Picture this: You’re camping with your friends, enjoying a nice fire in the middle of a field.
As darkness falls, you all decide to turn in for the night, but how do you put out the fire?
There are no lakes, rivers, streams, or ponds nearby that you know of, but you don’t want to leave the fire to burn without being put out.
What can you do?
It’s possible to put out a campfire by smothering it
Although putting out a campfire with water should always be your first choice, it is possible to put out a campfire without it.
The method is called smothering, and it involves completely covering the fire with soil or another flame-resistant material that will prevent oxygen from reaching the embers and flames.
This can help you extinguish the fire in its entirety.
To make sure this technique works, you should always have an ample supply of dirt, sand, or a similar material that you can spread thickly over the fire.
Follow these instructions to ensure that you put your campfire out the right way.
Step 1: Wait for all the visible coals to burn down
All the wood you put in your campfire has to burn down completely to ashes to avoid reigniting the fire.
Ash looks like small, grey-ish white pieces of powder. Once the wood is completely burned down to this, you can move on to the next step.
Step 2: Stir and spread out the ashes
Using a stick or branch, stir the ashes around and spread it out as much as possible.
By doing this, you’ll not only be able to check for leftover coals and embers that needs to burn down, but also reduce how much heat is coming from the ash.
Step 3: Cover with soil or sand
Finally, cover the ashes with as much soil or sand as possible.
This will smother any remaining embers and ensure that your campfire stays put out.
Make sure the soil or sand doesn’t contain any combustible material like leaves or other organic matter.
To be on the safe side, use enough to create a mound at least two inches thick over the fire.
Step 4: Stir the soil or sand around with the ashes
This will help you further smother any embers and make sure your fire is really put out.
If you don’t have a shovel or fire poker, you can use a large stick or branch to mix the soil or sand around with the ashes.
Never use your hands to complete this step—even if you’re wearing protective gloves.
Step 5: Wait for the soil/sand and ash mixture to cool
Unfortunately, you can’t just add your soil or sand to the ashes and call it a day.
You must make sure that there’s absolutely no risk of the fire reigniting, which you can only confirm by the mixture becoming cool to to the touch.
To safely test how much heat the mixture is still giving off, start by placing your hand a few inches away from the ashes and then, if it feels cool, move closer.
Once your hand can touch the mixture without any risk of being burned, you can be sure that your campfire is completely put out.
How to plan ahead next time you need to put a campfire out
It’s possible to put a campfire out without water by smothering it with soil or sand, but it isn’t preferred.
Even if it means walking a decent ways to fetch water, putting your campfire out with water should always be your go-to.
It’s the safest and most effective way to put a campfire out.
Pick a campsite near a body of water
It doesn’t necessarily need to be a big lake or raging river—you can’t get away with camping near a small stream, pond, or potentially even a bog or marsh.
Consider how far you’re willing to walk to retrieve water, keeping in mind that you’ll have to do a minimum of three to five trips depending on the size of your fire.
Bring something you can easily use to collect and transfer water
There’s nothing worse than realizing you have nothing but your own water bottle to use to collect and pour water over your campfire.
Ideally, you want to use something big and relatively easy to carry—such as a big pot or bucket—you can use to fetch large amounts of water and pour it all over the campfire.
We like to use our camping dish sink, which is lightweight, flexible, and holds a ton of water.
If you’re not sure you’ll be near water, bring a portable fire extinguisher
We know this sounds like overkill, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Having a portable fire extinguisher in your car or camping bag allows you to quickly put out a campfire—especially if you can’t get to a water source very fast.
If you’re packing light, you can alternatively bring these fire extinguisher blankets, which you can throw over the campfire to put it out.
Next up: How to cook pizza over a campfire
How to put out a campfire FAQ
Can you pee on a campfire to put it out?
No, you should never use urine to put out a campfire.
Urine is mostly water, but it also contains minerals and other compounds that can actually cause the fire to spread.
Is it okay to leave a campfire burning overnight?
No, you should never leave a campfire burning overnight or unattended.
If you’re done using it for the day and need to go back to your tent, make sure the fire is completely out before you head out.
Follow the steps above to ensure that your campfire is completely out before going into your tent or leaving cap.
Do embers mean a campfire is still burning?
Yes, embers (glowing red and orange coals) are a sign that your campfire is still burning, even if there are no flames.
Will a campfire eventually go out on its own?
A campfire will eventually go out on its own if you don’t add any more fuel to it and when it’s completely deprived of oxygen or fuel.
This could take several hours depending on how big the fire is, the type and amount of fuel you’re burning, and how much oxygen is available.
If the fire is still burning and has access to air and combustibles, it will continue to burn until you put it out.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).