderness permits. At self-service trailheads, look for posted information on signs or kiosks regarding fire and fire danger. Be aware that during extremely dry conditions, ordinary fire restrictions may be overridden by tighter restrictions. It is your responsibility to know the regulations and how to maintain a fire.

  • Gather only downed wood, ideally far from your site. Otherwise, over time the area will appear unnaturally denuded. Never cut live trees or break off branches from a standing tree, even a dead tree. Wildlife makes use of such snags.

  • Do not gather or burn pieces thicker than an adult's wrist. Thick chunks of wood are rarely allowed to burn completely and are typically left behind as blackened, unsightly scraps.

  • In backcountry areas where fires are permitted, use an existing fire ring if one has been left behind. Build a new one only in emergency situations and, if the situation permits, dismantle it when you are done. If one already exists, clean it out before you depart.

  • Clear away all flammable material from your fire pit. Ideally, the pit (base) of your fire should be nonflammable earth (sand, gravel) or mineral soil (often found in streambeds or on gravel bars). Intense heat can sterlize healthy soil, so choose your site conscientiously.

  • If you are building an emergency fire to stay warm and survive, it's understandable if land stewardship is not your primary focus. Still, don't pillage the landscape. At this point, firestarter and waterproof matches will be two of your most valued possessions.

  • An alternative to a fire ring is a mound fire. Using your sanitation trowel, build a circular, flat platform of mineral soil (sandy, light-colored, nonfertile dirt) about 6" to 8" high. Use this as the base for your fire. Ideally, build this platform on a flat rock. The goal is to avoid searing (thus sterilizing) any plant-supporting soil below. You can easily disperse the mound when you're finished. Some people even haul items like barbecue pans into the backcountry to serve as portable bases for fires.

  • Pack out any trash found in your pit. Extract any charcoal pieces left inside your ring, carry them away from your site, crush the chunks, then scatter the remnants and dust throughout a broad area. Dismantle any structure you might have built, and please don't leave behind any stacks of wood. This may sound like a lot of work, but it is the responsible way to disguise a campfire's long-lasting aftereffects.

Starting and Extinguishing a Fire

  • Start the fire by building a small, inverted cone of dry sticks, twigs and forest duff and igniting it with a match. (Be sure to carry waterproof matches and firestarter. Fire-making materials are considered one of the 10 Essentials.)

  • Add larger pieces of wood as the fire's kindling temperature increases. Move embers to the fire's center to burn them completely. Ideally, you should reduce them to white ash.

  • Burn trash items only if they can be fully consumed by fire and turned to ash. Do not attempt to burn plastic, cans or foil. If you do burn something that's not fully consumed, collect the remains when the fire is out and either pack it out or put it in a trash receptacle.

  • Never leave a campfire unattended!

  • If you need to dry out clothing, tie a cord tautly between a pair of trees well above the flames; carefully drape a few wet items across the cord and over the fire.

  • Extinguish all fires by pouring water on them, stirring the ashes, then applying more water. Repeat as often as needed. Ashes should be cool to the touch before you leave the site. Be utterly certain a fire and its embers are out and cold before you depart.

Summary

Campfires are 1) Fun in campgrounds, 2) Rarely allowed in high-elevation wilderness settings and 3) Sometimes vital in emergencies. If you build a fire, it is your responsibility to know how to build it, maintain it, extinguish it, then minimize any impact it creates. Happy camping, and, please, be safe.

Expert advice provided by REI. To find more expert advice visit REI's Family Expert Advice section