Whether it's a cool summer night or a chilly winter afternoon, you don't need Smokey the Bear to tell you that campfires can be dangerous and need to be attended to carefully. Even if you have been building fires since you were a Cub Scout, it's important to brush up on your safety techniques. Here are a few tips to make sure you leave your campsite just as you found it:
Selecting a site
No matter where you find yourself camping, selecting a proper location for your fire is an essential first step. This is more than just how close to your tent the fire pit can be or what a safe distance from the nearest plant growth is. Before you leave for your trip, check for the weather and any fire restrictions that may be in place where you plan to camp. While you are driving to the site, keep an eye out for signs that indicate fire danger. Even in generally safe areas, a dry spell or a particularly windy day can make any campfire dangerous. Once you're confident the weather is on your side, double check that the campsite you selected is fire-friendly. In some cases, you may need to obtain a permit before getting started.
After all of that is cleared up, it's time to pick a spot to start your fire. If you're camping in a developed site, there is a good chance there is a fire pit already designated for use. Usually, it's surrounded by a metal wall or a ring of rocks. If not, pick a spot that is at least 15 feet away from your tent, as well as any shrubs, trees or any other potentially flammable objects, including low-hanging branches. Clear any grass, twigs, leaves and extra firewood from a 10-foot diameter around the fire pit.
Starting your fire
Always remember to use local wood when building a fire. No matter how much truck bed storage you have, hauling your own firewood from more than 50 miles away can introduce new insects to the campground, which have the potential to cause huge problems to the local flora and fauna. Generally, you can find wood for sale at nearby stores. If you start collecting fuel from your immediate area, only use downed wood. Cutting trees or breaking branches – even those on dead trees – may disrupt birds and other animals who make their homes there.
To get started, build a small cone or stack of dry twigs or sticks and ignite them using only a match or lighter. Do not use any kind of flammable liquid when starting or maintaining the fire. As the flame grows, introduce gradually larger pieces of wood, saving the biggest pieces for the end. As the fire grows, push embers into the center of the fire to ensure they burn completely. The best way to protect the surrounding forest is to reduce everything to white ash.
Staying safe around the fire
Always keep a bucket of water nearby in case the fire starts to get out of control. Also, consider keeping a shovel nearby to throw sand to extinguish any errant flames. Never leave the fire unless you have put it out completely and are confident it is cool. Any extra wood or flammable objects should be kept upwind and well away from the fire. If you have brought any valuables to the campsite with you, consider investing in a lockbox or portable safe to ensure their safety. For drying out wet clothing, secure a cord between two trees safely above the flames. Be sure it is taut, then carefully hang the clothes over the fire. If you have any children or pets with you, do not let them near the fire and never leave them unsupervised. Kids should be taught proper fire safety techniques, including how to stop, drop and roll if their clothing catches fire. Never burn trash that can't be completely consumed by the fire, like plastic, foil or cans.
Putting out the fire
Whether you are leaving for the afternoon or for good, safely and thoroughly extinguishing your fire is paramount to preventing a forest fire. When you leave your campsite, all of the coals, embers and unburned wood or ashes should be completely put out and cool to the touch. The best way to do this is to pour water over the embers until the hissing sound stops. Then, stir the ashes and continue to add more water. Repeat this until you are confident that the fire is out completely. If you don't have water nearby, you may mix soil and sand with the embers. Continue to add and stir the mixture until everything has cooled. Be sure to avoid burying the remains of your fire, as they may begin to smolder and burn.