Swapping stories (or drinks) over a camp fire can make a camping trip. Here's how to have one safely.
Whether you are an accomplished explorer or a weekend walker, camping and outdoor activities can be a great way to spend your leisure time. There’s nothing like sitting in a magical trance with family and friends, letting a dancing campfire entertain you whilst toasting one more marshmallow or the enticing smell of a summery BBQ.
However, experience aside, it is important to stay safe, especially if you are out in more rural areas.
Open campfires can provide essential warmth, light and cooking facilities as well as creating a focus point for outdoors fun. However, if not done correctly, fires can quickly become dangerous and can pose a risk to people and the environment.
When lighting a fire choose a clear area, away from trees and bushes, and ensure there are no overhanging branches. It may seem obvious but starting a fire close to greenery could result in a forest fire. Where possible, you should try and find somewhere with a natural windbreak. This will help keep the flames under control and as well as stop any unplanned objects blowing into the fire.
By using a fire ring, you can keep fires small and under control whilst containing the ash more easily. These are often provided in camping areas, however if not you can make one with stones.
Choose your fuel
For a fire to burn properly you need fuel, heat and air. Using recommended firewood (including tinder and kindling) will not only help with lighting but will also reduce the risks of creating an out of control fire. Start by building your fires small and then adding to it once it is well established.
Firewood can often be collected from the natural environment where you may be camping but it is important to respect any restrictions that are in place, particularly if you are camping in a National Park. If you are allowed to collect wood from the area you are in, ensure it is only ever fallen branches; never take wood from standing trees.
Read our beginners guide to fire starting a fire
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There’s nothing quite like the smoky aroma of cooking on an open flame. The distinctive smell from warmed marshmallows or a hearty burger can always get the mouth watering.
Eating alfresco is dining at its finest, and so it is important that steps should be taken in order to avoid any accidents:
- If you have a charcoal barbeque, make sure there is only enough charcoal to cover the base to a depth of about 50mm (2 inches).
- Use recognised and recommended fire lighters or starter fuel (and only with cold coals). You should never use alternatives, especially petrol or ethanol to start fires as this could put you and the area at risk.
- Remember to clear up your fire or BBQ after use, though don’t put hot ashes straight into a dustbin or wheelie bin – they could melt the plastic and cause a fire.
Accidents can happen quite easily outside, so make certain the barbecue cooker is stable, away from draughts and in an area where they will not get knocked over. Keep anything flammable (including long grass) away from the cooking area. Keeping water or sand handy to deal with a fire that gets out of control is a good idea.
It isn’t just the flames or the heat of fires that can pose a risk. Deaths from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning whilst camping are recorded each year, and often can be avoided. Stay safe and cook outside and keep cookers away from the tent/caravan entrance. This includes recently extinguished barbecues, which will still be releasing hazardous CO fumes whilst cooling down.
Read more about avoiding Carbon Monoxide poisoning on the Camping and Caravanning Club Website
Leave no trace
Unless you are having your fire in your own garden or using an established fire pit in a camp site, you need to leave the area as you left it. There are various ways to do this:
Use somewhere with minimal impact: having your fire below the high tide line or on rock minimises the impact and makes clearing up much easier
Repair the damage: one common technique is to careful remove a small piece of sod, and then replace it once finished to hide any scorch marks. Take away or scatter any ashes and unburnt wood, remove stone rings and leave the site as you found it
Don't damage local trees: only use dead wood - you may find you have to carry all your fuel to your camping spot. Never cut down or remove limbs from a live tree - green wood does not burn well anyway
Keep fires small: they are better for cooking and use less fuel anyway
It isn’t just stoves and cooking equipment that uses open flames, Kerosene (or Paraffin) lamps can also pose a risk if used unsafely. Remember that these flames can get hot so keep the lamps away from the tent and tent entrance and avoid any incidents.
If you are thinking of visiting a public space for a picnic (such as a national park or the beach) it is worth checking the fire regulations. Some parks, such as the New Forest National Park offer advice on open fires and BBQs through the Forestry Commission website. For other places you should always get the landowners permission.