Fire Safety in the Backcountry

Fire Safety in the Backcountry

By Tyler Marshall, founder of Mountain Goat Trail Series


There’s no cold like lying on the ground at elevation, with just a little less
gear than you need. I was wearing a Patagonia puffy, my 5” running shorts, and had a small blanket over me. Under me: a small blow-up pad. My teeth hammered out a steady beat. Wind rushed through the leaves of the surrounding Quaking Aspens. I made a cocoon out of my blanket, sealing myself inside to maximize the use of my own body heat.

Nothing helped.

The cold kept me awake and alert all night. Finally, unable to take it, I called to my friend J, who brought the fire starting gear.

“You up?!”

“Yeah,” moaned J.

We got up slowly and robotically, the stiff cold slowing our limbs.

We built a wooden altar.

J did the honors, lighting the inside of the structure. I sighed with immediate relief as the heat set in and quickly thawed my freezing body.

Using the light of the fire, I slowly looked around at the beautiful nook we called home that night. We were in a small flat area between a false summit and a peak. The greens were popping, the trees robust and healthy looking. As much as we needed fire that night, I realized the sad reality: our actions could pose a danger to this sacred place. We had a responsibility to protect it from our lifeline fire.

Practicing Fire Safety in the Backcountry

According to the US Forest Service, nearly 85% of wildland fires in the United States are caused by human activity. With the hotter temperatures and drier conditions we're experiencing across the West, these fires can quickly turn devastating, destroying millions of acres and putting lives and property at risk.

How do you safely manage campfires in the backcountry? There are five essentials for campfire safety. If practiced every single time, these will help you do your part to prevent wildfires.

1. Know Before You Go!

Forest Service officials in every state and region are trained to understand the current fire risks based on weather, water, and other local conditions. If an area is unsafe for fire, they may put in place local fire restrictions.

Become familiar with these local fire restrictions. They are easy to find. For example, Utah has a dedicated website outlining current restrictions.

2. Evaluate Your Surroundings

Before building a fire, take a moment to look around. Sparks can fly far. What’s around your site that could be a potential problem? This could include dried grass, shrubs, overhanging branches, or stacks of food. Even your tent or other flammables could create a problem.

Choose an open, level location at least 15 feet from hazards. 

3. Reduce Your Impact

If you're camping in a well-traveled area, check to see if a fire pit has already been created by previous visitors, and use that if available and in a safe location. If this isn’t available, consider keeping the fire as small as possible.

Remember to follow Leave No Trace principles. What will the impact area look like after you’re gone?

Minimizing the size of the fire will reduce its potential impact on the spot, as well as protect the larger surrounding area.

4. Plan Ahead

Planning for a worse case scenario can ensure safety. Before starting a fire, make sure you have water or other extinguishing supplies within quick reach. In addition, it’s essential to keep active watch on the fire. From the moment it's lit until it's completely extinguished, have a plan that ensures at least one person is actively monitoring the fire, ready to step in if any problems arrive.

5. Complete Quench

Once a fire is out, the coals will remain hot for a long time. It is vital to completely
extinguish not only the fire, but the coals as well. Don’t leave the fire unattended until the coals are completely cool. This can be done by dousing the coals with water while stirring them to make sure hot spots are uncovered and extinguished.

It’s important to remember that dirt can actually insulate the coals, as opposed to cooling them. So be sure to use water, and have patience!

A Safer Backcountry Experience

That morning, J and I complied with each of these guidelines. We found a healthy
balance between enjoying ourselves, and protecting our landscape. While there will always be some fire risk in the backcountry, following these steps can greatly minimize the chance of starting a blaze.

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