For many, the campfire is a beloved and indispensable outdoor tradition—a kinetic, luminous, dreamlike force of nature that for generations has served as the centerpiece of backwoods gatherings. This article explains the key steps for building a successful campfire, as well as fire etiquette tips, whether you’re car camping or backpacking.
1. Find Or Build A Fire Ring
Campgrounds: Build fires only in designated fire rings, grills or fireplaces. Most developed campgrounds have some version of these. Using a fire ring will lesson your impact and keep your fire contained. Always check with the campground operator to make sure fires are permitted. Evaluate the site before starting a fire. If the site is brushy or has low-hanging branches, keep your fire small or skip it altogether. In dry conditions, fly-away embers could easily ignite a wildfire. In back country areas 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 done.
2. Gather Fire Wood
To burn a successful fire, you’ll need three types fuel: tinder, kindling and firewood. Tinder includes small twigs, dry leaves, needles or forest duff. Kindling consists of small sticks, typically less than one inch around. Firewood is any larger piece of wood and is what will keep your fire going long into the night. Do not gather or burn pieces thicker than an adult’s wrist. This is because thick chunks of wood are rarely allowed to burn completely and are typically left behind as blackened, unsightly scraps.
3. Build The Campfire
Cone: Start with a small cone of kindling around a few handfuls of tinder that are loosely piled in the center of the fire ring. Once the fire is going strong and the temperature increases, you can add larger logs a few at a time as needed.
Log Cabin: Place two larger pieces of firewood parallel to each other and with some room in between to form the base of your structure. Then, turn 90 degrees and place two slightly smaller pieces on top and perpendicular to form a square. Place plenty of tinder inside the square. Continue adding a few more layers of firewood around the perimeter, getting a little bit smaller with each layer. Finish with a layer of kindling and tinder across the top. Remember to leave space between logs so the fire can get plenty of oxygen.
Upside Down (Pyramid): Start with three or four of your largest logs side-by-side on the bottom layer. Turn 90 degrees and then add a second layer of slightly smaller logs on top. Continue alternating a few more layers in this manner, getting smaller as you go. Place your kindling and tinder on top.
4. Light The Campfire
Light the tinder with a match or lighter. Using fire starter that is designed to easily ignite can help the tinder catch the flame. After lighting the tinder, blow lightly at the base of the fire to provide oxygen, which will help increase the intensity of the flame and further ignite the wood. As the fire burns, move embers to the center to burn them completely. Ideally, you should reduce them to white ash.
5. Extinguish The Campfire
Generally, you should extinguish your fire by pouring water on it (be careful not to stand where the steam can scald you), stirring the ashes, then applying more water. Repeat as often as needed. Ashes should be cool to the touch before you leave the site. Be utterly certain a fire and its embers are out and cold before you depart. Note that the practice of using dirt or sand to extinguish a fire is problematic because it can insulate coals, which can become uncovered later, igniting a wildfire.