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How to Build a Campfire

Whether you need it to keep warm, cook food, or just create the right ambiance, no camping trip is complete without a fire. If you've never built one before, though, the process can seem somewhat intimidating. The key is being prepared with the right supplies and knowing what you're going to use your fire for so you can figure out the best type of campfire to meet your needs.

Preparing for a Campfire

Bring tinder. To start an effective campfire, you must start with tinder, which are the smallest fire-starting materials and burn the easiest. The tinder must be dry, so it’s best to bring tinder with you from home instead of looking for it while camping. You can use a variety of household items as tinder, such as:

  • Wood shavings

  • Wadded newspaper

  • Cardboard

  • Wax

  • Dryer lint

  • Commercial fire sticks

Gather kindling.

To keep your fire burning, you’ll need to add some more substantial material to the tinder. Kindling is larger than tinder materials, but not so large that it will smother the fire’s flames. Look around your campground for small twigs and branches to use as kindling.

  • Choose twigs and branches with a diameter between ⅛- and ½-inch, or approximately the width of a pencil.

  • Just as with tinder, it’s important that your kindling materials are dry. If there are any damp areas on the twigs and branches, use a pocket knife to carefully whittle them off.

Collect firewood.

For your campfire to really maintain its flames, you must add larger pieces of wood. These materials, usually known as firewood or fuelwood, can be anywhere from 1- to 5-inches in diameter, so you can use complete logs or split larger pieces of wood into smaller chunks.

  • You shouldn’t break branches off trees to use as firewood or you’ll ruin the trees at your campsite. Instead, look for pieces that have already fallen off.

  • Look for firewood that bends or snaps easily. That way, you’ll know it’s dry enough to burn in the fire.

  • You don’t want to use firewood that’s too large because it will take much longer to start burning.

  • If you’re not sure whether wood is the right size, compare it to your wrist or forearm -- they should be about the same size.

Pack a firestarter.

Once you have the proper materials to build your fire, you’ll need something to light it. Make sure to include some type of firestarter in your camping gear, so you can easily start your fire. Regular matches work well to start a fire, but you may prefer to use a lighter.

  • You can also use a ferro-flint rod as a firestarter when camping. Also known as a flint spark lighter, it generates a spark that helps ignite your fire materials.

Creating a Fire Pit

Make sure campfires are permitted.

Before you begin building a fire, it’s important to verify that fires are allowed in the area. Look around your campsite for posted signs, which will usually inform you if fires aren’t permitted. You can also ask a ranger or the campsite’s host if fires are allowed.

  • Don’t assume that a campfire is permitted just because there’s a fire ring at your campsite. It may be intended for use with a camping stove but not an open flame.

  • In some cases, there may be fire restrictions in place, which limit the types of fires that you are permitted to light. Make sure you understand what materials you’re allowed to use for your fire.

  • Campfires may not be permitted at certain altitudes, in areas that are experiencing droughts and are extremely dry, or at times when the winds are very strong.

Choose a spot for the fire.

Some campsites have specific fire rings designed for building a fire. However, if you’re camping in an area that doesn’t have a fire ring, it’s important to choose the right spot for the fire. Make sure that the site is at least 15-feet from tents, shrubs, trees, and any other flammable objects.

  • If your campsite has a fire ring, there may be ashes in it from a previous fire. Push them to the outside of the ring to make room for your fire. If the ashes are completely cold, you can also place them in a plastic bag so can dispose of them properly later.

  • Make sure the spot that you choose is shielded from wind gusts, which can not only make it more difficult to light but can help spread the fire if the flames get too large.

Clear and dig out the spot. It’s best to build a campfire on bare dirt, so you may need to clear the spot you’ve chosen. Remove any dead grass, leaves, or other vegetation to create an 8- to 10-foot area of bare soil for the fire. Next, dig down into the dirt for several inches to create a pit to contain the fire.

  • Keep the removed dirt close to the fire. You can use it to help smother the flames in case of an emergency.

  • You can place the removed dirt in a mounded ring around your fire pit to serve as a firewall. Setting large rocks around the pit can also help insulate the fire.

Building a Teepee Campfire

Place tinder in the center of the fire pit. As with most campfires, a teepee fire starts with a foundation of tinder. Gather up your tinder materials and place them in a bundle in the center of the fire location.

  • To make it easier to bundle the tinder, you may want to lay it on top of a piece of dry tree bark.

Create a teepee with kindling and firewood. Once your tinder material is in place in the center, gather your kindling and use approximately five or six pieces to create a cone-like teepee shape around the tinder. Next, add a layer of firewood to create a larger teepee around the first.

  • Stick the smaller twigs and branches into the ground to help secure the teepee.

  • Start with smaller pieces of kindling and move on to larger pieces for a second layer as you build the structure.

  • Make sure to leave an opening in the teepee so you can light the fire when you’re ready. Place the opening on the side of the teepee where the wind is blowing, so the fire will get the air needed to maintain it.

  • Leave spaces between the pieces of wood as you place them to help air circulate through the fire as well.

  • Keep a reserve pile of kindling and firewood on hand after building the teepee. You may need it later to feed the fire.

Light the tinder. With the teepee structure in place, it’s time to light the fire. Place a match or lighter under the tinder to ignite it. The teepee structure helps encourage the flames to move upward, so the kindling should catch fire first, followed by the firewood.

  • If the flames don’t move from the tinder to the kindling and firewood, you may need to relight the tinder to get the fire started.

Add kindling and firewood as needed. As the fire burns, the teepee structure will eventually collapse, and help feed the fire for some time. However, the flames may start to die down after a while. At that point, throw some kindling and firewood from your reserve pile onto the fire to maintain it.

  • A teepee fire is ideal for cooking because it burns steadily for a shorter period of time.

Building a Lean-To Campfire

Place a piece of kindling in the ground with tinder beneath it. Start preparing your fire by setting a long piece of kindling in the dirt at a 30 degree angle in your fire pit. Next, gather your tinder material into a bundle, and place it beneath the lean-to kindling.

  • While kindling usually consists of thin sticks, you can use a small or medium-size log as the lean-to.

  • Make sure that the end of the kindling that you place in the ground is pointing into the wind.

Add smaller pieces of kindling. Once the lean-to and tinder are ready, start placing additional pieces of kindling in your fire set-up. Choose smaller pieces of kindling than the stick serving as the lean-to, and set them against the tinder bundle and lean-to.

  • As you lay the kindling around the lean-to and tinder, you’ll create a tent-like shape.

  • Once you have a first layer of kindling arranged around the lean-to and tinder, find larger pieces and place a second layer on top.

Light the tinder. After you’re finished building the lean-to structure, it’s time to light the fire. Use matches or a lighter to ignite the tinder. As it starts to burn, the kindling will eventually catch fire too, and create larger flames.

Add more kindling and firewood. Once the kindling starts to burn, you can add more pieces to feed the fire. If it isn’t as large as you’d like, you can throw some firewood on the fire to help it grow. Start with one piece, and only add more when you’re sure that the fire hasn’t grown large enough.

  • A lean-to fire is good for cooking because it doesn’t burn too long but remains steady while it is lit.

Building a Log Cabin Campfire

Create a small kindling teepee over the tinder. To start a log cabin fire, you’ll need to create a set-up similar to a teepee fire. Center your tinder in the fire pit, and use kindling to create a teepee shape around it. Make sure to start with smaller pieces of kindling and then add a second layer of larger kindling.

  • Your teepee lay doesn’t have to be as large as it would if you were planning a teepee fire. Two layers of kindling are usually enough.

Place four pieces of firewood around the teepee. Collect four pieces of firewood to set around the teepee. Take the two largest pieces and place them on opposite sides of the teepee. Next, set the two smaller pieces on the other sides to form a square with the wood. Make sure that the smaller pieces rest over the two larger pieces.

  • Be sure to leave an opening on the side of the structure that is upwind, so you can reach the tinder when it’s time to light the fire.

Continue laying firewood to build a cabin. Over the four pieces of wood that form the base, lay smaller and shorter pieces of firewood in the same pattern. The goal is to create a cabin-like structure around the original teepee.

  • The process of laying the wood around the teepee is similar to building with the Lincoln Log toys that you may remember from your childhood.

Top with the lightest kindling and light. Once you’ve built up the cabin for the fire, place some of your lightest kindling on top to close off the structure. Use a match or lighter to light the tinder inside the cabin.

  • For best results, light the tinder from several sides.

  • Until the external walls of the cabin catch fire, continue to add kindling to the inside in order to feed the internal fire.

  • A log cabin lay typically offers up a longer-lasting fire, so it's an ideal choice if you need warmth for an extended period.

Putting Out a Campfire

Start putting it out early. You’re responsible for putting out any campfire that you start, and the process often takes longer than you think it will. To prevent the possibility of leaving any smoldering ashes behind, plan ahead to give yourself enough time to do the job right. Set aside at least 20 minutes to put out the fire, so you can be certain to kill it completely.

  • You should never leave a fire unattended, so you need to put yours out when you go to sleep at night. Make sure to give yourself about a half hour to put out the fire before you plan to go to bed.

Sprinkle water over the fire. While you may be tempted to throw an entire bucket of water on the flames to put them out quickly, that’s not the best way to extinguish a campfire. Instead, start slowly sprinkling water over the fire, using only as much as you need to put out the fire’s embers.

  • Pouring water on your fire is a bad idea because it will flood the fire pit, making it unusable when you or someone else wants to light a fire later.

Stir the embers. As you sprinkle water over the fire, you want to ensure that it reaches as much of the embers as possible. To accomplish this, use a shovel or stick to stir the ashes and embers as you douse them with water. Make sure to bring up embers from the bottom of the pile so you don’t leave any smouldering underneath.

  • You’ll know that you’re done sprinkling water and stirring the embers when you no longer see steam or hear hissing sounds.

Test the heat with your hand. To be certain that the fire is out, you’ll want to make sure that it's no longer giving off heat. Place your hand, palm-side up, over the ashes. If you don’t feel any heat, the fire is out. If you still feel any heat, the fire isn’t out and you shouldn’t leave. Continue to add water and stir the ashes until you no longer feel any heat.

  • Repeat the hand test as many times as needed to be certain that the fire is cold. You’re better off safe than sorry.

Remove the ashes. Once the fire is out and cold, you should remove the ashes from the fire pit or ring so the next camper doesn’t have to deal with getting rid of them. Use your shovel or hand to scoop up the ashes and place them in a plastic bag for disposal.

  • As you walk away from your campsite, start spreading the ashes around on the ground to dispose of them.


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