You packed your car up and drove out into the wilderness. You arrive at your campsite only to find signs everywhere informing you the site is under a burn ban. Will you be able to have a campfire after all?
A burn ban limits the use of open flames like campfires in a particular area. These bans are set by government agencies for a variety of reasons including weather conditions and air quality. These bans can vary, some prohibiting all fires while others make exceptions for firepits or gas stoves.
While it might seem overwhelming to you to keep track of all of the different rules, once you understand what to look for it becomes quite simple. Here are some things that you need to know about campfires in a burn ban.
What is a Burn Ban?
The first thing that we should discuss is what a burn ban is. A burn ban is a temporary restriction on open flames within a set area. If you live in a city you may not have heard the term before. Cities can issue a burn ban, but it can usually only restrict things within the city boundaries.
Most of the time, a burn ban will come from a county or state government office. These bans can last anywhere from a couple of days to several months long. During a burn ban, you can be fined if you violate the restrictions and you may be liable for any damage caused by your fire. Always try and follow any restrictions set by your local government.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what a burn ban is, how do you know when an area is under a burn ban? If you watch the news or listen to the radio they will announce burn bans as they are issued and periodically throughout the ban. Fire departments and official government accounts on social media will often post reminders about current or upcoming burn bans and may even have tips on how to best comply with the ban.
If you are near the area you are planning on camping in, you are more likely to hear information about bans. If you are planning to travel further to camp, you may need to look a little harder for information on any bans that are in place.
If you search online for burn bans, including the area you plan on camping, you will likely be able to find a ton of information that can answer your questions. Generally, the agency that issues the burn ban will have a website where they list more information about the ban. The agency may vary by state.
For example, in Iowa, the State Fire Marshal issues the bans and lists them on a map here. The map lists active bans as well as recently expired bans so you can see which areas have been under bans in the past. Indiana on the other hand does its bans through its Department of Homeland Security.
Texas’s fire bans are issued by county courts and can be found on the State Forest Service website. You should be able to find information on the location you are planning on camping in before you leave. Statewide information is good, but if you can find information on the specific county that is typically the most accurate. Remember that information for the campsite, not where you are from, is what you are looking for.
A common misconception that people have is that burn bans are only issued when it gets hot during the summer. While this may be one type of burn ban, it is far from the only one. This type of burn ban is typically called something like a fire safety ban. Bans like these occur most often in the summer but can happen in spring and autumn as well.
Fire bans are put in place when the weather raises the risk that a wildfire could form. This is generally during hot or windy weather. Hot weather dries out vegetation and causes small bodies of water to shrink. Windy weather allows embers and flames to spread quickly and lead to large wildfires forming overnight.
The other main type of burn ban is an air quality ban. These bans are put in place to try and reduce air pollution. Wood smoke from campfires can contribute as much air pollution as several cars. These bans are common during the winter where I live because of the mountains near the city. The dirty air from smoke and car exhaust is trapped by the mountains and can’t escape. These bans will occur in cities more often and can be issued year-round.
What Campfires Can You have During a Burn Ban?
Now that we better understand what a burn ban is we can begin to explore what types of campfires you can have during a burn ban. The simple answer is that you can’t light a campfire during a burn ban. A burn ban is put in place generally for two reasons. There is either a high risk of elements of a fire spreading to vegetation and becoming a wildfire or there is a high amount of air pollution in the air, and smoke from campfires will add to it and make the air unsafe to breathe.
However, there are generally exceptions that can be found in these burn bans. For example, almost all air quality burn bans make an exception for homes where a wood-burning fire is the only source of heat. A fire safety ban may prohibit you from going off into an empty field and starting a campfire but may not have any rules about having a campfire in the backyard of your home (the flames generally need to be kept under a certain height.)
Other times, you may be prohibited from having an open flame, even on your own property. Check your specific ban for any exceptions it may have.
Also, keep in mind that burn bans can change extremely quickly. There can be an area that allows campfires one day and restricts them the next, or vice versa. Some counties may have a burn ban but will allow campfires in firepits on established campsites, while others don’t allow campfires anywhere in the county.
A situation like this was described by one camper on the forum thedyrt.com. They said that when they arrived at their campsite, “to my surprise when we got there they said the fire ban was lifted about a week and a half before we got there. Had beautiful campfires all week long and on the last night the fire ban was set back in place.”
These bans can change quickly, and if you are looking now and seeing that your campsite has a restriction in place, it may change in your favor. On the other hand, it may remain in place and you may be looking at alternatives to a campfire like a propane stove.
Cooking with a Stove
If you do not have access to a campfire but still want to cook a meal you may want to look at using a propane stove. This stove is a portable cooking area that will allow you to have a warm meal even without a campfire. Though it does burn compressed gas to create a small flame, it typically won’t be covered under a burn ban.
The flame is small, won’t produce embers, and the gas most likely has an emergency shut-off switch if anything goes wrong. Even with a shut-off switch in use, never leave an open flame unattended without an adult present. Shut the gas off it you need to step away and make sure the stove is cold before leaving it unattended for a long period of time.
You can cook basically the same food with a propane stove as you can with a campfire. If you want to grill hot dogs or roast marshmallows go ahead. It is safe to use a gas flame, the same gas as in most grills, to grill the food, as long as you use a roasting stick. If you have a lot of people the flame may become crowded so take turns or set up a wire rack over the flame to roast your hot dogs.
Tinfoil dinners are another great option to cook over a stove. To make these you will need tin foil, a little over a foot per person. These can be prepared beforehand and brought with you, or prepared right before you grill them. For these meals, you’ll want to have a mix of vegetables, starches, and some sort of meat. The great thing about these meals is you can easily mix and match food items to meet everyone’s preferences. Each meal should contain a little bit of fat like butter or oil to keep the contents moist as they grill.
If you are worried about the meat cooking all the way through there are a couple of steps you could take. You could use pre-cooked meat like a cooked sausage or cook the meat beforehand and warm it up as you cook the rest of the tinfoil dinner. Once you have your meal picked you’ll want to fold the edges of the tin foil in to create a packet.
Once you have this packet place it over a wire rack and cook for around 10 minutes before flipping it and cooking for the same amount of time. Check the contents and whether they are could after 20 minutes. You can always add more cooking time, but you take away time if your food becomes burned or overcooked.
Here are some other options that you could cook using a propane stove:
- Dutch Oven Pizza
- Dutch Over Cobler
- Grilled Sandwiches
- Grilled Fish
While a propane stove can be convenient, be sure to check if it is allowed under your burn ban. The propane gas containers are difficult to dispose of. Because they contain a flammable pressurized gas, they must be treated as hazardous waste and cannot be thrown away like normal trash. Small propane canisters are not refillable and can stack up quickly in your garage. However, as long as you prepare, a propane stove is a completely viable alternative to a traditional campfire.
Cooking Without a Stove
You may not have the option of using a propane stove while camping. It may be banned or the campsite you are looking at is a cold campsite, one where no heat sources are allowed. Or you may have to hike into your campsite and are unable to carry the additional weight of the stove and gas canister. Whatever the reason, you can still cook while you don’t have a stove or campfire and have a delicious meal.
Fruit is a delicious treat that doesn’t need to be cooked. If you have a large group you could share a watermelon, while if it is just a handful of people apples, oranges, or bananas are great options.
Snacks like chips, jerky, and candy also don’t need to be cooked. On the other hand, you could prepare a meal at home and bring it along with you. Burritos, wraps, potato salad, brownies, and salad can all be prepared at home and served when you arrive at your campsite.
Other options include:
- Deli Sandwiches
- Cold Cereal
- Hard-Boiled Eggs
- Variety Wraps (Vegetable or Meat)
All of these things can either be brought with you or prepared and served at your campsite. Remember that while camping you should plan to carry out any equipment or trash you brought along with you. If you aren’t planning on having a campfire you should make plans for other sources of heat and light. Portable electric lanterns are a good alternative to the light of a campfire.
While camping, you should always follow the direction of the campsite owner and/or any rangers. They have experience handling burn bans and will direct you in a way that will keep you and others safe.