Summer is camping season, but this year is different—especially for those of us in eastern parts of Canada and the US.
It’s been a very dry spring, sparking massive wildfires that continue to burn and blow smoke over a huge swath of North America and even right across the Atlantic Ocean toward Europe.
Quebec’s forest fire agency, SOPFEU, is currently fighting around 81 fires in the province—25 of which are out of control.
There have been recent rains that have weakened the fires, but the situation remains serious.
In Canada, the smoke is affecting air quality in Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritimes, with Environment Canada issuing air quality statements for several regions.
In the US, the smoke is affecting air quality in several states, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York.
The National Weather Service has issued air quality alerts for these areas, warning of unhealthy air quality levels.
People with allergies and respiratory issues, such as asthma, are advised to take precautions and limit their exposure to the smoke.
July is just around the corner, signifying the height of camping season.
For those of you who have booked campsites already, you may be left wondering…
Is it safe to camp when there’s visible smoke from the wildfires?
Camping + poor air quality = high-risk
The above photo was taken a couple of days ago on the final day of a four-day camping trip in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Conditions were great for the first three days, but we were blindsided by a blanket of smoke at the very end.
Could you imagine if these were the conditions for the entire duration of our trip?
Think about that for a moment.
Camping involves being outdoors for an extended period—often more than a day or two—and possibly much longer depending on your trip.
In the summer, we typically plan a 10 to 14-day trip.
It’s one thing to go outside for an hour and be breathing in bad air, but it’s another if you’re spending a week outside.
Breathing in smoke can cause immediate health effects such as coughing, wheezing, and headaches—even in healthy people with no serious health conditions.
For others, it can exacerbate pre-existing respiratory conditions.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises people to stay indoors and avoid outdoor activities as much as possible during periods of poor air quality due to wildfire smoke.
If you must be outdoors, the EPA recommends reducing physical activity and using a NIOSH-approved respirator mask if available.
That said, you shouldn’t have to spend all summer indoors just because of a particularly bad wildfire season.
We still plan on going camping, and we hope you do too—it’s just matter of managing the risks associated with the smoke.
Here’s what we’re currently doing to make the most out of our summer camping plans while being cautious.
Monitor the wildfires in the area
We’re currently using the FireSmoke Canada tool to track wildfires and smoke throughout Canada and the US.
You might notice different colours on the map which indicate various levels of air quality.
This info can help you decide whether it’s a good idea to go camping or not.
If there’s an orange or brown zone near your destination, you should definitely reconsider your plans, as the air quality can become hazardous.
The tool allows you to see the flow of the smoke over about a three-day period, and you can zoom in closer to see where specific fires are—marked by orange flame icons.
The biggest fires include areas that are encircled in orange, which offer estimates of their approximate size and perimeter.
If you navigate to northern Quebec, you’ll find some of the biggest fires there.
Check the air quality forecast
The FireSmoke tool does offer air quality forecasts, but there are others that make it easier to tell whether it’s safe or not to spend time outdoors.
We’re currently using AirVisual from IQAir, which is a mobile app that provides air quality forecasts according to the World Air Quality Index (AQI).
For instance, a quick check of the app for our current location tells us immediately that the air is “unhealthy” because it’s in the 151 to 200 AQI range.
You can see the AQI forecast by hour and by day, along with corresponding weather conditions.
You can also add places to track the air quality in multiple locations.
If you tap the current forecast and scroll down, a number of health recommendations are also given.
For today’s forecast, we’re recommended to:
- Avoid outdoor exercise
- Close your windows to avoid dirty outdoor air
- Wear a mask outdoors
- Run an air purifier
Consider that the forecast can change quickly, with bad AQIs setting in within hours.
Ideally, you want your camping trip to fall in the green zone—a range of 0 to 50.
We would personally still consider camping in the yellow zone (51 to 100) but possibly not for long periods in the orange zone (101 to 150) and definitely not at all in the red zone or higher (151 to 200+).
Again, these are our own thoughts based on being two physically fit and healthy adults with no serious health conditions.
We would also consider shortening our trips if the air quality got worse or remained poor for an extended period of time.
Follow social media updates from park or campground staff
Parks and campgrounds often post updates about the weather, local wildlife, and any fire-related restrictions or closures on their social profiles.
As an example, here’s a Facebook post from Wabakimi Provincial Park—the park where we had been planning a 12-day camping trip this summer.
As you can see, the park has closed huge sections off from canoe campers due to wildfires.
If you’re unsure whether the park or campground has a social media presence, a quick search using the park’s name should do the trick.
We recommend searching for them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
If you still can’t find any updates, try calling the park or campground directly.
Create a “Plan B” trip in a safer area
Having a Plan B for your camping trip during wildfire season is a smart move because chances are you won’t get an accurate forecast until at least a week before your departure.
This way, if your original destination becomes unsafe due to wildfires, you have a backup option ready to go.
Look for locations that are less prone to wildfires, such as those with less vegetation or a lower risk of dry conditions.
Use the FireSmoke tool mentioned above or keep an eye on Ready.gov’s Wildfire updates for any current or potential risks.
We understand that this can be super inconvenient if you’ve already booked and paid for your campsites.
Nobody wants to book two separate trips at the same time, but it may be your best option for your health if you plan to camp in established parks or campgrounds.
Check the park or campground’s cancellation policy to see if you can get a refund or credit for future trips.
Otherwise, you may want to consider planning your “Plan B” trip at a low-cost campground or on public or Crown land (which is typically free).
Postpone your trip if the conditions are bad
If you’d rather postpone your trip instead of create a Plan B, that may be better for you in terms of recovering the costs and ensuring the conditions will improve.
September and October are some of the best times of the year to go camping, so if you can swing it, you may want to consider turning your summer trip into a fall trip instead.
Although the fires may still be burning, the winds typically shift over the course of the summer, minimizing the risk of poor air quality from smoke.
It can be hard to come to terms with a postponement or cancellation of your trip, especially if you’ve been looking forward to it all year.
But it’s important to understand that putting your health first is always worth it—even if that means forgoing a summer camping trip this year.
If you decide to go camping, bring a mask
We thought we were done with masks, eh?
Believe it or not, that pack of N95s you bought during the pandemic are also recommended for protecting yourself from inhaling any particulate matter from wildfire smoke.
These masks filter out particles larger than 0.3 microns and are certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to filter out 95% of airborne particles.
If you don’t have an N95 respirator mask, a surgical mask or even a scarf is better than nothing.
Respect fire bans
Dry conditions and wildfires mean widespread fire bans are likely to be in effect throughout the summer.
It’s important to respect those bans by not lighting campfires, which can spread quickly and easily ignite dry brush and trees if conditions become worse.
Fire bans can range from partial (no campfires) to total (no open flame whatsoever).
Check with the park/campground or county/region for any restrictions on where a campfire or open flame is allowed and respect those.
During fire bans, parks and campgrounds still typically allow fuel-powered camp stoves, but be sure to check for specific rules and details about what you can and can’t use.
We’ve personally camped in areas where there were total fire bans but we still had a great time.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Is it safe to camp near a wildfire?
It’s not safe to camp near a wildfire, as things can change rapidly and put you at risk.
Wildfires can be unpredictable and spread quickly, making it unsafe to camp nearby.
What precautions should I take when camping during wildfire season?
When camping during wildfire season, you should make sure you’re well prepared and aware of any potential risks.
Follow these guidelines:
- Check the fire restrictions and conditions in the area where you plan to camp.
- Plan your route and have a backup plan in case you need to evacuate.
- Keep an eye on the weather and pay attention to wind changes.
- Familiarize yourself with proper campfire safety.
For more precautions, you can refer to the US National Park Service’s wildland fire safety tips.
How can I stay informed about wildfire risks while camping?
Stay informed about potential wildfire risks by:
- Checking the local news or radio for updates on fire conditions and weather.
- Monitoring alerts on your phone if you have mobile service.
- Talking to park rangers or campground staff for the latest updates.
What should I do if a wildfire occurs while I’m camping?
If a wildfire occurs while you’re camping, follow these steps:
- Stay calm and pack up your belongings quickly.
- If possible, call 911 or notify park rangers.
- Follow your evacuation plan or any instructions given by authorities.
- Drive safely and avoid areas affected by smoke or flames.
What are some tips for choosing a safer campsite during wildfire season?
When choosing a campsite during wildfire season, consider the following tips:
- Pick a location with low risk of fires, such as an established campground.
- Set up camp in a defensible space, away from dense vegetation.
- Avoid camping in low-lying areas to reduce risks from rising smoke or fire.
How can I reduce the risk of wildfires when camping?
To reduce the risk of wildfires when camping, follow these guidelines:
- Continuously monitor the fire and weather conditions.
- Use established fire rings and follow campfire safety guidelines.
- Never leave a campfire or camp stove unattended and extinguish it properly before leaving.
- Store and dispose of flammable materials properly.
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).