Camp Close to the Stars in a Fire Lookout

Mt Pilchuck Fire Lookout in remote landscape, Leavenworth, Washington, United States
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If you love backpacking, enjoy spectacular views and don't mind climbing a few flights of stairs, camping in a fire lookout might be the ideal experience for you.

History of US Fire Lookouts

The Great Fire of 1910 devastated over three million acres of trees in the western US. To prevent future fires from spreading unnoticed, over 5,000 fire lookouts were built. Paid employees and volunteers staffed the lookouts, watching for signs of fire and sending fire information to other lookouts using a heliograph, a mirrored device that can send Morse code.

With the advent of radio, aerial surveillance and other advanced technologies, fire lookouts became obsolete in many parts of the US. Some towers were torn down, but others are now used as short-term vacation rentals.

Fire lookouts typically sleep up to four people. Most lack electricity, telephone service, and running water. Some even lack beds.

Most fire lookouts are located in the western states, including California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming. There is at least one fire lookout available for rent in New Hampshire.

How to Rent Fire Lookouts

Staying in fire lookouts is a popular activity, particularly during the summer months. Some fire lookouts are so popular that rentals are determined by a lottery. If you would like to rent a lookout, gather information well in advance so that you know when to call in your reservation or enter the lottery. As of this writing, you may make reservations at federally-managed fire lookouts up to six months in advance.

Important Health and Safety Note: Fire lookouts are located at high elevations, far from medical assistance, cell phone towers, and hospitals. If you are not in good physical condition, are afraid of heights or have difficulty climbing stairs, you should not rent a fire lookout.

Fire lookout reservations are handled through Recreation.gov, the US government's reservation website. You can also make reservations or inquiries by telephone at (877) 444-6777 (toll-free) or (518) 885-3639 (from outside the US). If you are using the Recreation.gov website, you may find it easier to look at individual lookouts via the US Forest Service website. To do this, go to the Forest Service home page, click in the search box in the top right corner and enter "[state name] fire lookout." The search will return a list of results, including the names of individual fire lookouts.

In some searches, you will also see a result titled "Region [number] – Recreation…Lookout Rental Information Map." Clicking on that link will take you to a page that will contain information on fire lookout rentals in that Forest Service region.

Once you have chosen a lookout, you can go to Recreation.gov and search on that fire lookout's name, check availability and book online. You can also make reservations by telephone. You will be asked to pay for your entire rental when you make your reservation. Senior discounts do not apply to fire lookout reservations. You will receive a confirmation letter, which you must have in order to get the key or gate code for the lookout.

In most cases, renters are strongly urged to leave children under 12 at home, due to the safety concerns common to all high-elevation backcountry trips.

Lookout rental fees vary, but most cost about $40 to $80 per day. You will also pay a separate $9 reservation fee. If you need to cancel your reservation, you can do so by paying a $10 cancellation fee up to 14 days before your rental date. After that, you will be charged $10 plus the first night's rental.

If you are a no-show, you will forfeit your entire payment.

Some fire lookouts are available for camping but are not rented out. In these situations, use of the lookout is on a first-come, first-served basis.

If bad weather is in the forecast, the rangers in charge of your lookout may cancel your rental. This is for your safety and theirs.

What to Bring to Your Fire Lookout

You must bring your reservation confirmation letter when you pick up the keys or gate access code from the ranger station. Keep the letter with you while you are staying in the fire lookout.

You may also need a backcountry permit, depending on the location of your lookout.

Bring all the food, water, personal supplies, bedding, first aid supplies, eating utensils, trash bags, toilet paper, matches, towels, dishwashing and hand soap, insect repellent and light sources (flashlights and lanterns) that you will need. Bring at least one gallon of water per person per day. Depending on which lookout you rent, you may also need to bring a camp stove, firewood, pots and pans and cooking utensils. Check your lookout's website for more information about what to bring.

Pack cameras and binoculars. Expect amazing views.

Occasionally, vandals break into lookouts and steal some of the supplies intended for renters' use. Check with the rangers in charge of your lookout and ask for an update on the lookout's status, or bring everything you think you will need in case the lookout's supplies have been stolen.

Use local firewood at your fire lookout. Do not bring firewood from more than 50 miles away, as you may inadvertently transport pests that can harm the forest.

You must take everything you bring to the fire lookout with you when you leave, including trash. Some lookouts require renters to filter food particles from dishwashing water and take those particles home as trash.

Fire Lookout Camping Tips

Carefully read the online information about your fire lookout. If you have questions about the lookout's location or amenities, call the ranger station that oversees your lookout.

Be sure to call the ranger station a few days before your planned arrival to learn about current road and trail conditions.

Some lookouts can only be reached by long dirt or gravel roads that can be difficult to navigate. Consider driving a high-clearance vehicle to your lookout, especially if you are traveling in the spring or fall when roads can be wet, muddy or icy.

Prepare as you would for a backcountry camping trip. Bring your own water and plan to use flashlights or a camping lantern at night. If there happens to be a water supply nearby, you will probably have to boil or purify the water before using it.

Some lookouts have chairs, tables, a propane stove and a twin bed or two. A few have refrigerators, but you should bring ice and a cooler in case the refrigerator is not working.

Check the description of your lookout to find out what type of toilet is nearby. "Outdoor toilets" (outhouses) and vault toilets (waste is captured in a sealed, underground tank) are the most common. You will probably need to bring your own toilet paper.

Fire lookouts are, with a few exceptions, towers. Expect to ascend at least one flight of stairs, and probably more, to get to the lookout. Your lookout may sway in the wind, too.

As you would on any backcountry trip, plan for sudden changes in weather, even if the forecasters predict sunshine.

Dump your wash water in an appropriate place. Remember that dumping food waste out with dishwashing water will attract rodents and other wildlife. Consider filtering out the food particles and packing them out as trash, even if your rental agreement does not require you to do so.

Remember to clean the lookout and return the key to the ranger station before you head home.