Growing up country, burn barrels area part of our way of life. Not all preppers spent their childhoods running up and down dirt roads in their bare feet and playing in the woods. But when SHTF, literally all preppers will need to figure out ways to safely dispose of trash, and a burn barrel is a quick and easy one.
While setting up a burn barrel is not a complicated process, folks with no background in how they work could easily see a simple burning of a bag of trash turn into a tragic situation.
Brush fires are one of the most dangerous types of flames a firefighter could battle. It constantly garners fuel from both natural and man-made fuel, and shifts direction quickly due to only a slight change in the wind.
Setting up a burn barrel is only part of the equation. You must also take into consideration barrel placement, weather conditions and the type of material going into the 55-gallon drum. Burn barrels are not dangerous as long as they are set up and used properly – and local laws are followed to avoid stiff fines or arrest.
When I was the editor of our county newspaper, I used to go onto a lot of fire calls.
Over the course of those years, and since listening to my firefighter husband’s radio, I learned first hand how quickly poor barrel placement, weather, a worn out barrel, and leaving the burning items unattended can cause a raging brush fire that will take out a nearby home – and more.
What Is A Burn Barrel?
A typical burn barrel is a 55-gallon open metal drum that has been slightly modified. The diameter of the most commonly used burn barrels is about 33.5 inches tall and 22.5 inches wide.
If buying a used metal drum (which often happens) it is essential to know what the barrel had housed previously. If toxic or highly flammable materials were stored inside, using the drum as a burn barrel could be extremely dangerous.
Burn Barrel Location
Never, ever place a burn barrel near your home, garage, barn, or storage building. If a brush fire does occur, all of the gasoline, diesel fuel, and propane stored in a garage or shed will cause it to spread more rapidly or risk a potential explosion happening.
A burn barrel should be placed on solid ground that is free of grass or debris either around or beneath it. The 55-gallon drum will be placed upon cinder blocks, the area under it and around it still needs to be cut down to the dirt and raked to remove any potential fuel that hot embers could ignite.
Burn Barrel Covers
Many folks do not cover their burn barrels, but doing so it a really great idea. A tiny ember that blows out of the 55-gallon drum, even hours after the trash has been burnt, can start a fire if it lands on dry debris or flammable materials.
To make a cover for a burn barrel, simply cut a piece of hardware cloth (rabbit hutch wire) large enough to fit over the mouth of the barrel.
Bend it down the center to crease it a bit so it stays in place. If it is too windy for the hardware cloth to remain in place without tying it to a hole you drill in the barrel, it is too windy to be burning trash.
You can place a piece of metal sheeting over the mouth of the barrel to keep rain, snow, and ice out when it is not in use – or simply flip the burn barrel over and put a cinder block on top.
If you opt to make a downtime barrel cover, drill a hole in the edge of each side, as well as the corresponding sides of the barrel, and attach it with a bit of chain, or tie down straps that can be easily removed when needed.
What You Shouldn’t Burn In A Metal Barrel
- ❌ Food scraps – these are best tossed into your compost pile to make quality dirt for your survival garden.
- ❌ Non-combustible items, like glass, lightbulbs, and aerosol cans.
- ❌ Hazardous waste
- ❌ Diseased plants or trees – the spores can fly out of the barrel and spread their fungus.
How To Make A Burn Barrel
- 55-gallon drum barrel
- 2 cinder blocks
- Power drill with a 1 ½ bit – or depending upon where you live, a firearm.
- Drill or safely shoot air holes into the lower sides of the barrel – about three or four on each side will do. It does not hurt to add more holes up the side (but they are not necessary) unless you add so many the metal drum becomes unstable.
- Some folks drill or shoot up to two ½ holes in the bottom of the barrel to create additional air flow. If you choose to do so, this will improve rain drainage, but mandates occasional scooping out of ashes around the base of the burn barrel.
- Place two cinder blocks in the desired barrel placement spot.
- Sit the 55-gallon drum on top of the cinder blocks.
- Use tin snips or a steel saw to cut the hardware cloth and metal sheeting covers to fit – if you are using them.
Burn Barrel Tips
Burn only one or two bags of trash at a time. If you overload, the burn barrel embers will blow out of the 55-gallon drum far easier. Also, if too much trash is placed in the barrel at a time, it will smolder but not burn. This can cause more of a safety concern if the barrel is left unattended, because you think the rubbish did not catch.
The ashes left in the bottom of the barrel or beneath it will need to be scooped up or they will blow everywhere. Depending upon what you burned in the barrel, the ashes can be placed in the compost pile.
Always remove unburnt trash from the burn barrel. Do not put trash inside the 55-gallon drum before you are ready to set it on fire. The rubbish will attract unwanted predators and rodents to your survival homestead.
Sooner or later, the metal burn barrel will rust. There is simply no way to prevent rust from developing on metal left outside and exposed to the elements. Plan for this eventuality and have another 55-gallon drum ready to be turned into a burn barrel.
It is not unusual for “burn bans” to be in effect during hot and dry seasons. Make sure you know the local laws and pay attention to emergency ban alerts in your area before filling the burn barrel with trash and setting it on fire.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.