A Quick Guide to Drying Your Clothes Over a Campfire


Have you ever gone swimming and forgot to bring a towel? Do you know that disgusting feeling of squeezing your wet feet into your nasty socks? If so, you know that wearing wet clothes is not only uncomfortable but unhealthy. If you’ve got a strong stomach, google “WWI Trench Foot.” If you’re not careful, this can happen to you out in the wild. In winter conditions, like when I hiked through Banff National Park in Alberta, it can be the difference between toes and no toes.

Drying wet clothing on the bonfire during camping. Socks drying on fire. Cauldron and kettle above campfire. Cooking of food on nature. Firewood and branches in fire. Active rest in forest.

Drying your clothes over a campfire is the most obvious method to get warm quickly, but there are other ways to do this as well. You can use fire, hot rocks, simply hanging your clothes up, keeping your clothes in your sleeping bag, or even tying your clothes to yourself while going on a hike.

Do what is most convenient for you! I will go into more depth with these after a brief warning. 

Safety First

Safety has to be the first thing on your mind when you want to try to dry off your clothes with fire. Even “safe” methods contain potential hazards. Keep this in mind before you proceed, or else you risk ruining or losing the clothes you’re trying to save.

If you are car camping, getting too cold from lack of warm clothes is less of a concern than if you are backpacking, since you have a car with heat and extra clothing right next to you (or at least in the same area as you). But either way, you need to be safe while taking the proper precautions when traveling outdoors.

Burning clothes is extremely easy to do if you are not paying attention to what you are doing, so always be alert and present when you choose to try this method. There is not only a concern for your safety but also a concern for the wildlife around you if the fire can spread. 

As we are discussing fire building in this article, I would also like to lightly touch on the Seven “Leave No Trace” Principles (LNT). These principles should be known by all potential campers, as they not only protect you from harm but the beauty of the wilderness around you safe as well.

I will not go into all seven in the scope of this article, but here is the list, found in greater detail here:

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

All of these principles should be in the minds of anyone who spends time in nature, but for now, we will focus on how to minimize campfire impacts.

Only create fires in established fire rings, fire pans, or mound fires; all three of these will be laid out simply and to your liking, so you don’t have to search around for them. Keep fires to a smaller arrangement, using only dead sticks from the ground that can be easily broken by hand.

Do your best to burn all the wood you use to ash, and then scatter the remaining ashes when they get cooler. And of course do not burn firewood from home, as this is an easy way to introduce pests and diseases that could destroy forests populations.  

Below I have listed a few quick tips for when you need to dry off your clothes in the wild.

Five Different Ways to Dry Your Clothes

1. Fire

Drying your clothes over a fire is an effective way to make sure you don’t spend the rest of your trip in a soggy mess. Here are a few different things to consider when you are planning on drying your clothes:

  1. The best conditions for drying your clothes off are as follows: an area with low humidity, a place where you can keep your clothes away from the elements while spreading out the surface area of your clothes as much as possible, a more moderate temperature (at around 12-4 PM the day is at its hottest), and lastly a low air pressure (Source).
  2. It is best to make a big fire. A small fire will generate less heat, so you will need to keep your clothes closer to the flames, embers, and ashes. A bigger fire generates more heat, and so you can dry more clothes at once around its circumference while staying a safe distance away from the flames. 
  3. You can either use a piece of rope to string up your clothes about a foot or so above the fire, or you can place your clothing at a safe distance from the fire.
  4. If you see steam, you are too close to the fire (Source).
  5. Do not try to force too much heat the clothes. Clothes dry better and more efficiently when they are at more moderate temperatures. Bringing up the heat might cause you to burn your clothes, or at least damage them. 

2. Rocks – Best for Shoes

I have laid out the process for drying your shoes off with hot rocks below, but for more visual readers here is a nice video on the subject! 

  1. Collect dry, non-porous rocks by streams. These will not explode when exposed to extreme heat in the fire. They should also be small enough to fit in your shoes.
  2. Put the rocks in a pot and fill the pot with enough water to cover the rocks completely.
  3. You can use a campfire or a stove system to boil the water. You can make a pair of tongs with a green, living stick and twist them to shape
  4. Dump out the rest of the water from your boots and wring out the rest of the water out of your socks as well. Also, invert your boots so that more water can escape, and keep your shoes and socks close to your heat source to get some extra heating before the water is done boiling. 
  5. When the water is boiling, pull the rocks out with your tongs. The rocks should be hot enough so that the water evaporates off of the rocks when you take them out.
  6. Depending on the material inside your boots, you can either put the rocks directly inside your boots or you can first put them in your socks and then into the boot for extra coverage. 
  7. For even drier boots, take the soles of your boots out as well, so there can be more drying.
  8. Depending on how wet your boots are, you can repeat this process two or even three times to see desired results

3. Hang Dry

  • Wring your clothes out as much as possible before hanging them up to help the process go by much quicker.
  • The same ideal conditions apply here as the did with using a fire to dry off clothes. The outside conditions have to be low in humidity, where you can spread out your clothes as much as possible, in an area with low air pressure, and obviously in a warm place. The warmer the temperature, the faster the drying process, but even in cold conditions (before freezing level obviously), if you can keep the clothes away from wet conditions, your clothes will continue to dry, but just at a slower rate. 
  • If you have colder conditions, then it will be to your advantage to use the method listed below.

4. Sleeping Bag/Body Heat

  • If your clothes are not dripping wet, and just a bit damp, you can put them in your sleeping bag, using your body heat overnight to dry them. 

5. Mobile Air Drying

  • On a hike, attach them to your backpack and spread them out so they can dry off. This will provide an effective way to dry off clothes at the same time allowing you to go about the hiking/walking/running that you have already planned to do.

Other Tips for Drying Your Clothes

  • Hand Warmers can get up to around 135 degrees F and stay that way for about 8 hours, so these could be great for drying clothes, overnight
  • Clothes that are synthetic and wool are best to bring 
  • Wear loose clothes, they dry faster
  • When heating clothes next to a fire, it is best if they are at a temperature that is comfortable to hold in your hand. Do NOT overheat them to dry them off quicker.
  • Car Campers can use their heating systems in their cars for an added advantage. 

Final Thoughts

There are plenty of different options to explore when it comes to drying off your clothes in the great outdoors. Make sure that you take with you at least two different ways to create a fire, as well as keep in mind two or three different ways to dry off your clothes. Being over-prepared is the name of the game when it comes to camping of any kind. 

The rocks in the shoe trick might have saved me and my friend’s toes when we went winter camping for a night five miles into the wilderness of  Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. It boosted the morale of those men I was with and gave us the courage to continue our trek with warm (and no lost) toes. I hope these tips were helpful for you on your next adventure! 

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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