Campfires have a way of bringing people together. There’s just something about gathering around the warmth of hypnotic flames drawing in the smoky scent and hearing the low crackle of smoldering embers. This outdoor tradition has been practiced for generations, and it’s something you can easily share with your friends and family by following these simple steps on how to start a campfire.
Step 1: Find or build a campfire ring
Before you start the fire-building process, it’s important to know where fires are permitted.
Campgrounds typically have designated sites where fires are allowed. Fire rings and grills are most commonly found on campsites, but even if they are provided, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allowed to use them. It’s a good idea to check with a ranger or campground attendant, especially if it’s a particularly dry season.
If you’re camping in a wilderness area where fires are permitted, locating a good spot for a fire will be a little less straightforward. In this situation, it’s important to stick to the Leave No Trace principles and only build a fire ring if you can’t find an existing one. It’s also vital that you take it apart once you are finished).
To build a proper fire pit, you’ll want to remove anything flammable that is nearby. The only thing you want in your fire ring is sand, gravel, or mineral soil. Next, dig down into the dirt a few inches and place large rocks around the pit to insulate the fire.
Step 2. Gather campfire wood
Any successful fire requires three types of firewood:
- Tinder – Tinder is the easiest type of burning material that is used to get your fire started. This includes wood shavings, small twigs, dry leaves, and needles.
- Kindling – Think of this as firewood that keeps the party going. Kindling is essentially small sticks that you will slowly introduce to your fire once it has been ignited.
- Firewood – Firewood is the main attraction to your fire and comes in a variety of types including maple, oak, and pine – all of which burn and smell differently. When selecting what to add to your fire, it’s important to not choose pieces any larger than an adult’s forearm as they can result in uncontrollable flames and rarely have time to burn completely.
Do your best to purchase local firewood at a store or campground near your destination. Introducing new firewood to an area can bring new insects that are harmful to the environment you are staying in.
Foraging for firewood can be a fun activity for everyone to participate in. Just remember to only gather pieces of wood that are on the ground. Even breaking off dead tree branches can be harmful to wildlife.
Step 3: Build the campfire
When it comes to building the structure of your fire, there are a few options to choose from:
The log cabin structure is a sure way to get a long-lasting fire. With this style, it is important to leave enough room between the logs so that oxygen can get through. Here’s how you set it up:
- Place two larger pieces of firewood next to each other to form the base.
- Set two slightly smaller pieces of firewood on top of your base in the opposite direction.
- Place tinder in the square that this structure creates.
- Continue to lay a few more layers of wood, each getting smaller until you have your log cabin shape.
The cone or teepee campfire structure is probably most common as it is easy to light and cook with. The downside, however, is that it is usually a quick burn and requires a lot of attention. Follow these instruction to make a cone or teepee campfire structure:
- With a few handfuls of tinder, create a center mound in your fire pit.
- Next, put a small cone of kindling around the center (resembling a teepee).
- Once the fire is lit, you can start to add larger pieces of firewood.
While not ideal in windy conditions, the lean-to style gets a fire going fast and is a great at producing heat. Here’s what you need to know:
- Choose a strong piece of kindle to stick into the center of your fire pit at a slight angle.
- Grab a few handfuls of tinder and place them underneath the piece of kindling.
- Start leaning smaller pieces of kindling against the centerpiece, creating multiple layers.
Step 4: Light the fire
Finally, the moment of truth, where all of your hard work will pay off. Lighting your fire is pretty simple—light the tinder with a match or lighter. What’s less obvious is how to keep it going. Your fire structure should be designed in a way to promote long-term burning but there are some tips you can use to help it along:
- Once you’ve lit the tinder, begin blowing gently at the base of the flame to give it more oxygen.
- As your fire continues to burn, move embers to the center until they burn completely.
- Continue to add kindle and firewood to your structure as needed, just be careful not to add too much or you will risk dangerous flames or putting it out due to lack of oxygen.
Step 5: Put out your fire
Nice work! You made a successful fire for your friends and family. It might be tempting to zip up your sleeping bag and call it a night, but you would be skipping one of the most important steps—putting out the fire.
Fires can be easily extinguished by repeating the steps of pouring water on it and mixing around the ashes until they are cool enough to touch. Once you’re ready to leave your campsite, be sure to dismantle your fire pit if necessary and clean up any trash, even if it’s not yours. Let’s all make an effort to keep these wild places wild and leave them better than we found them.