Friday, June 15, 2012

California, Stoves, "Campfire" Permits, and ESBIT

I live in California in the United States.  I thought I'd comment about what is and is not permissible with respect to stoves, fires, and fuels in the backcountry here.

Unfortunately, there are a welter of jurisdictions including state parks, national parks, city parks, national forests, county parks, and Bureau of Land Management areas.  Each of these may have their own rules and restrictions.  Even different units of the same overarching agency will have differing rules.

However, there is one thing that is generally required in California across the various jurisdictions:  the California Campfire Permit.  Basically, outside of a developed campground, to have any kind of fire (a wood fire or a camp stove), you have to have a campfire permit.  And, yes, you read that right; you have to have a permit in order to operate a camp stove in the backcountry.  Based on the name, you would think a campfire permit would be for wood fires alone, but, no, a campfire permit is for any type of fire, including all backpacking type stoves.

It's easy to get a permit; just click on the above link, print it, fill it out, and sign it.  You don't have to go to a ranger station, pay a fee, take a test, or anything like that.  I think they just want you to have the regulations in front of you.

A campfire permit generally allows one to use a woodfire, charcoal fire, or "chemical" stove, but each local jurisdiction places additional restrictions as to where fires and what fuels are permitted.    Wood and charcoal fires are generally the most restricted with many jurisdictions confining wood fires to developed campgrounds only.  With respect to those restrictions, gas and pressurized liquid fueled stoves are always OK in state and federally controlled backcountry areas, but I have seen local cities prohibit even gas and pressurized liquid fuel stoves (e.g. the City of Monrovia).  Jellied petroleum (I assume they mean Sterno type stoves) is also permitted (but who the heck uses a Sterno stove?).

Alcohol and hexamine (e.g. ESBIT) stoves are generally lumped in with wood fires and are typically more restricted.  Alcohol and wood stoves are prohibited in many backcountry areas in California, especially in Southern California.  The rule of thumb is:  Where wood fires are permitted, alcohol stoves are permitted; where wood fires are not, alcohol stoves are not.   Unfortunately, the Forest Service lumps ESBIT in with alcohol and wood even though ESBIT is very different (and very safe).  See the Appendix below for further discussion on this topic.

  • Print and carry a California Campfire Permit
  • Gas and pressurized liquid fuel stoves are almost universally permitted for backcountry use
  • Expect greater restrictions on wood and charcoal fires
  • Alcohol and ESBIT stoves are generally lumped in with wood fires -- and are more heavily restricted
  • Generally, in an area where wood fires are permitted, alcohol and ESBIT stoves are permitted; where they are not, alcohol and ESBIT stoves are not.  
  • Always check with each local jurisdiction as to the specific rules governing your type of stove or fire 
I realize it's a bit complicated, but I hope that helps.


So why so many restrictions on alcohol and ESBIT type stoves?  Well, the San Bernardino National Forest website has a helpful Q&A section from which I quote:

Q:  Why are jelly petroleum-fueled stoves okay and campfires aren’t?
A:  Jelly petroleum-fueled stoves can be extinguished by putting a metal lid over the container. This makes their use much safer than campfires. Ashes or hot briquettes can blow outside of the fire pit; these embers can easily start a wildfire. Also, visitors might discard ashes or hot charcoal briquettes before they are completely cool, which could cause vegetation to ignite later after they are gone. Wood, charcoal, or any solid fuel fires are not allowed within the San Bernardino National Forest outside developed campgrounds, picnic areas, yellow post sites, and special use permitted sites in agency-provided fire rings or designated sites at any time of the year.

So, based on the Forest Service's above answer, a fuel that can be reliably extinguished, whose flame cannot be spread by wind, and does not leave behind by-products that might start a fire is an appropriate fuel for backcountry use.  Based on the Forest Service's own answer, I'd say that ESBIT is an appropriate fuel for backcountry use.  Burning ESBIT can be reliably extinguished by blowing it out; ESBIT flames are not spread by wind, and ESBIT leaves behind no by-products that might start a fire.  I think ESBIT gets lumped in with wood fires simply because the land agencies aren't familiar with it.  Bureaucracies being what they are, it probably won't happen, but it sure would be nice if the various agencies that have jurisdiction over backcountry areas would take a second look at ESBIT.

With alcohol stoves, I understand the restrictions a little bit more (note that I said "understand" not "like").  Alcohol can spill and spread flames, and many alcohol stoves cannot be extinguished once lit.


  1. Regulations come about when people won't follow recommendations. In most cases, fires aren't dangerous when attended by an experienced, conscientious person. In some cases, fires are dangerous, period. Sterno is jellied alcohol. You can mix Sterno with Heet and make a fluid gelled alcohol that is good for preheating liquid fueled stoves. I usually can find gelled alcohol for chafing dishes, but can also make it, if need be.

  2. Hi, Bill,

    Yeah, some regulations feel way too restrictive to me. The biggest problem (I think) is with people who don't make sure their camp fire is completely out. Later with wind or whatever, it springs back to life, but then there's no one there to control it. NOT GOOD. I actually like wood burning backpacking stoves for this reason: There's generally no smoldering wood left behind.

    Interesting idea about mixing Sterno and HEET together for a more fluid gel. I'll have to try that some time.


  3. Thanks for the update Jim, and it's unfortunate about the reasons why the restrictions were put in place.

    Another dual purpose item I have found useful for priming alcohol stoves are the small bottles of hand sanitizer with high alcohol content. This will sometimes need a drop or two of liquid fuel to get going, but the gel stays lit longer. This helped to get a Trangia stove going on a cold and snowy morning when that coffee was REALLY necessary!

  4. Hi, Dan,

    That's very interesting that the gel stays lit longer. That's something else I'll have to try.

    I actually think fully gelled alcohol in a Trangia would be OK with respect to fire regulations since a) it won't spill and b) a Trangia can be extinguished by putting the simmer ring in place (or the cap if you remove the gasket first). Have you tried running your Trangia with fully gelled alcohol?


  5. It's not quite true that gas and pressurized liquid fueled stoves are always OK in state and federally controlled backcountry areas. I backpacked in Tahoe National forest several years ago on Labor Day weekend and there was a total fire ban in effect, including stoves in the backcountry. The good news was that it seemed to keep the people away.