One of my favorite things about summer camping trips is the smell of a campfire. Campfires are essential to staying warm and cooking food during a camping trip. But are campfires legal?
Campfires are legal, but some areas may have restrictions on where a person can have a campfire. Most campsites will allow campfires as long as they are in a designated area and are completely put out after their intended use. Check with local authorities on where campfires are permitted.
The following is going to be a complete guide on where you can burn campfires, where you cannot burn campfires, campfire safety, the dangers of a wildfire, and ways you can enjoy a campfire.
Places to Burn a Campfire
Campfires are common, and people use them for various things, but they are mostly used when camping. There is nothing better than the smell of the wood burning, the sound of the embers crackling, and the wonderful ambient heat the campfire puts off. While campfires provide the perfect camping tool, you cannot burn a campfire just anywhere. Depending on what area you are in, there may be restrictions on where you can and cannot have a campfire. Every place is going to be different and have its own restrictions regarding campfires.
Typically, if you go camping at a designated campsite, they will have prebuilt campfire pit areas for you, and all you will have to do is provide the wood and the firestarter. The campfire pit areas are specifically placed where there could be little fire danger. Nonetheless, that does not mean there is no fire danger.
If you are planning to camp somewhere that is not a dedicated campsite, then you’ll want to understand how the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) permits these things. Overall, campfires are not prohibited on public lands, and anything that is seen as public land can be used for your own intended purpose. With that being said, you’ll want to make sure the land you are on is actually public land. The Bureau of Land Management does have lands that are managed by its field offices, and each field office is allowed to make its own campfire restriction rules. If you find yourself on one of the lands that the BLM field offices manage, check with the local field offices about current fire restrictions.
Some field managements may even require you to get a campfire permit. These permits tend to be inexpensive or even free. Talk with the local field management to see if you will need a campfire permit.
Places NOT to Burn a Campfire
As long as you are not on private property, you can burn a campfire almost anywhere and it is completely legal. Although, there are restrictions at certain times during the season.
One of the main things you need to know is the restrictions on campfires under the three stages. The three stages are as follows:
- Stage 1: Campfires are not prohibited but they are restricted to only Forest Service designated areas.
- Stage 2: Campfires are prohibited in areas that pose a fire risk and have restrictions in place.
- Stage 3: Full closure of all campfires in National Parks and all campfires are prohibited everywhere in the area.
Remember, never burn a campfire near any structures or things that are easily flammable. Basically, just be smart and listen to local authorities that put fire restrictions in place. If you are camping on land that is very dry and has a lot of dry brush, do NOT light a campfire, even if there are no local restrictions.
When you think of a campfire, you may think of a small fire that everyone gathers around to roast s’mores on, or you may think of a 15ft bonfire that everyone parties around. There is a very broad spectrum of what people consider to be a campfire. This is why almost all areas have their own campfire height limit.
If you are in a forest and light a fire that is 15ft to 20ft tall, it can easily get out of control very quickly and light an entire forest on fire. So, for these areas, there is going to be a height restriction for your campfire. These height restrictions can vary depending on where you are planning to build your campfire. Check with local authorities or the field offices to find out what restrictions they have regarding campfire height.
If you are on public lands that are not owned by the BLM field offices, then here is the best rule to follow: a campfire should distance at least 5x its height from the nearest structure. This means that if your campfire is 3ft tall, it should be at least 15ft away from the nearest building, tree, tent, etc.
General campfire safety is something you should always be doing. Campfire safety includes:
- Never leaving a campfire unattended
- Putting out the campfire before leaving
- Never using any sort of flammable fluid to start or stoke a campfire
- Build all campfires away from anything flammable
- Only burn dry materials (damp wood can cause more smoke)
- Never throw alcohol cans or bottles into the fire
- Never burn any plastic as they can let off toxic gasses
- Always keep water nearby in case flames get out of control
- Watch children and pets closely around a campfire
- Do not try to pull anything out of the fire while it is burning
- Store extra wood away from the campfire
The best way to put out a campfire is using water; just douse the entire fire in water until flames go out and embers cool down. If you do not have access to water, you can use dirt, but do NOT just kick dirt into the fire—spread out the coals and continually stir dirt up around the coals until they are completely extinguished.
If anyone happens to burn themselves on the campfire, depending on how bad it is, you can either treat it with a first aid kit and cool water (not cold), or if the burns are severe enough, call 911 immediately.
If a campfire gets out of control, do your best to throw water over the flames, and if the fire doesn’t begin to diminish after a few seconds, call 911 immediately.
For more safety tips, watch this video done by the USDA Forest Service:
The Dangers of a Wildfire
Wildfires happen every single year in the United States and can be devastating to both land and people. According to the Wildfire Statistics from the Congressional Research Service, 89% of wildfires are caused by humans. That is a significant amount of wildfires that could have been prevented. The most common ways humans start wildfires include unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, fireworks, sparks from firearms, heated vehicles rolling over brush, and arson.
When it comes to preventing a wildfire and understanding fire safety, you must be diligent about putting out your campfire and not leaving it unattended. Carelessness is what puts others in danger and causes wildfires. If there is any dry brush or trees around you, do NOT light a campfire. All it takes is one ember flying into the brush to ignite an entire forest and burn acres worth of land.
Wildfires spread fast! Wildfires can consume hundreds of acres within hours, even if firefighting crews are already on the spot trying to stop the flames. Another contributor in wildfires is wind; the wind can make a wildfire quickly change directions, and in some cases this can wreak havoc on communities that are near the wildfire.
Smokey Bear is a cartoon that was created to teach people about the dangers of wildfires. Smokey Bear always says, “Only you can prevent wildfires,” which a good portion of the time is true. As campers we have to make sure we are being courteous of our safety as well as others safety when it comes to lighting a campfire. It takes only seconds to cause a wildfire and immense devastation.
So, make sure to follow any and all restrictions put in place, as well as all campfire safety guidelines to ensure you are protecting yourself, those around you, and the environment. For more information on campfire safety and the dangers of wildfires, go to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service website.
10 Ways to Enjoy a Campfire
Now that we have talked about everything you need to know when it comes to campfires being legal and the dangers of wildfires, I want to mention some ways you can enjoy a campfire. After all, the whole reason you’re lighting a campfire is to put it to good use!
Here are 10 ways you can enjoy a campfire:
- Roast marshmallows and make s’mores: This one may be obvious, but its a classic and had to be number one! I don’t think I’ve ever sat around a campfire without roasting marshmallows. This is something that everyone loves and is a long campfire tradition. There is something so wonderful about that gooey marshmallow smooshed between two graham cracks with melty chocolate.
- Cooking hot dogs or mountain pies: This is another one that is a campfire tradition. Hot dogs are easy to roast on a fire and are something that most everyone loves. If you haven’t heard of mountain pies, you’re missing out! Mountain pies, also known as iron pies or pudgie pies, can be made sweet or savory. All you’ll need is a sandwich iron, bread, and preferred fillings. All you do is put a piece of bread in the iron, put your favorite fillings on the bread, cover with another piece of bread, place over the campfire, and it’ll make a nice mountain pie.
- Roast starbursts and sour gummy worms: I know, it sounds crazy, but don’t bash it until you try it! If you’re wanting to be a little adventurous with your campfire snacks, try some roasted starbursts or sour gummy worms!
- Campfire sing-a-long: A guitar is an essential for me when camping because there is nothing better than singing campfire songs around a campfire. This is a great way to show some musical improv skills and just pass the time as the night goes on.
- Storytelling: I love a good folklore story and camping is the best time to tell these stories. Something about being out in the wilderness with nothing but a tent to protect you and telling scary folklore stories is very entertaining. This is an age old campfire activity that many people love.
- Magic fire: This is a great activity if you have little ones. Buy some fire colorant and throw little handfuls on the flames and watch the kids faces light up as the flames dance around while turning green, pink, blue, purple and so on.
- Campfire games: There are so many games you can play around the campfire that can bring so much laughter. One of my favorites is chubby bunny, where you stuff marshmallows in your mouth until you can’t hold anymore. Another one that is fun to play is murder in the dark, where one person is the murderer and all others are villagers. The murderer tries to kill each villager one by one by discretely winking at the person when eye contact is made until they are caught by another villager or they win by killing everyone.
- Roasting strawberries dipped in marshmallow cream: This takes marshallows to the next level! All you have to do is take some strawberries and roll them around in marshmallow cream. Then, skewer the strawberries and hold them over the fire. When the marshmallow cream turns a light brown, they are ready to eat! You can take this delicous treat one step further by then dipping the roasted strawberry in nutella. So yummy!
- Dancing: Something I always liked doing as a kid was dancing around a campfire and watching my shadows dance with me. This can be super fun and give everyone a good smile. Just be sure not to get too close to the flames.
- Have a good conversation: When I go camping it’s typically with people I either see all the time or people I never see. It’s fun to just have conversations and catch up with those that I don’t often get to see. Talking is a great way to open up about life and build relationships with those around you.
Life is Better Around a Campfire
Campfires can be great tools for camping and can be an enjoyment when you know how to have fun around them. Campfires are completely legal all across the United States and can be essential to your camping trip. Remember to check if there are any fire restrictions in place before lighting a campfire. Be smart, be safe, and follow all campfire safety guidelines when around a campfire. As I always like to say, life is better around a campfire.
If you have any questions regarding campfire safety or campfire restrictions, go to one of these four websites or contact local authorities: