A campfire provides light, warmth,
heat for cooking, and comfort

It has been said that a camp without a campfire is no camp at all. Certainly campfires add a lot of comfort to your camping experience. In the past, campers could cut and pick up enough wood around their camp to make a fire but today, many parks restrict the ways you can obtain firewood. So, campers should become familiar with new safety and ethical guidelines related to campfire use.

Campfire Ethics

Having a campfire is an important part of the camping experience. It provides indescribable pleasure and comfort for both adults and children. And cooking over a campfire is arguably the ultimate camping pleasure. It makes your food taste much better and it fosters a strong sense of independence and self-sufficiency. But uncontrolled campfires can cause considerable harm to the campsite and to the forrest around it. So, the Leave No Trace ethical guidelines were written to remind campers, hikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts of responsible behaviors that can help preserve our forests and wilderness areas for future generations. One of these guidelines is to “Minimize Campfire Impact.” To minimize such impact, observe the following procedures.

  • Place bucket or jug filled with water near the fire ring to use if the fire gets out of control.

  • Use fire ring or pit where provided or where used before. Do not move fire ring to a different location.

  • When possible, use a metal fire pan to protect the ground from excessive heat and soot.

  • Keep fires small and under control.

  • Extinguish your campfire completely with water before retiring to bed or leaving your campsite.

Campfire Safety

Compared with other outdoor recreational activities such as swimming, hiking, and biking, camping is a very safe activity. But injuries do occasionally occur and they frequently occur from campfires. Children are especially vulnerable to campfire burns. So campers should recognize the potential danger of campfires and take special precautions to avoid injury.

  • Do not use gasoline or other accelerants to start a fire.

  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages excessively or use other mind-altering drugs when near a campfire.

  • Do not run or engage in “horseplay” near the fire ring - and don’t allow children to do so.

  • Do not allow children to play near the fire unsupervised.

  • Wear leather gloves when working with the fire or moving hot pots.

  • Keep burn cream in your first-aid kit.

Firewood Ethics

In addition to the “Minimize Campfire Impact” ethical guideline, Leave No Trace urges outdoor enthusiasts to “Plan Ahead and Prepare”and to “Leave What You Find.” When planning your trip, you should read park rules related to firewood and campfires, and be prepared to comply with them. One or two of these rules will probably relate to moving and procuring firewood. In particular, most state and federal parks now forbid bringing firewood from your home or other distant locations because firewood can harbor harmful insects such as the Emerald Ash Borer. When this firewood is moved into and burned in a healthy forest, the insects can fly out and infect healthy trees. Furthermore, all parks forbid cutting standing trees and many of them also forbid removing downed dead trees because this decaying wood offers food and habitat for small organisms that constitute the lowest level of the food chain.

  • Do not transport uncertified firewood more than 30 miles. In other words, don’t bring it from your home or a previous campsite.

  • Do not cut living trees.

  • Do not cut standing dead trees.

  • Check rules before removing down dead wood. Some parks prohibit removing down dead wood because park managers want fallen wood to decay on the ground, thus providing food and habitat for small organisms on the food chain. When removal is permitted, good firewood may be difficult to find because previous campers may have already removed it.

  • Ideally, you should buy U.S.D.A. Certified heat treated, pest free firewood OR state certified pest free firewood with bark removed.

  • When certified pest free firewood is not available, you can buy it from the park vendor or a local vendor.

Best Firewood

The best place to buy firewood is local grocery, convenience, and home improvement stores. Many of them sell reasonably priced bundles of U.S.D.A. certified dried hardwood that is cut 12 to 16 inches long, have few knots, and is less than 8 inches in diameter. A second good source of firewood is local tree cutting services and firewood vendors but try to determine the type of wood you are buying. Oak, hickory, ash, cherry, and pecan are good materials for firewood. They split easily, burn easily, produce high heat, and produce few sparks, little smoke or soot. Other woods have one or more limitations. For example, pine produces thick smoke and soot that will stick to your cookware and food. And some woods are hard to split or hard to burn. Ideally, the vendor will clearly identify the wood but if no signs are visible, ask the sales clerk. After determining the type of wood, examine it before buying to be sure it will burn easily. The wood should be dried and ideally have no bark attached. You could buy a moisture meter to be sure it is dry but you can learn to make good decisions based upon the weight and appearance of the ends. The third possible source for firewood is the park concession - but be careful. Many parks sell wood that is poorly suited for making campfires and cooking meals. Sometimes it is too wet to burn efficiently; sometimes it is too hard to split; and sometimes it is too resinous to cook good tasting meals.

Tinder, Kindling, and Stove Wood

To start a campfire, you will need some tinder and kindling. In some campgrounds you can find dry straw and small twigs laying on the ground bur frequently you cannot. We collect used paper from our home office for tinder and scrap pine lumber from my garage workshop for kindling - and we pack these materials in a small waterproof bag. After arriving at our campsite, we also split at least one piece of firewood into very small sticks for additional kindling. If we plan to cook on our campfire, we will need to split several more small pieces of stove wood so that we can maintain a low or medium heat level for simmering foods for an extended period of time.

Camp Axes

To split firewood, you will need a good camp axe (or hatchet) plus a splitting platform, wedge, and baton. The best camp axes have a 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-pound rectangular Dayton shaped head and a 13 to 16 inch handle. Some highly-praised axes cost over $100 but you can find a good camp axe for much less. We use an old restored Collins axe that cost about $40 but you can buy a good Estwing Camper’s Axe 14 from Cabella’s or Amazon.com for about $45. You will also need a tree stump or tree round to be used as a splitting platform and you can make a wedge and baton from pieces of firewood with your camp axe.

Axe Safety

Axes can be dangerous! Modern tent campers should know and observe basic safety procedures.

  • Never work after consuming alcoholic beverages, marijuana or other drugs.

  • Do not allow young children (3 to 12) to handle an axe at any time. If they are interested, allow them to observe and explain the dangers

  • Only allow youth (13 to 18) to use semi-sharp axes under close supervision - to assure they follow safety procedures and avoid horseplay.

  • Avoid working after dark.

  • Avoid double bit axes: two sharp edges increase the danger.

  • Never use an axe with a loose head or badly damaged handle; the head could fly off and injure a bystander.

  • Wear safety equipment: protective eyewear, gloves, jeans & closed toe shoes.

  • Warn others and clear the area: children, vegetation & obstructions.

  • Anticipate the direction of a glancing blow and stand clear.

  • Never cut or chop overhead.

  • When felling trees and bucking logs: use a saw when possible; when unavailable, use long handle axe.

  • De-limbing: cut small limbs on opposite side of larger limb - from bottom to top.

  • Use a chopping/splitting block.

  • When splitting large tree rounds, use a maul, wedge, and large splitting platform if available

  • When splitting larger pieces of firewood, make short controlled swings and use a wedge.

  • When splitting larger pieces of firewood, kneel, bend over and/or squat to drive axe edge into the splitting block.

  • When splitting smaller pieces of firewood, do not hold wood with hand. Use side splitting technique when possible.

  • When using a short 10 to 14-inch handle, use a lanyard to prevent the axe from slipping out of your hand.

  • Cover edge with a sheath when not in use.

  • Hold unsheathed axe near head and shoulder.

  • When giving an axe to another person, put its sheath on or lay it down for the other person to pick up.

Axe Safety Myths

  • A razor sharp edge is needed for all camping chores.

  • Sharp axes are safer than dull axes

  • Axes with handles with poor grain orientation are unsafeo

More Information

For more information about camp axes, watch the following video and visit my MODERN TENT CAMPING STORE page and my GUIDELINES FOR BUYING A USED CAMP AXE page.