This week I want to talk about campfire safety. I realize and hope I am talking to the people that already are safety-minded about fires, but since this is one of the most frequent causes of injuries while camping, I thought it deserved a strong mention.

The campfire is one of the nicest parts of camping. My family loves to sit around the campfire telling stories and making s’mores (if you promise to read this to the end I will give you the new s’mores recipe we are using!). As the night goes on and the wear and tear of the day starts to take it’s toll and the fire burns down, we become quiet and begin watching the fire and the almost hypnotic effect it starts to have. Finally, when someone either yawns so wide it looks like the top of their head is going to fall off, or falls asleep, then it is time for bed. It is also most useful for cooking and heating water for dishes if you are dry camping.

But, like any tool, you must learn how to use it safely. You don’t give a 4-year-old an axe and say go have fun.  Likewise you don’t give a 4-year-old matches and say go have fun… but, at any age, you can learn about fire safety. Most of what I am going to say is common sense but, like my Grandfather used to tell me, “Common sense isn’t that common anymore.” So, please read this, and if you learn one new thing that can make you safer, it will have been worth it!

First off, how to prepare your fire area. In the boy scouts, we learned that you should clear a 10 foot area around the fire. This still holds true with me.  Pick up paper, twigs and other assorted burnables in the area — you don’t have to dig up trees or anything — but do what you can. This is also the time to move loose rocks, fill in divots and check the area for anything that could cause you to trip and fall into the fire. We often camp at historical reenactments where there are no fire rings and we must dig a fire pit.  If you have to do this, try to remove the sod and wet it down and keep it moist so it can be used to refill the pit when you leave.

Now, you have a clean area around your fire ring and are ready to start burning, right? Well, I am going to nag some more.  Do everyone a favor and stack your firewood in a safe area near enough to the fire that you can easily get at it but outside that 10 foot area. And place a large pot or a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher in a place you can get at it easily, too. Does the wood need split or cut? How about an area to do that in, cleaned and with the proper tools prepared so you don’t have to hunt for them all the time (a tote with small axe, hatchet, hammer, wedges, saw and files works for us, and we also put the cooking forks I have made for the kids in this tote, too.)

Ok, now you are ready to start the fire, and this is where a lot of the accidents happen. I can’t say this enough DO NOT USE GASOLINE TO START FIRES!  Sooner or later, something bad is going to happen if you do; hopefully it will just be a chair or something burned, because I don’t want it to be you or, even worse, a child burned when it happens.

Some simple, easy and, most importantly, safe ways to start a fire are:

  • Use some charcoal and charcoal lighter fluid.  A few handfuls of charcoal and a little lighter fluid will start almost any fire. Light the charcoal and then, when it is going, put your wood on it and away you go.
  • The fire starter logs work wonderfully, too.  You don’t even need to use a whole one if you don’t want to; I find a quarter log will easily start any fire for me.
  • Candles, I know many people that save the stumps of candles to use to start fires (they must have more romantic dinners than I do!) or buy votive candles.
  • Fire starting cubes and the like from places like Wal-Mart.
  • Homemade fire starters out of things like wax and dryer lint and the like. There are tons of recipes on the internet that also will do a wonderful job; find a good one and prepare some for your next campfire!

Once you have the fire started, make a few simple rules like:

  • No running near the fire.
  • No fighting or horseplay around the fire.
  • if you put sticks in the fire, you don’t pull them out and wave them around.
  • Practice “Stop, Drop and Roll” in case something happens.
  • No Jumping over the fire.

Lastly, a few tips for even more safety:

  • Use pot holders all the time.
  • Put the handles of pots UP in the air not down beside the pot.
  • If you are going to blow on a fire to help it get going, get a “Blow pipe”, 1/4 or 3/8 about 3 or 4 feet long, flexible copper tubing works well; just remember you only blow through it not suck!
  • If you don’t know what it is, don’t put it on the fire. Poison Ivy smoke is just as bad as touching the plant!
  • My kids say I have to include this one, If the smoke is getting in your eyes say “I hate rabbits” and it will move away. I guess you just have to say it enough times and it will work…

I hope you have learned something from this. Most of the ideas seem simple to me, but, as people become more and more distanced from nature and outdoor living , they lose touch and do stupid things sometimes. For example, I was once at a historical reenactment and was cooking part of a ham over a fire for dinner after a long day blacksmithing, when a tourist came up and was talking to me and asking how they made such real looking fires. I doubted my ears and asked what he was talking about. He reported that there was no way they would allow this many “real” fires and wondered how they made the fake ones look so real. Being very tired and thinking he was surely just kidding, I reported they were all “real” fires and, if he didn’t believe me, put his hand into one… Which he proceeded to do and, of course, thereby burned his hand! I had him put it in cool water, and he walked away complaining that “real” fires were too dangerous. Fires aren’t dangerous in and of themselves; however, they are a tool that is hazardous if misused!

Oh, the s’mores recipe. We now like to take soft cookies (our favorite is chocolate cookie with peanut butter chips) and put the hot marshmallow between two of them. Others have used chocolate covered graham crackers in place of regular ones too, the peppermint ones are my favorite!

Your Obedient Servant,

Gary Smith, Jr.

Leave a Reply


  1. Pingback: flyttstädning stockholm

  2. M Lane

    Please learn the truth and publish an article about clean safe Campfire In a Can all sizes, price points and purposes. You can have smores without harming people.

    One fire operating an hour burning ten pounds of wood will generate 4,300 times more carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons than thirty cigarettes.

    Breathing smoke from 1 stick of wood is equivalent to smoking up to 16 cigarettes.

    Washington State ranks fifth in the nation for the prevalence of asthma. One person dies every fourth day due to asthma-related causes.

    Infants exposed to wood smoke have higher risk of Asthma Diagnosis by age 5. Most who have Asthma now had been exposed to wood smoke early in life.

    Childhood asthma is 1 in every 10 children. Adult Asthma is increasing dramatically every year.

    Lung cancer (even among non-cigarette smokers) is the hardest to treat, diagnose early, has the lowest/shortest survival rate among all cancers. Tobacco use has dropped, smoking is banned in public places, but Lung Cancer is the number one cause of cancer death. Wood smoke air pollution is one of the causes for the increase.

    When smoke levels go up so do deaths, expensive prescription drug use, emergency room visits. We all pay higher medical costs and insurance premiums because of wood smoke.

    80% of the air pollution in many areas isn’t industry or traffic. It is wood smoke from residential and recreational wood burning.

    Smoke stresses the immune system making it harder to prevent or recover from any disease; from a cold to Cancer.

    Burning two cords of wood produces the same amount of mutagenic particles as: Driving 13 gasoline powered cars 10,000 miles each at 20 miles/gallon or driving 2 diesel powered cars 10,000 miles each @ 30 miles/gallon. These figures indicate the worst contribution that an individual makes to the mutagenicity of the air is using a wood stove for heating.

    Free radicals from wood smoke are chemically active for twenty minutes; tobacco smoke radicals are chemically active for thirty seconds. Wood smoke attacks our body’s cells up to forty times longer then tobacco smoke.

    Wood smoke particles are tiny they seep into houses through closed doors, windows, light fixtures, under baseboards, wall plugs, any small crack. Furnace and exhaust fans pull smoke into homes. Furnace filters, weather-stripping, insulation doesn’t stop smoke. A recent study shows that wood smoke pollution indoors can reach up to 70 percent of the outside pollution level in homes which do not burn wood. Neighbors of wood burners breathe smoky air. Schools, hospitals, no public place can keep out wood smoke.

    Wood smoke chemicals and particulates can stay near the ground for up to three weeks and can travel up to 700 miles from the source. It can be in the air harming health even when the smell isn’t easily discernable.

    Tens of thousands are harmed and die yearly from breathing wood smoke. See BurningIssues org, for scientific medical research about the serious health consequences of breathing carbon soot, particulates and toxic chemicals in wood smoke.

  3. litemech

    I use left over cooking oils, fats. on a paper towel, or poured onto tinder.
    smells good, deals with garbage, starts fires without benzene flavor of charcoal lighter. works on wetter tinder too.

  4. Excellent post! I always get accused of being overly cautious when starting camp fires. I always have a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher close by just in case and in one instance I’m glad I did. An ember landed on some dry grass nearby and started a small fire. The bucket of water saved the day.

    Camp fires are also great for cooking. Have a look at this article on building a campfire for cooking:

  5. Carol Colbert

    I’ll have to remember the “I hate rabbits” trick. The smoke always follows me around. I just discovered s’mores 2 years ago by sitting around a fire ring in Death Valley NP with some volunteers. In fact, I plan on going full-time soon so I can sit around more fires, eat s’mores and meet some more of the world’s finest people.