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9 Campfire Rules You Should Never Break

9 Campfire Rules You Should Never Break

If you’ve ever been camping as a child, you may know a few campfire rules. As a kid, it may have seemed like you couldn’t have any fun around a campfire. I bet you can even hear the admonishing voices, “Put the stick down. No, the fire doesn’t need any more wood. Keep the fire in the fire.”

While those rules are still great ones to follow, as an adult, you are now in charge of fire safety while camping. There are a few more rules than keeping the fire in the fire. We have nine campfire rules that you should never break. Let’s get started!

Campfires Have Rules For a Reason

Many of us may have burnt our fingers on an open flame at a young age. We all know that fire can be dangerous. But when you follow the rules, campfires can also be entertaining. 

Campfire rules are in place for many reasons. The number one reason is safety. These rules keep us, wildlife, and the environment free from harm that an out-of-control campfire could cause.

Rules aren’t there to make us miserable. Some are guidelines. Others are laws. But all are meant to make fire an enjoyable experience, not a frightful one.

9 Campfire Rules You Should Always Follow

You should follow these nine campfire rules every time you have a campfire. From following legalities set by a governing body, practicing Leave No Trace principles, to proper campground etiquette, these are all meant to keep the fun going, not to stifle it. 

1. Follow Any Administrative Fire Regulations

Playing ignorant has no place in a forest when it comes to campfires. Just because you had no idea there was a fire ban does not give you an excuse to have a campfire. It is your responsibility to know the administrative fire regulations for your area.

If you don’t know, don’t guess. When in doubt, leave it out.

Most campgrounds or dispersed sites will have fire information posted at the entrance to the site. If not, you still need to know if you can have a fire before starting one. If there are no posted signs, you can call or look online for the local Forest Service, local law enforcement, park rangers, or news reports.

You will need to know the name of the county, forest, or park to get local regulations and then you need to follow them.

Airstream parked next to campfire.
Practicing fire safety is crucial when building a campfire.

2. Leave No Trace

There are seven Leave No Trace Principles (LNT), which are guidelines that focus on minimal environmental impact when camping and recreating. One of those seven principles focuses on campfire impacts.

When having a campfire, you need to do so responsibly. The first step in being responsible is asking whether you should have a fire or not. 

To determine this, you need to know the local fire regulations. Even if a campfire is allowed, this doesn’t mean that you should automatically have one.

LNT means less impact. If your camping area is degraded from overuse, you should reconsider your campfire plans. If you can responsibly gather wood without making much of a dent in the available wood, then do so.

You should not notice your LNT fire after it is out. While this is not always possible, doing your best to minimize campfire impacts will keep the land healthier and happier longer.

You can reduce your campfire impact by using water to extinguish the fire, building a fire in a preexisting fire ring when available (more on this next), and using local wood that doesn’t disturb the surrounding area. 

3. Use Existing Fire Rings

Many of us love to go camping in the middle of nowhere, but there are still campfire rules to follow. One of those rules is to use an existing fire ring. While it is pretty easy to move a few rocks around to create a new fire ring, we do not recommend it. Rocks are often shelters for native insects or small wildlife, and campfires damage the ground. 

As much as you may not like bugs, lizards, or rodents, they are a necessary part of a healthy environment, and the less we disturb them, the better. The less land we damage, the more likely we can continue camping in the middle of nowhere.

Pro Tip: Need help getting a fire going? Check out these 5 Best Techniques To Start A Fire Like An Expert.

Cait from Mortons on the Move sitting next to a campfire.
Only use local wood when building your own campfire.

4. Only Use Local Wood

We’ve probably all done it. We’ve either gathered wood from a local forest or bought some at the local market and then put it away for future use down the road. While this is convenient and can be a money-saver, using wood in one region brought from another can do a great deal of damage to the environment.

Insects and plant diseases can travel on wood, spreading unwanted diseases and introducing non-native species into forested lands. If you don’t burn all the wood you have for that campsite, leave it for the next guest or spread it out naturally throughout the forest.

Don’t worry. There will be more wood down the road. 

5. Don’t Gather Wood From Public Campsites

A common courtesy campfire rule is not to gather wood from nearby campsites. Not only does this take away natural habitats, but it also takes away from natural beauty. Plus, most campgrounds do not allow you to gather wood in the first place. 

If allowed, do so farther away from campsites and in places with plenty of downed wood to collect. It will help not to disturb possible animal and insect habitats while collecting wood.

Pro Tip: Enjoy a campfire no matter where you camp with these 7 Best Portable Fire Pits to Build a Safe Campfire Anywhere.

6. Don’t Burn Trash in Your Campfire

A common myth about campfires is that it is a great place to dispose of trash to save space. Please don’t do it. Trash doesn’t simply dissipate into nothing when it’s burned. 

If you think back to your school days, you might remember the Law of Conservation of Mass. You cannot create or destroy matter. It simply changes form. Burning trash creates a gas that becomes a part of the air we breathe. Dispose of your trash properly in a waste bin, not a campfire.

The only exception may be plastic-free and chemical-free paper products. And maybe the occasional marshmallow from your s’mores-making.

Campfire burning at campsite.
After roasting s’mores over the fire, make sure your fire is properly extinguished.

7. Extinguish Your Campfire Properly and Completely

It doesn’t matter if you’re camping in a humid rainforest or a desert. One of the essential campfire rules is to put your campfire out. 

Burn the coals down to white ash. Spread out the coals. Cover the coals with water, not dirt. Make a soup-like mixture, and ensure no hot coals are left over.

You will have to start from scratch on the campfire the following day, but that is exactly the point. It would be best if you put any campfire dead out, so there are no chances of anything springing up in the middle of the night.

8.  Never Leave a Fire Unattended

If you want to keep your fire warm all night, keep it attended all night. A campfire can be like a small child. It will do what you need when you’re watching it. But it doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to when you leave it unsupervised.  

If you attend a campfire, a tiny spark can be caught and extinguished. If unattended, that little spark could light up an entire forest. Nobody wants a wildfire listed on their resume.

Campfire in front of tent
Make sure to never leave your fire unattended!

9. Check the Local Fire Danger Levels

Smokey the Bear isn’t just a decorative figure on signs alongside the highway. He’s an iconic figure with an important message. Whether it’s Smokey the Bear holding up a sign indicating the fire danger levels or just a sign with no illustration, take notice. If the fire level is high, fire restrictions are often in place.

On the other hand, just because Smokey says the fire danger is low, this does not permit you to have a campfire anywhere. That is ultimately up to local governmental agencies, and it is your responsibility to check with them on fire restrictions or bans.

If fire danger is high and there are no bans or restrictions, it may not be a good idea to have a campfire. If you choose to do so, you will need to be extra attentive to the surrounding area and be prepared to put the fire out immediately if conditions warrant it.

Friends gathered around a campfire
Always assess the level of fire danger before creating a campfire.

Have Safe, Wood-Free Campfires With Propane Fire Pits

While we all love campfires when camping, sometimes the campfire rules can be pretty overwhelming. Other times, you can’t have a campfire because of local fire restrictions and fire bans. What do you do when campfires are one of the reasons we love to go camping?

One option is to get a wood-free campfire with propane fire pits. There are cons to these, as they can take up space and be pretty cumbersome. But the pros definitely outweigh the cons. 

First, there’s no need to purchase or gather wood. Secondly, you don’t have to fret over trying to start a campfire. And third, when you turn it off, it’s off.

The most significant advantage of having a propane fire pit with you is that even during fire restrictions or a fire ban, propane stoves and fire pits are often allowed. You have control over the flame, and you can shut it off in a second. No sparks, no unexpected flame activity.

If you’re worried about trying to follow all the campfire rules, or wondering if you can even have a campfire, have a propane fire instead. 

Pro Tip: Still unsure if a propane fire pit is right for you? Check out these 5 Reasons Portable Propane Fire Pits Are Better Than Wood Campfires.

Smokey's Lessons on Fire Safety

Enjoy Your Campfire Safely

If we do our best to follow the rules, we can continue to enjoy our campfires, which can be the best thing about camping. If we disregard the rules, we may feel like a kid again, and not in a good way. We’ll be the kid who gets sent to their tent without any marshmallows because someone told them to put the stick down too often.

Since we’re not kids anymore, not following campfire rules can result in hefty fines and quite possibly wildfires. If we all follow campfire rules, we can safely enjoy the beauty of a campfire while eating all the marshmallows we want. We are adults, after all!

Do you have any other personal campfire rules? Drop a comment below!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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Skip Clements

Tuesday 8th of March 2022

It's not Smokey the Bear It"s "Smokey Bear" White man build big fire, keep warm chopping wood. Indian build small fire, sit close keep warm. Sparks from a fire can put holes in tents, awnings, chairs, etc. build a small manegable fire a safe distance from these. This also applies to clothing, tiny micro holes from very small sparks can make that rain coat no longer waterproof.

Susan J

Tuesday 8th of March 2022

Thanks for this good article Tom & Kait! As a former campground host at Missouri State Parks, one of my biggest troubles was having to dig nails out of fire pits. Campers would bring in old wooden pallets for firewood that, when burned thoroughly, left only lots and lots of nails for me to remove. Along with plastic bottles and aluminum cans, fire pits were my biggest trouble! Thanks for your articles!

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 6th of April 2022

That sounds frustrating—removing all those nails! We're glad you enjoyed the article, though. :)