How to Spend the Night at a Fire Tower | A Comprehensive Adventure Guide
For some reason, visiting a fire tower quickly moved to the top of our summer bucket list. There is just something about the opportunity to hike through a beautiful landscape and then reach a historic place that really spoke to us (especially Madalyne).
Luckily, in the western United States in particular, you can find a wide array of fire towers. From outposts on the tops of granite peaks to hideaways on windswept ridges, there is a fire tower for every type of adventurer.
So if you are like us and are hoping to visit a fire tower yourself — or even better spend the night at one — then keep reading to learn everything you need to know about visiting and staying at a fire tower in the USA.
\\ A Short History of Fire Towers in the USA
Fire lookout towers or just “fire towers” were originally built to simply provide housing and protection for a “fire lookout” — someone whose duty was to search for wildfires out in the wilderness. Most fire towers simply consist of a small building or room (known as a cab) that has lots of windows and is usually situated on the summit of a mountain or other high vantage point (some are even built on large stilts to help maximize viewing distance).
Historically, the tops of tall trees were used to mount permanent platforms in order to monitor fire activities. In fact, purpose-built towers only gained popularity in the early 1900s. Likewise, the method of reporting wildfires has also changed pretty drastically over the years: telephones, carrier pigeons and heliographs (a device using two mirrors to reflect sunlight) and Morse code have all been used previously. Today, radios and phones are almost solely used to relay important information.
So why were so many fire towers built across the USA?
Actually, there weren’t always so many towers: early on many towns, lumber companies, and state forestry organizations simply had to operate their own private fire towers. In fact, it wasn’t until the Great Fire of 1910 — also known as the Big Blowup — that the idea of building an organization of fire towers across the country came to be.
The Great Fire of 1910 tore through the states of Montana, Idaho and Washington and eventually burned 3 million acres (12,000 square kilometers). The smoke from this fire drifted across the entire country and all of the way to Washington D.C. Thanks to the heavy smoke, the fire led the newly created US Forest Service to address new policies regarding fire suppression and planning. In fact, one of the main rules that came out of this destruction was that “all fires must be extinguished by 10AM the following morning” (man we wish that was still true).
As a result of the above rule, early fire detection and suppression became a huge priority. Enter: fire towers. Soon enough towers were being built around the country, and especially in the Western states like Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington. By the late 1930s, over 5,000 fire towers had been constructed.
Today, many of the original fire towers are either not in use anymore or have been completely demolished. Therefore it can be an extra special experience to visit one — especially some of the older ones that have a long history and some absolutely stunning views.
❔GOOD TO KNOW: while the heyday of fire towers was definitely between the 1930s and the 1950s, during World War II (thanks to the Aircraft Warning Service) many fire towers were assigned additional duties as Enemy Aircraft Spotters (especially on the West Coast of the United States).
➳ You can learn more about the history of fire towers here.
\\ Locations of Fire Towers in the USA
While many fire towers have been torn down, there are still plenty of options available if you are hoping to visit or stay at one — especially if you are looking to do so in the Western half of the USA.
Below we outline some interesting stats on where you can still find some of these unique beacons of environmental progress and protection, as well as helpful information on what to know once you are actually adventuring to a fire tower yourself.
STATS ON USA FIRE TOWERS
There were once fire towers in practically every state of the USA (all except Kansas). Unfortunately, today many of those fire towers are either closed to the public, in total disrepair (aka unsafe to visit), or have been torn down completely.
Below are the 6 states with the highest number of fire towers that you can still visit:
STATE | TOTAL SITES (Historically) | STILL STANDING
IDAHO | 989 | 196
OREGON | 849 | 207
WASHINGTON | 656 | 107
CALIFORNIA | 625 | 198
MONTANA | 639 | 130
PENNSYLVANIA | 449 | 64
Interestingly enough, the mountainous (and fire-prone) states of Colorado and Alaska have historically had very few fire towers. Colorado only ever had 30 (today 14 are left), while Alaska only ever had 2 (today only one still stands).
\\ What to Know About Staying the Night At a Fire Tower
While you can usually visit a fire tower without any problems (if you don’t count maybe a long and arduous hike a problem), if you are hoping to stay the night at one, then you will very likely need to do a bit more planning — especially for some of the more remote ones.
Fire towers are more often than not quite rustic and primitive — meaning really only the basics are provided (table, chair, a woodstove and maybe a bunk or two). This means that you will need to make sure to bring all other necessities with you (including water and/or firewood for heating). If you are looking for an adventure and are down to pack mule some stuff in — great! If not, then maybe this isn’t the type of adventure for you.
Likewise, expect to have to use an outdoor toilet (most likely an outhouse) and to have to bring your own source of lighting (don’t expect electricity either).
Still interested in staying at a fire tower? Awesome!
Below is an outline of what you will need to do in order to actually stay at a fire tower, as well as a list of the most necessary gear to bring with you.
HOW TO RESERVE A FIRE TOWER
There are really two ways to reserve a fire tower: through the US Forest Service (USFS) or via a private owner (most likely through Airbnb). Below is an outline of how to do it for both options.
HOW TO RESERVE A FIRE TOWER THROUGH THE US FOREST SERVICE
Likely the easiest way to reserve a night at a fire tower in the USA is through the US Forest Service and their online reservation system.
A couple of important things to know:
1 | All fire towers (and other Forest Service buildings) are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.
2 | The daily rental rate for each facility as well as the maximum length of stay varies based on the fire tower.
3 | A non-refundable recreation fee will be charged and all reservations must be made with a credit card.
➳ Learn more and make your reservation here.
HOW TO RESERVE A FIRE TOWER ELSEWHERE
While most fire towers are overseen by the US Forest Service, some are also rented out by private owners. And most of the fire towers that are rented by private owners can be reserved via Airbnb.
Below are two of the best fire tower rentals — not owned by the USFS — that you can rent:
\\ What Gear to Bring With You When Staying At a Fire Tower
Check out this comprehensive list of the most important gear you will want to bring with you when staying the night at a fire tower. While some of these items might not be totally necessary, they will all likely make your adventure that much more comfortable.
Sleeping Bag. Pack a comfortable sleeping bag that will keep you nice and cozy at night. This 20° bag from The North Face is made from recycled polyester insulation that will help keep you warm even if it turns a little damp. | CHECK IT OUT
Sleeping Pad (if necessary). Some fire towers include mattresses (check beforehand), but if the one you are heading to doesn’t, make sure to pack a pad like this ultralight one from Therm-a-Rest. | CHECK IT OUT
Camp Pillow. This might be more of a “nice-to-have” instead of a necessity, but to each their own. We personally like to use backpacks or extra jackets as pillows, but if you like the extra comfort then consider this camp pillow by Sea to Summit. | CHECK IT OUT
Petzl Headlamp. This is an absolute necessity (even if the fire tower has electricity). You will want to pack a strong headlamp so that you can find your way outside once the sun goes down (like when you have to go to the bathroom) or in case you find yourself having to hike in the dark because you started too late in the day (happens to the best of us). | CHECK IT OUT
Lantern (if necessary). If you have the extra space in your pack, then consider bringing a handy lantern to help light the cab up once the sun sets. Luckily, because fire towers are so compact, you can get away with a lightweight and small lantern like this one from Black Diamond. | CHECK IT OUT
Cozy Pants. While you may not want to hike in these super cozy fleece joggers from Backcountry, once you get to the fire tower — and especially once that sun goes down — you will very likely be looking for something cozy to curl up in. This pair would work perfectly. | CHECK IT OUT
Thermal Shirt. Top off your cozy cab outfit with this cable knit sweater from Fjallraven. Not only is it nice and warm, but it’s cute too. If you need something else up top — like maybe a warm base layer (for those really cold nights and mornings) then make sure to pack a top like this one from Smartwool.
Puffy Jacket. The final layer that you should consider adding to your setup is this well-priced down jacket from Marmot. Not only is it lightweight and easy to pack down, but it also has a lifetime warranty. | CHECK IT OUT
Wool Socks. We strongly believe that you should never head out on an overnight adventure without at least one pair of warm socks. This wool pair by Smartwool not only works great while out on the trail, but it will also keep your feet nice and toasty once you make it to camp (or in this case, the fire tower). | CHECK IT OUT
Beanie. Another outdoor item worth packing — even if the weather looks like it should be nice — is a warm beanie. This one by The North Face is comfortable and stylish. | CHECK IT OUT
Warm Gloves. The final piece of gear you should pack with you for your overnight stay in a fire tower is a high-quality pair of gloves. This set by Hestra is a bit on the pricey side, but they are not only super warm but also very durable. | CHECK IT OUT
Hiking Boots. Due to the fact that many fire towers are built in remote locations, you will want to make sure to wear a pair of durable shoes to reach them. This pair by Danner will be able to keep you comfortable no matter how many miles you have to hike in (and out). | CHECK THEM OUT
Backpack. As you can now imagine, you will likely have to bring a fair bit of gear with you for your overnight fire tower adventure. Therefore you will want a nice, durable and comfortable backpack to carry it all in — like this 43-liter one from Gregory. | CHECK IT OUT
Sunglasses. Maybe just another piece of “nice-to-have” gear, but these sunglasses by Goodr are probably a great idea to have with you — especially if you are hiking during really sunny conditions (headaches suck). | CHECK THEM OUT
Sunhat. The final bit of hiking gear you will want to consider bringing with you on your adventure to a fire tower is a comfortable sun hat. This high-quality one by Stetson will not only protect you from the sun’s harmful rays, but it also looks good on and off the trail. | CHECK IT OUT
EXTRA: WATER AND FOOD
Besides the above list of outdoor gear, you will also of course want to make sure to bring plenty of water (or at least a water filter) as well as plenty of food with you up to the tower. We recommend packing food that needs the least amount of water and/or fuel (or electricity if you are lucky enough to stay at a fire tower that has it). Backpacking meals are always a great option, as are many easy-to-make camping meals like ramen.
💬INSIDER TIP: make sure to call ahead/reach out or do some research ahead of time to figure out what is available in your selected fire tower. You will definitely want to know what is already in the tower so you can pack accordingly. This includes whether firewood or heating is provided, whether there is electricity and water, and what kind of bedding materials can be found inside.
Staying the night at a fire tower is an incredible experience. While it does take a bit of planning — especially for those more remote ones — we believe it is 100% worth the effort. The views, the feeling of being out in nature while still being protected from the elements, and just the feeling of being back in time for a bit are really amazing and definitely worth pursuing.
Hopefully, this adventure guide helps you plan your own fire tower adventure. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.