One of the great camping traditions is building your own campfire. A blazing fire can help keep you warm on a chilly night or be used to cook and roast marshmallows. For those camping in the backcountry or during the winter, a campfire can be necessary to stay warm or even survive.
But for the casual camper who wants to build a campfire in the fire pit at their campsite, there are a few things to think about. Campfires can be dangerous so you should always proceed with caution no matter where you’re building a fire.
We’ll examine all the dangers you need to be aware of and address how to mitigate the risks so you can enjoy a campfire without any worries. So let’s look at why campfires are dangerous and some of the pros and cons of having an active fire.
The Dangers of Campfires
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One of the primary dangers when it comes to having a campfire is the risk of starting a forest fire. When the weather is particularly dry and windy, sparks or ashes from a fire can blow outside the fire ring and ignite other materials to start another fire.
The majority of forest fires in the United States are started by humans as opposed to lightning or other natural causes. One of the most common ways a forest fire starts is when campers leave their fires unattended or do not properly extinguish them.
To avoid a forest fire and make your campfire safer, always build it in an open location. If the campground site has a fire ring, build the fire inside the boundaries of the metal container.
Always make sure there isn’t any debris around the fire such as leaves, grass, needles, logs, or brush that could catch on fire. It is often recommended to have at least a 10-foot radius around the fire that is open and free of obstructions.
Keep water nearby and always have at least one adult nearby to attend to the fire. To extinguish the fire, drown it with water and then stir the fire with a shovel to wet the ashes and remaining coals. You can also put dirt on top of the place where the fire was burning to smother it completely.
Before starting a campfire, check the weather forecast to make sure it won’t be windy. You should also check what the fire restrictions are because some places may have a ban on all campfires during the dry season.
Many people don’t realize that campfires can have a negative impact on the environment. The wood that burns can produce pollution in the form of microscopic particles of wood that does not completely burn.
Smoke which contains these particles can produce a haze that is visible to the naked eye in areas like national parks where there is an abundance of camping and campfires. In some states, the smoke from burning wood can contribute to upwards of half of the fine-particle pollution.
Also, some wood smoke contains chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, acrolein, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These toxins can leach into the water when ash settles onto the ground or rain washes away the remains of a fire. Some believe this could alter the pH of the watershed and affect fish or other animals living nearby.
Another environmental risk is litter left behind after a fire has been extinguished. Many campers leave burnt wood, ashes, and rocks in their fire rings when they leave the campsite. They may also put their trash into the fire as a way of disposing of it.
However, if a piece of trash does not completely burn, it can become litter. It’s not unusual for campgrounds to be cluttered with the remains of foil, plastic, and various bottles. These items could also be a hazard for wild animals who may try to eat them and cause them to get sick or injured.
While most campgrounds allow you to collect dead or fallen wood and sticks for campfires, using these resources could take a toll on the environment. Even dead logs or branches could be used by animals as their home and play an important part in the ecosystem where you are camping.
Health Risks & Injuries
Most people can still enjoy a fire without experiencing any detrimental effects on their health as long as they sit at a safe distance and don’t breathe in any smoke. However, those with asthma or other respiratory diseases could have a very negative experience.
Particles in the air could also get into the eyes or aggravate the lungs or cause bronchitis. Some fires may even produce carbon monoxide which can be harmful when it is breathed in.
Anyone near a fire needs to refrain from inhaling smoke. To prevent excessive smoke, use wood that is dry, untreated, and well-seasoned. Build your fire on a day that doesn’t have a lot of variable wind so the smoke won’t blow toward you or your tent.
Keep your fire on the small side and use logs or sticks that aren’t too big. This will mean your fire will burn hot enough to keep your warm but will not produce a lot of smoke.
Never use gasoline, lighter fluid, or other accelerants on the fire. Not only could this cause the fire to blaze out of control, but toxins could be released into the air that makes it harder to breathe.
Smoke is certainly a risk factor when it comes to campfires, but so is the extreme heat. Sitting too close to the fire could cause your body temperature to rise and become uncomfortable or even problematic if you suffer from certain health conditions.
The heat of the air can cause difficulty breathing or even damage the lungs and respiratory tract. Inhaling air that is at a much higher temperature can lead to discomfort or worse. If you start to feel strong heat on your face, hands, or legs, then move back from the fire.
Protecting your lungs from campfire heat and smoke is important but it may not be the most common campfire-related injury. One of the biggest dangers is getting burnt from the flames, hot coals, or sparks coming off the fire.
People of all ages should exercise caution around a fire. Children, in particular, should be taught to be wary of fire and not to run or play near the fire pit. Don’t leave obstacles near the fire that could cause someone to trip, especially in the dark.
When cooking, never put glass directly into the campfire because it could melt or shatter, causing the debris to cut people sitting nearby. The same goes for unopened aluminum cans or tins of food that could explode and injure people or pets.
Lastly, it’s important to protect any pets that are camping with you. Don’t let your pet sit too close to the fire because they could overheat.
Campfires can pose a risk to your camping gear if they are not managed properly. Tents are especially vulnerable because they are often located close to the campfire.
If a fire is built too close to the tent, sparks could damage the tent, burning a hole in the material or even causing the tent to catch fire. The intense heat from a particularly hot fire could also heat the air near the tent, causing the tent to melt.
That is why it’s important to keep your tent far from the campfire. If you want the heat of the fire to help warm the tent, hang a tarp a safe distance from the fire to act as a windbreaker so the warm air is directed toward the tent.
Always make sure to ventilate the tent as well so any smoke does not get trapped inside. This could be dangerous to breathe while sleeping and cause you to suffocate or experience smoke inhalation.
Other gear that could be damaged includes folding camping chairs. Most campers like to sit around the fire in the evening to relax and warm up before bed. If the chair you are using is made from plastic, there is a potential it could melt. Chairs with metal components could overheat and cause burns.
Another piece of camping gear that could be damaged is a cooler. Most coolers are made from plastic and could melt or get warped if placed too close to the fire. If the cooler overheats, there is also a risk that the food inside could spoil.
Campfires undoubtedly pose many risks, both to the environment through pollution and forest fires, but also to human health. It’s important to follow all the guidelines on how to safely build a campfire as well as extinguish it.
Always pay attention to the weather and only build a fire if it’s safe to do so. Never build a fire when there is a fire ban in the place you are camping. As long as you take precautions and are mindful to never leave the fire unattended, you can safely enjoy a fire while camping.