IMG_7489The campfire is a preeminent symbol of camping; it is the focal point for interacting with family, sharing stories, preparing food, and just enjoying a peaceful evening. While campfires are wonderful gifts to enjoy, they are unforgiving of mistakes and can cause great harm if not respected. Thinking about fire safety should be at the heart of every camping experience. Remember, fire safety begins with you; that said, here are suggestions for having a safer campfire during your next camping trip.

Know the Purpose of Your Fire

The number one mistake new campers make is to not understand the purpose of their fire. Is the fire for cooking, enjoyment, warmth, light, or a combination of all of these? Knowing the purpose will help you answer some basics questions: What amount of wood is needed? How much money will the wood cost? What equipment is needed? What will be size of the fire? How how long the fire will be used?

Ask Additional Questions Before Striking a Match

Set yourself up for success by asking additional questions before you strike a match: Is the fire danger high or low? Is there extra wood to buy? What are the rules on using downed wood? Where will the wood be stored? Will people trip over the wood? Does the campground provide a place to dump ashes? Have any situations changed in regards to having a campfire? Always check at the Ranger’s Station about current weather/seasonal changes.

I’m not trying to dissuade you from having a fire, just as a first-time camper you need to understand that you have a responsibility to yourself, your family/friends, and others around you when you have a fire. Always ask questions.

Who Owns the Fire?

Families (even multiple families and groups) can have different people tending the fire. While communal fire care has advantages, it is easy for people to become distracted by other duties and think that someone else is managing the fire. The results can be catastrophic. It is true that a safe campfire is the responsibility of everyone in the campsite, but take it a step further, and ask: Who is THE person responsible for the fire? When making a campfire agree who is the individual (an adult) responsible for the care, feeding and safety of the fire. It is all right to switch off this responsibility, but someone should always have ownership over the fire.

Keep it Small

car-camping-tip-10aBig fires use a great deal of wood, burn hot, and burn fast. While there are occasions for large campfires they can be expensive to provision with wood and difficult to control. A smaller fire can still provide needed warmth and the enjoyment expected during a camping trip. Keep fires small to save money and keep those around you safe.

Don’t Bluff

Sometimes people, who cannot start a fire, try to bluff their way out of this fact. At best, they appear foolish by tossing a leg-sized log on a tiny flame; at worst they use excessive amounts of accelerants, which ignites a mushroom shaped fireball that could injure people. If you are new to making campfires that is OK; read up on the subject and ask the local camping store for suggestions about safe and simple fire-starters.

Keep Water Handy

Fires can spark and spit coals. Make sure you know where the water spigot is located in the campground. Also, keep water close (like a bucket filled with water) so sparks can be doused, or cool a painful burn.

The Last Match

Kids are fascinated by fire. As a parent, turn this fascination into actions that will help them grow and reduce the desire to “play” with fire. In my family, when I introduced a respect for fire to my daughter, we practiced a game called, The Last Match. My Father introduced it to me when I was a child, it goes like this: I was given one match to light a campfire. I had to make a fire with this one match or the entire family (pretending) would freeze to death. Dad always had ample matches in reserve and there was no danger of freezing, but the challenge remained. I spent time gathering materials, learning about fire starting techniques, and most of all I listened and spent time with my Father. Today, I play the last match game with my daughter. When we camp she is responsible for making sure the tender and kindling are prepared, the wood is properly stored, water has been acquired and the purpose of the fire is known. I own the fire, but she is responsible for all of the supplies and lighting it (with my direct supervision). If the fire does not ignite we study the situation, she reviews her work and makes changes where needed. Sometimes several attempts are required, but all the time the mistakes are turned into learning experiences. It is a fun activity because it positively directs her desire to play with fire and gives her knowledge for the day when she might really need to light a fire in an emergency situation.

Pay Safety Forward

A childhood friend of mine once burned her feet when she was camping. She was playing hide-and-seek and jumped into an unused fire pit. The area looked like normal ground, but underneath the surface was searing hot coals. Fortunately, her father had been trained in First Aid and was able to treat her until a hospital could take over her care. It was a painful ordeal for the young girl that lasted several months. The lesson is this – when you leave your fire confirm it is completely out and all coals are extinguished. Depending on the campground you may have to extinguish it with water, or empty the coals into specially designed cans that hold ashes. Inquire at the campground about their preferred method. When you leave a campsite, pay it forward; you are responsible for providing a safe campsite for the next family.

A campfire provides warmth, comfort and is a wonderful addition to any camping trip. But, fires are unforgiving of mistakes. Thinking about how to remain safe around fires is a responsibility of every camper.

Once safety has been addressed the true reason for having a campfire can reveal itself, spending time with others and sharing something that is so basic to being human – reflecting on life.

Note: Fire safety is of paramount importance. Read everything you can about fire safety. Talk to fire professionals, park rangers, and family members who have experiences with keeping fires. Every little bit of knowledge can help to keep you and your family safe.