How To Build A Campfire

The smell of roasted marshmallows… The incomparable feeling of warmth… The chilling ghost stories, wrapped in the sound of crackle-popping… There are few things that are more refreshing or heart-warming than sitting around a blazing campfire.

Whether you’re using it to cook a meal, stay warm, or as a scenic backdrop, fire is a staple of camping culture.

However, with all this love and warmth, comes potential dangers and uncertainty. It’s vital that anyone starting a fire knows how to do so safely and effectively. You must be aware of responsibility that comes with lighting a fire in the wilderness and the regulations that are in place to prevent disaster. No one should ever set a fire in nature without learning all the dos and don’ts of how to start a campfire.

Before You Begin

No matter what our reason is for creating a campfire, we must ALWAYS put safety first.

First time campers may assume that making a fire is as simple as picking a spot and lighting up some wood. However, each region has a different set of rules and regulations which you must be aware of. These regulations are in place for the purpose of safety and preservation. Even if there aren’t strict rules where you are, you still must take precautions.

If you’re in the backcountry, avoid lighting campfires in excessively dry areas. If there’s been a drought recently, it may not be wise to light a fire, as the risk of spreading it is much higher. It’s also important to be aware of the fire danger level of the area that you’re camping in. In the year 2019, humans caused 87% of all wildfires. DO NOT contribute to this issue!

Also: never, EVER, under any circumstances leave a fire unattended to. All it takes is one gust of wind to turn a friendly, cozy campfire into a ferocious wildfire.

Regardless of where you are, you should always remain up to date on the USDA’s fire restrictions. You must learn how to build a fire without violating the law. Make sure fires are permitted in your area. There are regulations based on altitude and other ecological factors as well. If you’re not in the US, check with your country’s laws based on campfires in the wilderness. Better safe than sorry.

If you’re at an established, organized campground, check in with their specific regulations. Most campgrounds will have rules laid out on their website, or written out on signs. Don’t assume that you can freely light a fire just because you see other campers doing it. It never hurts to check in with a campground operator or a park ranger.

Group of campers surrounding a fire at twilight.

If a campsite has designated fire rings, use them. There’s no need to build you own fire bed.

If there are no rings, make sure your fire bed sits at least 15 feet away from all trees, bushes, shrubs, dry grass, or any other flammable elements.

Also, you shouldn’t throw man-made trash into your fire. Items like cans, bottles, tins or any type of plastic can release toxic fumes into the air. Also, if it’s not biodegradable, it will remain in the ecosystem long after you’re gone.

Gather Your Supplies

Now that you’ve done a bit of research into safety regulations, we can talk about how to start a fire. First, you’re going to have to do a bit of “hunter-gathering.”

Collecting Firewood

Creating a campfire is not as simple as just picking out a few sticks and taking a match to them. There are 3 types of firewood you’ll need to collect in order to build a successful fire.

Tinder

Tinder is not just a convenient dating app, it’s the backbone of your fire. This is where it all starts. For tinder, you can use dry leaves, dry grass, pine needles, wood shavings, dry bark or fungi. If you’re planning before you leave the house, you can also bring along cardboard, newspaper or commercial fire sticks. The key here is finding material that is dry. If it’s damp, it’s defunct. If it’s wet, it’s a waste.

If a campfire was a body, then the tinder would be its heart.

Dark piece of tinder with a mushroom in the middle.

Pro Tip:

If you’re feeling crafty, you can use drier lint as tinder! A great tip is to use cardboard egg cartons as a canister. Fill each of the “egg pockets” up with lint. Once you’re ready to build your fire, tear the canisters off. Throw a couple of these into your fire bed and they should work like magic!

Kindling

If tinder is the heart of the bonfire, then kindling is the veins that transport the blood. Kindling should consist of larger sticks- somewhere between the size of your pinky and a pencil. Search the area surrounding your campsite for sticks and twigs that range in length, but they must be dry.

If you’re unsure whether a stick is dry enough, try bending it. If it snaps audibly, you should be good to go. If it bends without breaking, it’s not dry enough.

YOU SHOULD NEVER:

Break/saw branches off of trees or any live plants. This is harmful to the ecosystem. Plus, live plants are usually full of moisture and will not burn easily.

Fuel Wood

The component of firewood that almost everybody is familiar with. Fuel wood is the largest type of wood that you’ll need to collect. It’s best to aim for logs the size of your wrist or forearm. You don’t want to go much larger than this as the bigger it is, the longer it’ll take to catch fire. Try your best to find fuel wood in ranging lengths and widths.

If you find a fuel wood-worthy log that’s slightly wet, don’t lose hope. If you have a whittling knife, you may carefully carve around the damp sections, leaving only dry wood behind.

Fuel wood is like the vital organs that receive blood from your veins. It would be meaningless without tinder or kindling, but your fire can’t function properly without it.

Things To Remember

When you are gathering any type of wood, make sure you’re collecting from the local area only. Bringing firewood from more than 50 miles away may bring foreign insects and bacteria into the ecosystem. In some cases, this can wreak havoc on the local environment.

Also, when collecting firewood, you should grab twice as much as you think you’ll need. Always keep a good-sized stock pile near your fire (but not too close to your fire). This way, when your firewood is almost gone, you don’t have to scramble looking for new material.

Using A Fire Starter

It goes without saying that firewood is useless if you aren’t able to light it. There are a few different options for fire starting, though some are more helpful than others.

  • Utility lighters (also known as candle lighters) are great for campfires. These are the ones with the long, metal necks. They allow you to ignite your firewood while keeping your hand a good distance away from the flame.
  • Spark-wheel lighters are small, easy to carry and the most common type of lighter out there. They will get the job done, but they’re not the best for lighting campfires. They require that you get very close to the flame, meaning it’s easier to get burned.
  • Matches are the preferred choice for many campers. If you decide to use them, you must: strike the match, light your firewood, blow the match out, wait for it to get cold and then drop it into the fire. If you drop a flaming match into your firewood, there’s a chance it could blow away and start a forest fire.
  • Flint spark lighters are also a great option (yes, the ones you used in science class to light the bunsen burners). You must use these carefully and refrain from this method on windy days.

If you like to live on the rugged side, or if you forgot to bring a fire starter, there are ways to ignite your firewood without matches or lighters. On a sunny day, you can use a magnifying glass or pair of glasses to get the job done!

I don’t recommend using lighter fluid or any other kind of fuel on your fire. These are potentially dangerous and harmful to the environment. Plus, if you follow our steps as they’re laid out, you won’t need lighter fluid.

Let’s Build Our Fire Bed

Before you get started on the campfire itself, you must build your fire bed. This is the foundation which your fire will depend on.

In The Backcountry

If you’re in the wilderness, your fire bed needs to be in an open area, at least 15 feet away from any flammable objects. This means trees, bushes, shrubs, patches of dry grass, dead leaves, alcohol (if it’s that kind of camping trip) or anything else along those lines. Try to pick a spot that’s not too windy to prevent embers from blowing away when the fire starts.

It’s always important to be respectful to your environment when choosing a campsite. If you don’t, you run the risk of causing great harm to the ecosystem. I suggest reading more on how to minimize your impact while camping.

Once you’ve found a spot for your fire bed, you must sweep the ground clean of any dead leaves or vegetation. Leave an area (about 10 feet in diameter) of nothing but bare dirt.

Your fire bed also needs a barrier. You can either dig a few inches into the ground to create a pit, or collect rocks to create a perimeter around your fire bed.

Hands over a bonfire at night.

At An Established Campsite

Most of the precautionary rules of backcountry campfires apply here. Stay away from flammables and stay shielded from strong winds.

Many established campsites have pre-made fire pits which save a lot of the work for you. However, you’ll still have to clear your fire bed. These pits often have leftover ash and fire residue from previous campers. Use a broom, rake, stick or whatever you have on hand to sweep this out. Your firewood needs a clean bed to lie on.

Creating A Campfire

Now that our fire bed is cleared and ready to go, we must think about the purpose of our fire. There are various campfire techniques that we can use for different reasons.

Fires For Cooking

Sometimes, our sole purpose for creating a campfire is to whip up something to eat. Whether you’re looking to smoke sausages, roast marshmallows, scramble eggs or boil water, these are the best campfires for cooking.

Lean-To Campfire

  1. Grab a long piece of kindling and stick it in the ground at a 30 degree angle, pointing toward the direction of the wind.
  2. Gather your tinder and place it underneath the lean-to stick.
  3. Find pieces of kindling that are shorter than your lean-to stick. Place these against the lean-to stick and the tinder. Keep them close together, but not right on top of each other; we need oxygen to pass through. This formation should start to look like a tent.
  4. Create a second layer of kindling. Repeat the process from step 3, using bigger kindling pieces this time.
  5. Light your fire from the tinder and you’re good to go!

Teepee Campfire

  1. Gather up your tinder and place it in the center of the fire pit.
  2. Use several pieces of kindling to lean them against each other, creating a teepee-like formation above the tinder. Make sure it’s sturdy. You can dig the sticks slightly into the ground if you feel it’s necessary.
  3. Use larger pieces of kindling to create another teepee layer around the first. Leave a gap in the teepee on the side where the wind is blowing. This will give your fire some airflow, and allow you to reach inside so that you can…
  4. …light the tinder! The flames will travel upward and each layer of the teepee will burn periodically.
  5. As the fire burns through each layer, the teepee will begin to collapse. If you want a longer lasting fire, you can continue adding layers of kindling and even fuel wood.

Fires For Warmth & Recreation

Sometimes, our sole reason for creating a campfire is to provide a little extra heat or to have something pretty to look at. If you’re planning on telling ghost stories late into the night, try one of these techniques to create a long-lasting campfire.

Log Cabin Campfire

  1. Start by placing the heart of your fire, the tinder, at the base. Bunch some up and lie it down in the center of your fire bed.
  2. Create a teepee formation around the tinder using smaller pieces of kindling. Repeat steps 2 and 3 from the teepee campfire instructions, but on a slightly smaller scale.
  3. Take 2 pieces of fuel wood and place them on opposite sides of the teepee, so that they’re parallel with each other.
  4. Take 2 more pieces of fuel wood and place them on the other 2 sides, opposite from each other. This should form a square. Allow them to lie on top of the other 2 pieces, similar to the way you’d build Lincoln Logs.
  5. Add a few more layers on top of the fuel wood, using smaller logs in alternating directions. Be sure to leave enough space between them for airflow. This should begin to look like a log cabin with a teepee sticking out from the middle.
  6. Top off your “log cabin” with a bit of tinder, and light ‘er up!

Pyramid Campfire

  1. Start with a row of 3-4 fuel logs, placed side by side on the fire bed.
  2. Add a row of slightly smaller logs on top of these, turned 90 degrees so that they’re perpendicular to the ones below.
  3. Repeat this process for multiple layers. The logs should get smaller and alternate directions with each layer. You’ll begin to form a pyramid-like structure.
  4. At the top of your pyramid, add some kindling and tinder.
  5. Set fire to the tinder and let it burn. Monitor it carefully to ensure that the tinder doesn’t blow away.

Light It Up

Some campers put all their time and effort into structuring their campfire, and then can’t seem to get it to light. This step is not always as easy as it seems.

As stated in the instructions for each fire, you must always light from the tinder. This is the driest and most flammable component of your fire.

Try lighting the tinder from multiple sides. Sometimes, setting fire to one area is not enough as it can burn out quickly. After you’ve taken a flame to the tinder, blow lightly at it to help the fire breathe. Use a stick to carefully stir the burning tinder, allowing the flames to spread throughout it.

Small sticks lighting on fire.

You always want to make sure your tinder does not get smothered by the surrounding wood. Fires need oxygen to stay alive. Therefore, you must make sure your tinder has sufficient airflow. A little bit of wind is not a bad thing.

If you place your tinder directly on the ground, it’s a good idea to dig a tiny divot into the floor beneath it. This allows oxygen to pass through to the bottom of the tinder, thus increasing the chances of a successful fire.

Burn It Out

The most obvious, yet important rule of campfires: if you light it up, then you must burn it out. As stated previously, you should NEVER leave your fire unattended to.

Don’t Rush It

Putting out a campfire takes a bit of time. Don’t go in expecting to toss some water on it and be on your way. Allow yourself a good 20 – 30 minutes to put the fire out. If you have plans to be somewhere else, then start the extinguishing process early.

Assuming the fire is “good enough” and leaving your campsite is NOT AN OPTION.

Spray Will Go A Long Way

When it’s time to put your fire out, I recommend using a spraying technique rather than dumping entire buckets of water. Using too much water can render a fire pit unusable for future campers. This is especially relevant if you’re using a fire ring at an established campsite.

Splash a bit of water from a bucket, or bring a spray bottle with you to put the fire out. Stir the ashes around as you do so to make sure the water reaches all of the embers. Continue this process until you no longer see steam emitting from the ashes.

If your fire is burning out of control and you’re concerned about safety, then it’s okay to dump water.

Feel The Heat

Sometimes, a campfire may look like it’s extinguished completely when it’s not. Smoldering ashes can hide like killers in the night, waiting for the perfect gust of wind to blow them away and set the forest on fire.

To make sure this doesn’t happen, raise the palm of your hand to the ashes. See if you can feel any radiating heat from a few inches away. If the ashes are still hot, the fire is not completely dead. Spray some more water. Stir the ashes again. Wait until they’re cool to the touch.

Clean It Up!

We must never forget that when we venture out into the wilderness, we’re guests in nature’s home. Respect the wild and the ecosystem by erasing any trace of your presence there.

Once your fire is completely extinguished, scoop out the remaining ashes and put them into a bag, can or container. This is where a trowel may come in handy, as you’ll be able to scoop up the ashes without getting your hands dirty.

As you’re leaving your campsite, you can spread the ashes out across the ground.

If you’ve disrupted the ground in any way, replace the soil. Try your best to make the forest floor like like it had never been touched.

A successful campfire is one that burns correctly, stays contained and leaves no lasting impact on the environment.

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