The Common Camping Sins That Can Lead To A Wildfire


As summer approaches, we’re dusting off tents and planning escapes into the wilderness. Warm weather makes us crave those classic camping experiences: cooking on an open fire, warming our hands over the coals, roasting s’mores under a star-filled sky, and….okay, there’s a theme going on here. Many of the iconic images we have of camping involve a campfire. It makes perfect sense, of course. Building a fire can provide tons of fun while subliminally connecting us to our hunter-gatherer roots. But with recent wildfires claiming lives, structures, and entire swaths of forest across the country, lighting a fire in the woods isn’t something to be taken lightly.

Wildfires, in and of themselves, aren’t inherently negative. They’re a natural part of the ecosystem in certain regions (like southern California) and healthy for the vegetation there. Fire clears low-lying brush, adds nutrients to the soil, and causes some species of native plants to seed and flower. The key word is natural. That means without modern human intervention. According to the National Park Service, nearly 85 percent of wildland fires are caused by people. That’s 61,375 fires a year, as per the National Interagency Fire Center — a number which is likely to rise as more and more people crowd into highly fire-susceptible areas.

“We have 70 million people living in the state of California,” says Dr. Martha Witter, a fire ecologist for the National Park Service. “We have more people that are spread further through the landscape. The probability of having an ignition that could lead to a fire has increased with the increase of people.”

Since 1940, there’s been a 1000% increase in properties on land prone to wildfires. Put simply: the more of us there are living, driving, working, and recreating in wildfire risk zones, the more likely it is for an untended campfire, electrical spark, or small, controlled burn to grow out of control. So as much as we love exploring the country and highly recommend taking some time to disconnect from city life this summer, we also want to be sure everyone is doing so safely and responsibly.

If you plan on a camping trip, or perhaps living the #VanLife for a few months, these are the sins to avoid.

The Camping Sin: Driving onto areas with dry brush or weeds.

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The #VanLife is the kind of off-the-grid living we love (both to take part in and to scroll through on Instagram), but it’s a mistake to think that just because your house is mobile, you can park anywhere.

“A lot of fires start by roadside ignitions, so a hot catalytic converter,” Dr. Witter says. “People shouldn’t drive off the side of the road into dry vegetation with a hot car. Stay away from the vegetation.”

Make sure you’re parking in designated RV areas or campgrounds. If you’re on BLM land, be certain that you know the fire risk and safety regulations for the area. When in doubt, talk to a park ranger or contact the Bureau of Land Management about safe places to set up camp. BLM also has a website showing risk areas. Make sure your car has cooled down when parked, and always carry a fire extinguisher inside.

The Camping Sin: Towing your camper incorrectly

When towing that cute airstream or pop-up trailer, make sure you’ve been shown how to properly maintain and manage your rig. Chains that drag can set off sparks, which can then leap onto nearby vegetation. Always ensure you’re using the appropriate pins and hitch ball when towing. Additionally, driving on rims can cause sparks — so before any trip out into the wilderness, check your tire pressure.

Again, a fire extinguisher in your car is always the right call. Just in case.

The Camping Sin: Not fully extinguishing your campfire.

It’s basic camping safety, but important to note: you should never leave a fire unattended. Not ever. And while that may be more obvious when going out for a hike or leaving the area, you also want to make sure you have everything you’ll need for your evening before putting time into starting that lovely blaze. Need more wood? Forget the hot dogs in your car? You can’t expect your fire not to spit embers.

Always make sure a fire is completely, completely out before you pack up to leave or retire to your tent. First, douse with water, then use a shovel to stir, looking for any glowing embers and spreading out the ash. You can also mix dirt in slowly — though don’t just bury the embers, as they might reignite or blow away.

The Camping Sin: Not checking updates to see if the park allows campfires.

There’s a reason parks and BLM lands utilize experts and issue warnings. Make sure you know where fires and camp stoves are allowed, and any recent restrictions.

“The really large wildfires that have such huge impacts, really only start under extreme fire weather conditions,” Witter says. “That’s when you have low humidity, high temperatures, and really high winds. Those are the times when you want to be extremely careful to do nothing that could start a fire in natural vegetation.”

Use the people whose job it is to know if a fire is safe. Check before you leave and then follow any regulations. Also, make sure you know if the place you’re traveling requires a permit for a fire. In California, permits are issued for one year and can be gotten from CAL FIRE, the US Forest Service, or a BLM station. They’re free, so there is literally no excuse to not get one.

The Camping Sin: Minding your own business.

Are you camping and your neighbor has driven off, leaving a campfire with embers still glowing? Put them out. If you notice a vehicle creating sparks on the highway or a fire, contact the highway patrol, fire department, or 911. Saying something to someone who is using a campfire or stove irresponsibly (or contacting the park ranger or service if they seem unresponsive to you) may feel awkward, but we all have the responsibility to be stewards of the land.

By doing so, you’re sure to have a happy, fun-filled, fire-free camping season. Now get out there!