11 Tips for Using a Tarp Over Fire and 3 Hazards to Avoid

Using a Tarp Over Fire

We found out if you can have a fire under a tarp, the best material to use for a tarp over a fire, and how far away the flames should be to avoid burning it. In this guide, you will learn the basics of setting a tarp over a fire in the rain, as well as some tips from an experienced bushcrafter on what to avoid.

Whether you are trying to bring a fire into your shelter or cook under a tarp in the rain, having a fire under a thin plastic sheet doesn’t sound like the best idea on paper. But in the field, it works just fine with very few issues, so long as you follow a strict set of rules. These rules involve clearing the area and creating a safe fire pit, as well as the types of wood to burn and the distance between the fire and your roof.

11 Tips for Putting a Tarp Over Fires

Here are some simple tips and rules you can use to enjoy a campfire under a tarp without causing any damage or harm:

1. Choosing the Right Type of Tarp to Use Over a Fire

DD Hammocks - DD Tarp 3x3 - Olive Green (10ft x 10ft) - 100% Waterproof Lightweight & Multifunctional Rainfly Tarp Tent Shelter for Camping Backpacking & Hiking Adventure 

When it comes to picking a tarp to use over a fire, your options range from lightweight materials like silnylon to heavy-duty, heat-resistant canvas. The more common materials are polyester, polyethylene, and polypropylene, which are midweight and not very heat tolerant. While it might be tempting to go ultra-light with materials such as silnylon, they aren’t the best choice for high-heat applications like covering a fire.

For safely covering a fire with a tarp, fire-resistant or fire-retardant sheets are the best option. These are usually made of heavy-duty canvas or specially treated materials that won’t easily melt or catch fire, unlike a typical rainfly. So, for peace of mind and added safety, focus on getting a tarp that’s up to the task of withstanding the heat and embers from your fire.

2. Choosing the Right Type of Wood to Burn Under a Tarp

Old Potters Kiln Dried Firewood - Oak, 1100 Cu. in, 16-18 Logs ~ 8" x 2.5" Logs. Cooking Wood for Grilling, Smoking, and Firepits, Oak.

When setting up a fire beneath a tarp, you should try and use dry hardwoods like oak or ash wherever possible. These types of wood are less prone to sparking and produce fewer floating embers. They also emit less dense smoke, making them ideal for tarp-covered fires.

However, not all woods are equal when it comes to safe burning under a tarp. Steer clear of conifers, pines, and other resinous woods. These types of wood have a tendency to pop and spark, potentially sending embers flying towards your thin fabric roof.

For the sake of safety, there are other woods you should avoid as well. Don’t burn poplar, willow, or sycamore, as they tend to produce excessive smoke and burn poorly. Likewise, avoid wet or green wood, which will create a smoky, inefficient fire. Driftwood is a particularly bad choice due to its salt content, which can emit toxic fumes when burned.

3. Set the Tarp at a Safe Height Above the Fire

campfire cooking under a tarp

The higher you can set your tarp up above a fire, the safer it will be.

The height you set your tarp up above a fire depends on how big the fire might get and how tall the flames might reach. There is very little information available on this subject, so my experienced guess is that you should set your tarp up at least 4-6 feet above a small campfire. This is assuming that you have a fire pit no bigger than 1.5 feet across.

An easy test you can perform to check if your tarp is high enough above your fire is to hold your hand underneath the tarp. If you can hold your hand there without it getting too hot (around 30-60 seconds should be enough), then you can assume that the fabric will not be damaged. 

4. Clear the Area Around Your Tarp

When having a fire under tarps, you don’t just need to clear the area where the fire will go; you need to clear the entire area underneath and around the tarp. This is important in case the tarp accidentally catches fire and falls to the ground. It’s also good practice to clear the area under a tarp anyway because you will likely be sitting under it on rainy days, and it helps get rid of any biting insects.

Leaving no trace means being respectful of the land, so if you do clear the area for a campfire under a rainfly, then you should try your best to hide your tracks and recover it with debris when you leave.

5. Keep the Fire Contained

campfire safety

Whenever you have a campfire in a wooded area or location at risk of fires spreading, you need to keep your fire container in a small pit. A circle of rocks is ideal for building a fire and allows you to contain it in a small area. I would suggest a firepit of around 1 foot across for small groups and keep the fire as low as possible by stacking logs horizontally instead of into a tepee design.

Keeping a close perimeter of rocks around the fire is more important when using a tarp above it because it gives you a safe place to try and control the flames if your tarp catches fire.

6. Deciding Where to Put A Fire Under a Tarp

outdoors man in a canvas tent with bushcraft pots on fire

There are two things to think about when deciding where to position a fire beneath a tarp: wind direction and ventilation. You can’t fight the wind, so you need to use it to your advantage where possible. This means positioning your fire so that the smoke blows away from your shelter instead of into it.

The ultimate goal of positioning your fire beneath a tarp is to provide maximum ventilation and have the minimum amount of smoke inside the shelter. Wind direction plays a big role in this, but so does the design of the shelter. The entrance or widest opening of a tarp shelter is usually the best place to have a fire as it allows the smoke to easily escape.

7. Designing Your Tarp Shelter

Best Camping Tarps For Hiking

Following on from the last tarp over the fire tip, the way you design your tarp shelter is important to release smoke, stay ventilated, and also to avoid the tarp catching fire. There are dozens of ways to set up a tarp for camping, but when it comes to fires, I always suggest keeping it simple.

A-frame designs are not the best for having fires under because the lower parts of the roof can succumb to heat damage even if no sparks make direct contact. Wig wams and tepees are okay if you have a massive tarp made from fire-retardant material, but they still fill with more smoke than an open shelter. The easiest and simplest shelter for a fire is a lean-to or pitched roof, which blocks the winds, keeps the roof at a safe distance, and ticks all the other boxes, too.

8. Keep Some Safety Equipment Close By

Coleman Sportsman Waterproof First Aid Kit - 100 Pieces

When you take the risk of having a fire under a tarp, it’s essential to have some safety precautions in place. While a fire extinguisher may not be a practical item to bring along on a camping trip, alternatives like water, dirt, or sand should be within arm’s reach. These can quickly smother a fire in case it gets out of control.

Quick action is vital in such situations to prevent a small mishap from becoming a disaster.

Finally, don’t forget to include a first aid kit in your camping gear. Equip it with the appropriate supplies to treat burns. Even minor accidents can turn serious without the right treatment, so don’t overlook the simple first aid kit for burns.

9. Regular Checks

Never get complacent when you have set up a tarp over a fire. It’s important to always keep an eye on the size of the fire and how tall the flames get, especially when adding new wood to the fire. You should check with your hand to make sure the tarp isn’t getting too hot and brittle every now and again, but a visual check is all that’s needed most of the time.

It’s good to have a headtorch for this, as sometimes the low light of a campfire can hide what’s really happening to your tarp.

10. Make Sure the Tarp Is Secured Properly

DD Tarp 3 x 3 Review

When you’re tending a fire under a tarp, making sure the tarp is securely fastened is crucial, especially if you’re dealing with windy conditions. A loose tarp flapping in the wind is a fire hazard, as it can easily come into contact with flames or hot coals. A single gust of wind could spell disaster if the tarp isn’t secured properly.

Check for loose cordage that could potentially come into contact with the fire if not secured properly. Basically, make sure everything is tied up or secured well away from the fire so that even if the roof dips slightly, it won’t be too close.

11. Have an Emergency Plan

Having a plan of what to do in the worst-case scenario could save your life in an emergency. This might mean you camped close to water and away from trees, or it might mean keeping a first aid kit or having an exit route in mind. So long as you know what to do if the roof catches fire and can escape easily, then at least your life will be at less risk.

risks of fire under a rainfly

3 Hazards Of Having a Fire Under a Tarp

Before you think about lighting a fire, you must be aware of the hazards and safety procedures to avoid having an accident or starting a forest fire. If you follow the leave-no-trace mantra, then you should be well aware of the preparations you must make before starting a fire. But here is a brief list of potential hazards of using a tarp over a campfire:

Forest Fires

Forest Fires are devastating and lethal, and if you cause one to make it out alive, they can land you in jail with multi-million dollar fines. If your tarp accidentally catches alight from a fire underneath, there is very little you can do to control the flames. If you’re lucky, your tarp will burn quickly and not spread beyond your small area.

ALWAYS clear the ground of debris that could catch alight to prevent a forest fire. Things like pine needles, leaves, twigs, and grass should all be removed from underneath your tarp if you are having a fire. Also, it should go without saying that we need to create a fire pit using stones or a hole in the ground to contain the fire. This way, if your tarp catches alight, you can quickly take it down and throw it into the firepit where possible.

Burns

If your tarp catches on fire because the flames got too big, you set the tarp up too low, or your tarp becomes insecure and gets too close to the fire, your first instinct should be to get the heck out of there as fast as possible. Your next instinct will likely be to try and either put the fire out or try and remove your tarp with your bare hands. This is the correct thing to do, but only if it is safe to do so.

Most tarps are made from synthetic materials that burn fast and easily, as well as drip molten plastic when on fire. If you accidentally get this red hot melting plastic on your skin, it will burn and leave a scar (I know because I have had one on my forehead since I was a child). You should avoid touching a tarp burnt from a fire for at least 30 seconds to let the melted fabric cool down.

Campfire gloves are a good thing to have around when having a fire under a fly sheet, just in case you need to grab anything hot.

Damage

The final hazard is hardly serious compared to the other two, but it is probably the most common hazard to occur. The simple truth is that if you decide to use a tarp over a fire, then you have to be prepared to get a few small holes in it. If the thought of a few tiny burn holes in your tarp is too much to handle, then you shouldn’t be having a fire under your tarp.

To avoid damaging your tarp from the fire and sparks, set it up as high as possible and try to burn wood that doesn’t spit or create a lot of sparks. If you are constantly using a tarp over an open fire, then I highly suggest getting one made from fireproof material.

communal camping tarp

What Are the Best Tarps for Campfires?

Cotton canvas tarps are generally much more flame-resistant than thinner nylon and polyester tarps. They are thicker and often treated with waterproofing, which also reduces the risk of embers burning a small hole. You can also get canvas tarps that have been treated with flame retardant chemicals for the most heavy-duty and durable option.

The downside to fireproof tarps is that they are very heavy and bulky, so it’s hard to transport them. For this reason, most people don’t use or want this type of tarp, but there is another option. You could use a small section of fire-resistant canvas and fasten it to your regular tarpaulin so that it provides concentrated protection without all the bulk and weight.

Honestly, though, if you set your tarp up with plenty of clearance and keep the fire small, you can use most tarps fairly safely over a fire.

campfire cooking under a tarp

How Much Space Between a Tarp Over Fire

The height at which you set up your tarp over your fire depends on the size of your fire. For a small fire less than 2 feet across and below 1 foot high, you can probably go as low as 6 feet (or 4 feet above the top of the flames) if the fire is set up at the edge of the shelter with the wind blowing away from you. In general, you should set up your tarp roof as high as possible over a fire but not so high that you lose wind and rain shelter.

You don’t need a tape measure. Just reach up as high as possible to secure your tarp and make sure you can stand up inside. The additional advantage of this is that if you have to get out quickly or the tarp catches fire, you can easily and quickly escape without getting burnt.


Yes, you can have a fire under a tarp so long as you follow the guidelines and stay on high alert. I hope you found this guide to using a tarp over fire. Let us know your experience below, and feel free to send us pictures too.

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

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