Campfires are one of the best parts of camping. They provide warmth, light, ambiance and a place to cook delicious food. But how do you start a campfire safely and efficiently? In this blog post, we will show you the basic steps and tips for building a successful campfire, whether you are at a campground or in the backcountry.
Step 1: Find or Build a Fire Ring
The first thing you need to do is find or build a fire ring. A fire ring is a circle of rocks or metal that contains the fire and prevents it from spreading. If you are at a campground, there are usually designated fire rings, fireplaces or grills to build fires. Most campgrounds have some version of these. Using a fire ring will lessen your impact and keep your fire contained. Always check with the campground operator to make sure fires are permitted. In some areas, severe dry periods can cause campfires to be prohibited even in campgrounds1.
If you are in the backcountry, where fires are permitted, use an existing fire ring if one has been left behind. Build a new one only in emergency situations and, if the situation permits, dismantle it when you are done1. If one already exists, clean it out before you depart. Clear away all flammable material from your fire pit. Ideally, the base of your fire should be sand or gravel or mineral soil (often found in streambeds or on gravel bars)1. Intense heat can sterilize healthy soil, so choose your site conscientiously.
Your campfire needs to be on level ground and a minimum of 15 feet away from any tents and surrounding trees and bushes2. Pay attention to what’s above the site and avoid locations below low-hanging branches. Keep the site away from material that can become fuel, such as fallen leaves or pine straw2. The site should have shelter from wind gusts. Note the direction of prevailing winds that could carry sparks or embers away2.
Step 2: Gather Fire Wood
- Tinder includes small twigs, dry leaves, needles or forest duff13. Tinder is what you use to start the fire, so it should be very dry and easily ignitable.
- Kindling consists of small sticks, typically less than one inch around13. Kindling is what you use to grow the fire from tinder to firewood, so it should also be dry and catch fire quickly.
- Firewood is any larger piece of wood and is what will keep your fire going long into the night13. Firewood should be dry and seasoned (not green or wet), but not rotten or moldy.
If you are at a campground, use only local firewood1. Nearby stores often carry firewood, and sometimes campground hosts offer bundles of firewood or kindling for sale1. Do not bring wood with you if you’re traveling from more than 50 miles away1. Campgrounds may even ban bring-your-own firewood regardless of the distance you travel1. Why? To avoid introducing troublesome insects into a forest1. Call the campground or a local ranger office in advance for information and advice.
If you are in the backcountry, gather only downed wood far from your site1. Do not cut live trees or branches1. Look for wood that is dead, dry and off the ground1. Avoid wood that is damp, rotten or covered with moss or fungus1. Collect wood of different sizes, from pencil-thin to wrist-thick1. You will need more wood than you think, so gather enough to last for the duration of your fire.
Step 3: Lay Your Fire
There are many ways to lay a fire, but we will show you two common methods: the teepee and the platform.
- The teepee is a classic way to build a fire that produces a lot of heat and flames4. To build a teepee fire, start by placing some tinder in the center of your fire ring. Then arrange some kindling around it in a cone shape, leaving some space for air flow. Finally, add some firewood around the kindling in a larger cone shape. Leave an opening on the side where you will light the fire.
- The platform is another way to build a fire that produces a lot of coals and is good for cooking4. To build a platform fire, start by laying three or more pieces of firewood on the ground parallel to each other. Place three or more on top perpendicular to the first layer. Keep adding wood until the fire is at least three levels high. Then set some tinder and kindling on top of the platform.
Step 4: Light The Campfire
Now comes the fun part: lighting the campfire. You will need matches or a lighter to ignite the tinder. You can also use natural or artificial firestarters to help you start the fire faster and easier2. Firestarters are materials that burn longer and hotter than tinder, such as cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, dryer lint mixed with wax or commercial products like lighters cubes.
To light the campfire:
- Strike a match or flick your lighter and hold it to the tinder until it catches fire.
- Blow gently on the tinder to help it spread to the kindling.
- Add more tinder or kindling as needed until you have a steady flame.
- Once the kindling is burning well, add some small pieces of firewood.
- Gradually add larger pieces of firewood as the fire grows.
Step 5: Build Up And Maintain The Fire
Once you have a good campfire going, you need to keep it going by adding more fuel and adjusting it as needed.
- Add more wood when the flames get low or when you see mostly glowing coals.
- Use dry wood that is about as thick as your wrist or thicker for longer-lasting fires.
- Arrange the wood loosely to allow air flow between them.
- Avoid piling too much wood on top of each other as this can smother the fire.
- Use a stick or poker to move around the wood and coals to create more heat and flames.
- Keep an eye on your fire and don’t leave it unattended.
Step 6: Extinguish The Campfire
When you are done with your campfire, you need to put it out completely before you leave your site or go to sleep. A campfire can stay hot for hours or even days after it stops burning visibly2, so don’t assume it’s out just because you don’t see flames.
To extinguish your campfire:
- Let the wood burn down to ash as much as possible.
- Sprinkle water over the fire slowly and carefully until it stops hissing and steaming.
- Stir the ashes and coals with a stick or shovel to expose any hidden embers.
- Sprinkle more water over the fire until everything is wet and cold.
- Feel the ashes with your hand (be careful not to burn yourself) to make sure there is no heat left.
- If water is scarce or unavailable, use dirt or sand instead of water to smother the fire.
Step 7: Clean Up The Mess
The last step is to clean up your campfire site and leave no trace behind.
To clean up your campfire:
- Scatter any remaining ashes and coals over a wide area away from your site.
- If you built a new fire ring, dismantle it and return the rocks to their original places.
- If you used a mound fire, disperse the soil over a wide area away from your site.
- Restore the appearance of your site as much as possible by removing any trash or debris.
- Pack out any leftover wood that you brought with you.
And that’s how you start a campfire! We hope this blog post was helpful and informative for you. Remember to always follow local regulations and safety precautions when building a campfire outdoors. Have fun and enjoy your camping trip!