Observe eco-friendly campfire safety rules
A symbol of camping everywhere, campfires have been a necessary and popular tool for illumination, cooking, and warmth for centuries. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) developed the Leave No Trace (LNT) program to educate campers about the eco-effects of their outdoor pursuits, including campfire practices. Following these safe fire guidelines will protect you and your family, as well as precious forests.
How to practice eco-friendly fire safety methods
Leave archaic stick-rubbing methods to your ancestors and go for one of these fast, minimum-impact options. If you've done advance trip planning to ensure you've got all the necessary clothing, shelter, and survival equipment, you shouldn't need a fire for warmth, but you might want some flames for a little light backcountry cooking.
Enter the modern camp stove. These increasingly popular tools, liked by resort- and rugged-campers alike, have morphed into ultra-light, compact machines for the outdoors, suitable for even the most remote backpacking locations. And eco-advocates sing their praises, too. They operate sans firewood, which means fewer unsustainable trips into the forest for kindling. And because they contain flames within an enclosed metal frame, they function in almost all weather conditions and prevent the spread of fire.
There are a variety of different camp stoves and fuels to consider, although if you can get your hands on some renewable ethanol, that’d be the most sustainable. Your choice will depend on your budget, experience, and camping conditions. Just be sure to practice safe camp stove methods to prevent run-away flames.
When nothing but a campfire will do
Sniff, sniiff... ah... Can't imagine a camping trip without that distinctive campfire smell? Well, when fires are permissible, building an eco-flamer is the only way to go. It'll prevent wildfires, protect wildlife, and help you uphold LNT camping principles.
Start by observing the most basic outdoor fire guidelines:
Ranger, ranger, give me the news: Before every camping trip, be sure to look up current weather conditions and check with the local national or state park ranger for current warnings and fire restrictions. Some high-elevation and desert locations ban fires at all times, while others require you to obtain a fire permit before heading out. These precautions are taken to prevent accidental wildfires from starting. Excessive heat, drought conditions, and dry timber all increase the likelihood of wildfires starting from run-away sparks and lightning. Heeding fire bans will help you uphold safe, and earth-friendly fire practices. Proper trip prep will also prevent heaps of frustration and disappointment. There's nothing more annoying than driving all the way to the campsite, s'mores and chili-fixins' in tow, only to find that you can't light a fire.
If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no environmentalist in sight...: Yes, improper wood collection will be noticed. Trees of all kinds—standing and fallen, large and small—are important for total forest wellness. They provide habitat and shelter for insects, animals, and birds, even when dead and downed, and help recycle nutrients back into the soil. Careless wood gathering can seriously hamper the ability of wildlife to survive and degrades the appearance of outdoor spaces for those coming after you. So, take care when collecting wood for fires:
- Go for a walk—a long one (15 to 20 minutes)—when gathering wood to spread your impact over a larger area. But watch your step! Try to avoid stepping on fragile plant life, choosing durable surfaces instead. Driftwood along rivers and ocean shores is acceptable.
- Use your hands, not a hatchet or saw, and take only small (the diameter of an adult wrist), dead and fallen branches that you can break manually. Do not break dead branches off living trees.
- The harshness of some desert and alpine ecosystems makes gathering firewood completely unsustainable as it's nearly impossible for wood sources to generate fast enough. If you're camping in one of these areas, come prepared with a camp stove or your own sustainably harvested wood, but check with your local park service first. Some potentially harmful insects may hitch a ride with store-bought wood, causing billions of dollars in forest damage. Purchasing wood close to the park’s door will help mitigate this pest problem.
- Store all wood well away and upwind from your campfire to prevent accidental ignition.
A good place for a fire: When choosing a location for your camp stove, fire pan, or mound fire, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
- When near a river or stream, setting up on a gravel or sand bar below the water line is a good plan. Just be sure to keep your food and soap waste out of the fresh water.
- If you're camping away from the water, look for a spot rich in mineral soil (meaning free of organic material).
- Try to avoid digging down into soil that's rich in organic matter (leaves, twigs, etc.). The heat of a campfire can ignite the soil's organic material underground, which can flare into a forest fire.
- Look for a location that's free of overhanging branches, rotten wood, or dry grass and leaves.
- Sweep any easily ignited materials (litter and leaves) away in a 10-foot circle around your fire area.
- Keep your fire at least 10 feet from your tent and other gear.
- Although it may seem safer, try to avoid putting your fire in a rock outcropping as the soot scars will remain for many years.
- Resist the urge to build a rock wall around your fire. Rocks actually retain heat and may even explode under extremely high-temp conditions. If you do find yourself using a pre-made, rock-rimmed pit, be sure to move the rocks when you're done to check for hiding coals and embers, and dunk these in water, too, to get them good and cool.
The right fire for the right conditions: In high-use areas where pre-existing fire pits are obvious and plentiful, keep your impact to a minimum by using someone else's spot. Existing rings and well-packed soil make for safe fire conditions. If you can't come by one of these, go for a fire pan or mound fire.
- Fire pans: A portable fire pan is a good alternative to stoves and fire rings. These solid-bottomed, metal pans should have a lip around the edge that’s at least 3 inches high, which will allow you to build a fire inside that’s relatively confined. Keep the pan elevated on rocks or partially filled with mineral soil or sand to prevent heat from scorching the soil beneath. When you’re done, the pan makes it easy to widely disperse the ashes that have collected in the pan’s bottom.
- Mound fires: Go searching for an already-disturbed source of sand, mineral soil, or gravel and using a small trowel, scoop up a bunch of it into a bucket without upsetting the surrounding vegetation. Find an appropriate location for your fire (this type can be built on exposed rock or organic matter like grass or leaf litter) and put down a plastic garbage bag or ground cloth, then pile up the material you've gathered into a mound. Your mound should be flat-topped and circular, wider than your fire and at least 3-8 inches thick (the greater the thickness, the more the ground beneath will be insulated from the heat). Once the mound’s complete, build your fire on top of it and then when camp-time's up, use the cloth or bag to return your mound material to its original location.
Outdoor housekeeping: Time to go? Be sure to properly close-down your campfire before heading out. In low-use, backcountry areas, clean-up keeps the area looking pristine and untouched. In popular campgrounds, proper clean-up helps to keep the site looking appealing for the campers to come. A poorly groomed pit may increase the chances that the next visitor will develop a new pit, which further degrades the area.
- Douse any remaining flames or smoldering wood with water (water's better than soil since soil's not entirely effective at extinguishing the fire). All coals, rocks, and wood should be cool to the touch.
- Take your white-ash coals and crush them between gloved hands, then thoroughly spread them over a wide area to conceal them well.
- Though burning plastics, foil, and other garbage is not recommended, if you've done so, pick out any remaining garbage and pack it out with you.
- Unless you’re in a high-traffic campground, replace any soil, sand, and rocks you may have moved to make your fire pit.
- Redistribute any unburned, leftover firewood throughout the surrounding area to leave the site looking unspoiled.
Smokey’s most sage advice
Even safe, sustainable fires and camp stoves should be carefully watched and monitored:
- Build a fire that's only as large as you need so that it's easily extinguished in an emergency. If you find yourself tempted by coldness to build an excessively large fire, you may want to call it a day and return when you've brought along adequate clothing and tents.
- Keep a sand- or water-filled bucket near the fire just in case you have to douse errant flames in a hurry.
- Never leave a fire or stove unattended for even a few minutes.
- Keep pets and children at a safe distance from flames of any kind as they can inadvertently bump and spill fire outside of its safety barriers.
- Use only pre-approved fuels for your stove and keep unused fuel in a sealed, no-spill container, well away from the flames.
- Keep logs and other flammable materials well away and upwind of your fire.
- If you're smoking cigarettes while out in the wild, be sure to thoroughly extinguish the butt and then pack it out with you. These little stinkers take two to five years to biodegrade and pose health problems for wildlife.
Find it! Camp stoves, fire pans, and sustainable firewood
Small gas stoves and fire pans are safe, eco-friendly ways to cook while camping or backpacking, but if you’re looking for an even safer outdoor cooking option, go for a solar oven. Packing-in your firewood? Try to look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified options whenever possible.
A compact little unit, this grill and fire pan combo can adjust to many cooking environments. It folds up for easy storage and even comes with a handy carrying case. This unit meets the US Forest Service’s standards.
For use in solid-fuel camp stoves, these little gel packs burn clean, smokeless, and odorless. A quick lighter, it’s even nontoxic if inhaled or ingested (although we don’t recommend going in for a taste).
This oversized fire pan is great for larger crowds or longer stays, and comes with a stand and a lid, making it super convenient and easy to set up. It’s also approved by the Forest Service.
A camp-stove classic, this little green machine uses Coleman-brand fuel or unleaded gas and can burn over two hours on high with one tank. It’s got two burners, but is relatively small for its power.
This liquid-fuel, two-burner stove can operate on up to 10 percent ethanol fuel and puts out a lot of heat. It comes with wind-blocking shields to keep your flame in control and at its max.
This one’s as simple as they come. It’s stainless steel and comes leg- and stand-free, making it ideal for longer backpacking trips where light weight and small size are key considerations.
If you’re carrying in your own firewood, you want to buy sustainably-harvested pieces. Find FSC-certified firewood by using the international database for FSC certificate holders. Use the “Product” field to search for firewood, and choose the appropriate country to filter your results.
Get windproof, fuel-efficient cooking with this fast-heating little stove-pot combination. The radiant burner is enclosed, making it safe to operate, and the internal regulator puts out a consistent amount of heat.
Achieve fast boiling times with less fuel using this small stove. The package comes with a burner stand, windscreen, and pot (with pan and handle), as well as a carrying bag. It’s got a wide base, making it extremely stable.
This handy stove will burn fuel—leaves, twigs, pinecones—completely and thoroughly, creating a low-smoke, high-efficiency heat source for cooking while in the wild. It also eliminates the need to pack liquid fuel.
Practicing eco-friendly and safe campfire methods helps you go green because…
- It helps prevent wildfires, which destroy habitat, kill wildlife, and contribute to climate change.
- Trees and fallen wood both provide habitat and shelter for insects, animals, and birds. Improper wood gathering not only damages wildlife habitats and ecosystems, but it degrades the outdoor experience for other campers.
Humans are responsible for half of all forest fires every year. Over 3 million acres of land were destroyed by human-caused wildfires in 2007 throughout the US. The effects of wildfires on animals, birds, insects, and plants can be serious. Flames and heat will kill the eggs and young of many animals, but especially those of invertebrates and micro-organisms. Fires can also remove the vegetation along streams and rivers, which in turn increases erosion and sedimentation, leading to many other ecosystem problems.
Fighting fires is an extremely expensive endeavor, costing approximately $1 billion annually. And the costs are set to increase with long-term droughts. Global warming is also playing a role in the increased wildfires. Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that there was a four-fold increase in the number of wildfires beginning in the mid-1980s compared to the 1970s and early 1980s. The total area burned also increased six and a half times and the fire season lengthened by 64 percent. Scripps researchers have attributed these increases to the rise in global climate change. Conversely, wildfires also compound climate change by releasing billions of tons of carbon held in trees and other vegetation. What’s more, forest fires add polluting gases and particulate matter to the atmosphere, which can be carried to far flung cities, contributing to smog.
Forest Stewardship Council
The collective impact of over 270 million people visiting national parks throughout the US is significant, especially in terms of sustainable forest management issues. The combined effect of millions of outdoor visitors collecting firewood from forests results in a seriously degraded outdoor experience for all. Tree-free fires and sustainably harvested firewood are the best solutions to this growing concern.
Unfortunately, recent years have shown a significant problem with the import of insect pests carried in on firewood by campers. Infested firewood transports invasive pests into vulnerable ecosystems, causing an estimated $120 billion in forest damage every year. Campers are encouraged to purchase firewood from stores adjacent to campgrounds where they're staying.
There are several organizations certifying lumber, but according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), only one is preferred by green experts worldwide—the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). FSC is an international nonprofit organization that was formed in 1993. It accredits certifiers, who in turn use auditors to inspect timber operations (only those that voluntarily request FSC certification) to guarantee that trees are sustainably harvested using forestry practices that maintain the diversity of native species, prevent over-cutting, protect watersheds, and ensure long-term forest management.
FSC has six strict principles for monitoring every stage of production, distribution, and sale of wood products, and works with wholesalers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. These principles cover environmental, social, and economic criteria, such as harvest rates and clearing sizes, natural forest conditions, rare, threatened, and endangered species, adequate conservation zones, chemical use (minimized), protection of streams and lakes, and the health of workers, communities, and indigenous peoples. Only those operations that meet the criteria are allowed to display the FSC label.
Aren’t forest fires natural?
Forest fires certainly are natural occurrences, especially when started by lightning. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture's Forest Service manages fire through a combination of prevention, suppression, and structured burns to effectively prevent damaging wildfires. These controlled fires have the added benefit of thinning out dense vegetation and clutter, modifying habitat structure, and managing various plant communities that thrive after fire conditions. However, unintentional wildfires generally tend to be much hotter than controlled fires, burning many thousands more acres of land and destroying critical wildlife habitat in the process. Therefore, campers should exercise caution at all times when lighting fires in parks and campgrounds.
Buying wood with some type of environmental certification can help ensure it was harvested sustainably, however not all certifying bodies are equal. FSC is the only international accrediting body which guarantees that wood has been sustainably harvested. There are several other labels used to certify wood that are not nearly as rigorous. For instance, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) (developed by the American Forest & Paper Association, an industry trade group) was found to have significant shortcomings when compared to FSC.
The anti-SFI coalition (including such groups as ForestEthics, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council) has charged SFI with failing to effectively protect forests (especially old growth stands) by permitting members to indiscriminately log diverse forests and replace them with a single species, ignoring crucial social issues, and delivering no credible assurances to the consumer.
- old growth forest: Also known as virgin forest, ancient forest, or primary forest, is an area of forest which has attained great age, containing a variety of vertical layers of vegetation, including large live trees. These forests may also be home to many rare species that are dependent on these ecologically unique old growth features.
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