HOW TO BUILD A CAMPFIRE: THE RIGHT WAY

HOW TO BUILD A CAMPFIRE: THE RIGHT WAY

Article Summary

QUICK TIPS: DO'S & DON'TS

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:

Looking to Learn to Build a Campfire?

You're in the right place! In this guide we will be covering the following:

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    What preparation is required
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    Learn to build a fire 5 different ways
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    How to safely extinguish a fire

Do

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    Do bring multiple fire starting tools (lighter, matches, etc)
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    Do build a fire of manageable size safely inside a fire pit
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    Do collect, prep, and stack your firewood before lighting a single match
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    Do set up your camp a safe distance (~20 feet) from the fire pit

Don't

  • Don’t leave a fire unattended
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    Don’t leave a fire until it is completely extinguished
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    Don’t build fires beneath any obstruction

Before You Start Your Fire

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.

What a Fire Needs

Smokey the bear taught me all about this one. All fires need heat, fuel, and oxygen to get going.

  • Heat: This is what gets the party started. Heat can be anything from an external flame source (match, lighter) to sparks to concentrated sun rays, to straight-up extreme heat.
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    Fuel: Any sort of combustible material will start a fire. The moisture of this fuel determines the quality of the fire and the intensity it will burn. For our purposes we’re looking at firewood.
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    Oxygen: Fire is a chemical process, and the presence of oxygen allows it to occur. Fires need air flow to get going.

Leave No Trace

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 Existing Fire Pits

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.

Permission to Burn

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.

Gathering Wood

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.

Firewood close to a fire

“Keep your firewood nearby (but not too close) to feed the fire”

Backcountry versus Campsite Fuel Sourcing

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: The light, easily combustible stuff. If you’re sourcing this from the field use stuff like dry pine needles (not spruce or fir), dry grasses, and wood shavings. You could also use newspaper (or any paper), dryer lint, and char cloth if you like to come prepared.
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    Kindling: Larger sticks, usually no thicker than the diameter of your thumb. Break these into roughly 12” pieces.
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    Firewood: Anything larger than kindling. This could be a log, thick branches, or any other large, slow-burning fuel.
Man chopping kindling with a knife

“Finding kindling can be as complicated a process as you want it to be”

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.

The Fire Pit

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?

Fire roaring in a metal fire pit

“Use a fire pit when it’s available”

Basic Preparation and Site Selection

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!

A roaring fire in the darkness

"Remember fires spark, so keep yours a safe distance (minimum 10-15ft) from anything that could catch."

There is also the danger of smoke inhalation, so play it smart and set your tent at least 15’ from the fire itself.

The Stone Ring

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.

The Mound Fire

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.

Dog watching over a campfire

"Campfire safety dog says 'never leave a fire unattended!'"

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.

Tools of the Trade

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.

Fire Starting

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.

Man starting a fire with flint

"Graduate to starting fires with flint and steel."

​​​​​​​​​​​​Miscellaneous

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.

folding pocket saw jammed in wooden log

How to Build 5 Different Types of Fire

Alright, showtime!

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 TeePee Fire

Teepee style campfire waiting to be lit

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).

How to Build

  • Place your tinder on a piece of bark, or simply on the ground.
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    Get some larger kindling and jab one end into the ground. Use four-five pieces to form a teepee over the kindling.
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    Continue adding small pieces of kindling to the structure but make sure to leave open access to light the tinder within.
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    As the structure burns add additional kindling. When it collapses you can place larger logs on the coals.

The Upside Down (Pyramid) Fire

Upside Down campfire just before being lit

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.

How to Build

  • Layer the largest firewood on the ground with a bit of space between each log. Alternate the layers as you lay them (some go east-west while others go north-south).
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    Place your kindling in the middle tier of the structure and your tinder at the top.
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    Light the tinder and allow the hot embers to drop to the larger logs below. This can take a while and may require a few additional attempts at lighting, or additional tinder and kindling.
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    Once it’s roaring, you’ve got a fire that could last as long as 7 hours.

The Star Fire

Star campfire just before it is lit

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.

How to Build

  • Place a bit of tinder in the center of your fire pit. Lay out large pieces of firewood radiating from this center point like you’d see on the face of a compass.
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    Add additional kindling over the tinder and light it.
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    Continue feeding the fire until the radiating logs start to burn.
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    You can push the logs towards the center of the fire as it burns for more fuel, or leave them alone to burn slowly.

The Lean-To Fire

lean to fire ready to be lit

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.

  • Place a large log in your campfire ring and place some tinder underneath it.
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    Lean pieces of kindling over the tinder and onto the log.
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    When it’s lit, you’ll continue adding pieces of tinder leaning on the log for fuel.

The Log Cabin Fire

Log cabin fire ready to be lit

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.

How to Build

  • Place your tinder in the center of the fire pit.
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    Lay your largest kindling parallel to each other (facing east to west), about a foot apart. Lay two similarly-sized pieces of kindling on the ends of these pieces running north to south.
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    Continue building the log cabin until you reach a height of at least 6”.
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    Light the tinder and watch it go up. Once it starts to collapse, you can add larger kindling and then firewood to the structure.

Putting Out the Fire

Forest fire raging out of control

“A single spark can cause chaos”

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.

Let It All Burn

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.

Extinguish It Entirely

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.

Until Next Time

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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About the Author Matt Suwak

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.

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