Avoiding Campfire Burns
Hot pan handles and day-old embers could spoil your fun if you’re not careful
Did you know that most camp cooking gear is made of lightweight aluminum, which conducts heat faster than any other metal? I made this discovery for myself as a 10-year-old cooking freshly caught fish for breakfast in a frying pan with a fold-out aluminum handle. In my excitement at being in the woods with a successful catch almost ready to eat, I didn’t think twice about the bare-metal handle until I reached over to take the pan out of the campfire.
All the pots and pans at home had insulated handles. But this frying pan, part of a cheap mess kit, instantly scorched my hand from fingertips to wrist. I yelped and dropped the pan, watching my breakfast fall into the glowing logs of the campfire, where it quickly blackened beyond recognition.
The pain was at least as bad as going hungry. Before my next camping trip I would recruit my mother to make a custom hot-pad to slip over the handle of the frying pan in my official Boy Scout mess kit. I also packed bandages, antiseptic ointment, aspirin and half a cup of newfound life experience.
Bottom line: A crackling campfire makes an outdoor trip memorable, but it can also turn a dreamy weekend in the woods into a disaster.
Related: Camping Safely with Kids
How burns happen
Research shows that more than 80 percent of campfire injuries among children are from day-old campfires, according to Rebecca Bell, MD, a pediatric critical care physician at The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington. Toddlers and preschoolers are the youngsters most commonly burned, usually by falling or walking onto yesterday’s campfire while it’s still smoldering with coals and embers concealed beneath white ash. (Most campfire burns, in fact, are caused by embers rather than flames.)
And smoldering campfires aren’t the only problem.
A lot of novice campers know next to nothing about campfire safety, according to Pepper Ernest, a hiking and camping consultant with the Great Outdoor Provision Co., an outdoor retailer based in North Carolina. “Usually the fire is not in the right spot or too big,” he says. “This often surprises me, considering how hard it is sometimes to get a fire started at the campground.”
In his travels along the Appalachian Trail and other hiking routes, Ernest told me he’s seen such snafus as people building bonfires under picnic shelters or spilling camp-stove fuel on nearby tables.“I’ve seen lots of flaming puddles on picnic tables,” he says. “You should never light a camp stove with spilled fuel all around. You light a match and — whoosh! — the fire can get out of control pretty quickly.”
Ernest recommends building a campfire no larger than needed for cooking or warmth, generally four feet in diameter or less. Campers should also bring a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit and hot pads for handling cooking equipment, he says. And choose a good spot for the fire. “People sometimes don’t think about where they’re setting a fire relative to where they pitched their tents,” he says. “At the end of the night, you don’t want smoke pouring downwind into your tent. That’s no fun.”
Related: Bonfire Smarts: Do This, Not That
Campfire and camp stove do’s
The Outdoor Blogger Network, the American Burn Association and Smokeybear.com offers these tips for cooking safely while camping.
- Build the fire on level ground. Surround it with rocks to contain the heat and flames.
- Clear away dead leaves and debris at least 10 feet around your fire in all directions.
- Have everyone wear long pants, socks and close-toed shoes.
- Keep children in a “circle of safety” at least 3 feet away from the fire’s edge.
- Shut off the camp stove when you finish cooking.
- Sticks for roasting marshmallows should be long enough that children holding them do not feel the heat of the fire.
- If a marshmallow catches fire, don’t touch it or try to blow out the flames. Stamp out the fire on the ground and use a fresh marshmallow — it’s better than burning your skin.
- When you’re ready to call it a night, extinguish the fire by pouring water on it and stirring the embers until the hissing stops and the material is cool to the touch. Never bury a fire, since the embers may continue to smolder and eventually start a new fire.
- Don’t leave the campfire unattended.
Campfire and camp stove don’ts
Here are some major no-no’s when cooking over a campfire, according to the American Burn Association and trauma experts at the Loyola University Health System in Chicago.
- Don’t build the fire larger than you can manage.
- Avoid lighting a fire beneath overhanging tree limbs or around heavily trafficked areas such as those between the tent and your vehicle.
- Never use lighter fluid or other flammable liquids to get your campfire going. Use matches or a fire starter stick instead. Throw the used matches into the fire.
- Don’t drink around a campfire — alcohol and flames don’t mix.
- Never use a cook stove inside a tent (yes, some people have done it).
- Don’t keep glass, aerosol cans and unopened drink cans near the fire.
- Never boil oil over a camp fire. Be careful when transporting boiling water, too (many a camper has managed to spill some on his arms or legs).
- And one tip I could have told them as early as age 10: Use campfire gloves and hot pads when cooking outside — never touch a metal pan with your bare hands.