HOW TO BUILD A CAMPFIRE: THE RIGHT WAY
I love starting fires.
Okay, okay, let’s get the pyromaniac jokes out of the way now, guys. Besides, I’m talking about how to build a campfire here. There’s nothing wrong with that unless, like me as a stupid child, you throw bottle rockets into a campfire and see which of your friends turns tail first and runs.
We’re going to look at how to build a campfire, with an instructional on the importance of a campfire ring and the high art of putting out a campfire. Before we get to it let’s look at the key points of how to build a campfire and fire safety:
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The right location is as important as fire building ethics. At a minimum we should be going for the following standards and guidelines before learning how to build a campfire.
Smokey the bear taught me all about this one. All fires need heat, fuel, and oxygen to get going.
The best fire is one that leaves no evidence after it’s been extinguished. That’s more challenging in some capacities than others, but it’s a goal of every campfire and important to mention for learning how to build a campfire.
Use the campfire ring provided. And if you’re dispersed camping look for pre-existing campsites and fire pits. This is safe, responsible, and depending on who you talk to, pretty damn cool of you to do.
Always ensure you’re allowed to be burning a fire in the first place before you start it. Heed all fire restrictions to avoid endangering anyone or anything. Fire safety is an integral facet of how to build a campfire.
Before you learn how to build a campfire you first need to learn the right fuel to use.
We’re looking for dry wood; wet wood will be difficult to burn and releases a ton of smoke. Kiln dried wood is the go-to choice when you’re buying firewood, but when you’re in the backcountry selecting your firewood becomes a more complicated procedure.
When at a campsite, purchase firewood from the camp store or from a nearby location. Many homeowners sell firewood at roadside stands near campgrounds. Box stores will also have sacks of firewood for sale.
In the backcountry you’ll need to find your own. Always select dry, dead wood that’s on the ground. In many forests it is illegal to remove dead wood from trees, so limit your selection to what you find on the ground.
If you’re in an area where park officials allow you to remove dead branches, always use a handsaw to cleanly remove the branches and limbs from a tree. Snapping the limbs from a tree can cause tremendous damage and kill the plant.
Never transport firewood. Invasive insects like the emerald ash borer, spotted lantern fly, and other insects capable of decimating forests love to hitchhike with firewood.
Tinder lights the kindling, and the kindling lights the firewood. If you’ve got plenty of matches are you’ve got dry conditions, you could skip the tinder, but I recommend practicing with it when learning how to build a campfire.
Most campgrounds will have metal campfire rings. Always use these when present. Fires cause permanent damage to the topsoil of the area, and building a new fire pit causes damage to the ecosystem.
But sometimes you’ll need to build your own to practice how to build a campfire. What do you do if that’s the case?
Choose a location that has a clear opening up above with nothing to catch sparks and ember. You should clear out flammable material in a ring around the fire pit. Some suggestions make that a 15’ ring, but I think 10’ is a more reasonable number. Make it larger in dry conditions
Keep your tent a good distance from the fire. A single spark can light up your entire tent, along with everything inside of it. Do you want to burn everything to the ground when practicing how to build a campfire? Didn’t think so!
There is also the danger of smoke inhalation, so play it smart and set your tent at least 15’ from the fire itself.
Are you establishing a permanent campsite? Maybe you’ve got a favorite place to visit in the woods and want to have a ready-to-go campsite. If this is a place you’re going to regularly return to, and it’s not backcountry/protected land, set up a stone ring fire pit and use it when learning how to build a campfire.
Find the ideal place for the campfire, and remove all debris. Grab some rocks, anything fist-sized or larger will do, and make a circle the desired size.
A permanent stone ring fire pit shouldn’t be used except in permanent cases where you know it’ll be regularly used by yourself. The backcountry is littered with fire pits that are never used twice, and it makes for an ugly camping and hiking trip for everybody involved.
High heat can sterilize soil and kill all of the vital microorganisms living in it. The solution for minimizing any damage you do (the unspoken code to keep in mind when learning how to build a campfire), and practically erasing any trace of your presence, is to craft a mound fire.
You need is an old piece of tarp (or similar substance), a trowel or camp shovel, and a sack or other container to transport soil.
Prep the location of your firepit. Scrape loose heavily mineralized soil (from a stream bed, or the kind stuck to the roots of a downed tree) into your container and pour a layer 4-6 inches thick on top of your tarp. It should be the size of a car tire or so.
Form a small wall with the soil to keep sparks and coals in place, build your fire, and do your thing. After the fire has been extinguished, you can easily spread all of the ash and soils around the forest floor.
Pow, easy breezy skill for how to build a campfire.
Everybody should have these when learning how to build a campfire. Unless we want to reenact that painful scene from Cast Away, you should carry these basic tools with you.
I’m a fan of matches over lighters, but that’s personal preference. Carry a backup method for starting a fire; remember the motto “Two is one and one is none” when planning for trips in the outdoors.
You can use weatherproof matches like these or make your own. I’ll get strike-anywhere matches and dip the match head in hot candle wax. Once the wax begins to harden, press the wax against the wooden stick of the match to seal it tightly.
If you’re a badass and up for the challenge, use some flint and steel. Starting a fire with these things is an artform, but no other method is as satisfying. Consider it the graduate course of how to build a campfire.
You’ll want a handsaw for breaking up firewood, or a small hatchet. I swear by the Gerber LMF II survival knife. It’s been at my side for every camping trip for over a decade and is excellent for chopping wood.
Some rope or paracord can be useful for bundling firewood together. A stuff sack and shovel/trowel are handy when building a mound fire.
Extra water is a necessity for anything involving campfires. Even water from a nearby water stream contained in an unused cooking pan can save the day if sparks and coals cause trouble.
If you don’t like ash and charcoal on your fingertips, a pair of gloves is useful. Unless your hands are conditioned from regular labor or activities like rock climbing, gloves are also handy for breaking up firewood and chopping/sawing.
These tools make learning how to build a campfire a better experience.
When learning how to build a campfire, you’ve got five go-to choices for fire structure. Each has its own benefits. Each has its uses.
The classic fire shape, the teepee fire is the usual method people use when learning how to build a campfire. It’s an easy technique to learn and is useful when boiling water or as a means to get tinder and kindling started. Unfortunately it’s also one prone to collapsing, so it’s best to have a backup plan in mind. I taught a nephew to build a teepee fire and then add additional firewood to form a log cabin (see below).
This fire is capable of throwing off some intense heat and burns for a long time, but it takes about half an hour for it to really look like it’s doing anything. The tinder and kindling is on top, while the firewood is below. As the smaller wood burns it drops hot embers to the logs and eventually lights them up. It takes practice, but this is another step in learning how to build a campfire.
The go-to image for a campfire in the wild, the star fire is excellent for use in a larger fire pit. Even in a smaller one, it’s great to practice this method of how to build a campfire. The main drawback is that the star fire takes some time to really get going, but when it does it’s a good fire when there is little fuel around as it uses minimal firewood and doesn’t need much maintenance.
Need to get a fire going in a pinch? The lean-to is your go-to. This is the simplest method for how to build a campfire and is probably the best to pick in bad weather. It will require you to have a good heading on the wind direction (this style of fire building doesn’t have great air flow), but it is still one of my favorite methods for starting a campfire.
I saved my favorite for last for how to build a campfire. This structure can take some time to build, but it’s a beauty and gets the job done in many conditions. It provides great airflow and is ideal for mixing various firewood types together. It is resource-heavy; you’ll go through a lot of wood burning this baby to the ground.
Arguably more important than knowing how to build a campfire is knowing how to put one out. Luckily it’s a far more simple process.
If the illegality of leaving a fire burning isn’t enough to sway your decision, there’s also the first-hand safety issues involved (to you and others around you) and of course the danger of starting a wildfire. Before you learn how to build a campfire, guarantee you know the importance of extinguishing one.
In an ideal situation you’ve got nothing but ash and small chunks of coals remaining. Once they are cool to the touch you can sprinkle and scatter the ashes around the campsite to extinguish any presence of your trace.
If you need to break camp and have larger pieces of firewood remaining, heed the following advice.
Use water to pour over anything still burning or smoking. Completely extinguish all flames and keep applying water until it stops sizzling on contact with the wood. Use a stick to turn over the logs and reach the hidden nooks and crannies to guarantee you’ve hit it all.
Don’t leave until it’s out, simple as that. If you can’t practice this basic fire safety, you’ve got no business learning how to build a campfire.
So now you’ve got what you need to know on how to build a campfire. Put those skills to the use, and always practice fire safety.
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Matt was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. For the moment he lives in Philadelphia and is a gardener and freelance writer by trade. Matt's free time is devoted to traipsing through forests, angling in creeks, and hunting for rare plants and mushrooms. He's got a soft spot for reading Steinbeck while in the outdoors and is quickly becoming a die-hard hammock camper. Matt is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.