How to Start a Campfire

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Sitting around a campfire with family and friends is a great way to strengthen relationships. Lighting a campfire both grounds and connects you to the planet’s natural energies. It can be challenging to get it lit, but it gets a lot better if you know what you’re doing. Here are some pointers and methods for lighting a campfire as well as sustaining it.

Father and son preparing firewood to start their campfire

Before Lighting Your Fire

The ideal setting is equally crucial to fire safety. Before you learn how to build a fire, we should aim to implement the set standards and recommendations as a minimum.

Leave No Trace Camping

The ideal campfire is one that’s completely extinguished and leaves no trace. This can be more difficult in some situations than in others, but it should be kept in mind.  If you are doing backcountry or dispersed camping, completely removing all visible signs of a fire is essential (and in those cases, you may want to consider if a fire is a good idea at all).  

Ashes from a previous campfire

Use Existing Fire Pits

Utilize the provided fire ring, especially if you’re in a campground or an area that’s frequented by campers.  Search for existing fire pits and campsites if you are dispersed camping. You being safe and responsible is a priority. 

Obey All Fire Regulations

To prevent putting anything or anyone in danger, obey all fire regulations. Making campfires involves many different considerations, including fire safety.

Getting Your Fuel

You must first understand the proper fuel to use for your family campfire before you can learn how to build a campfire. 

  • Any material that can readily ignite can be used as tinder, including tiny twigs, pine needles, cones, barks, dried leaves, etc. 
  • You may use store-bought fire starters or simply make your own using things like paper rolls, newspaper, and dryer lint.
  • Kindling is a good option. Kindling is referred to as sticks with a diameter of one inch or less. A hatchet can be used to cut tiny pieces of kindling out of a dry log.
  • Firewood is approximate 16-inches long, dry logs with a thickness of 3 to 4 inches. You can use the wood that has been collected or bought, though do keep in mind that some camping areas have regulations about bringing outside wood (to prevent wood borne diseases from spreading), so check on that before you bring firewood from home.
pile of firewood and kindling to start a campfire

Basic Campfire Planning And Site Choice

Select a spot for your campfire where there is nothing that could ignite from a spark or embers and there is an unobstructed opening above (no trees or overhanging branches above. Take caution to remove anything that could catch fire near the ring around the campfire. 

It’s a good idea to clear an area that’s 10-15 feet in diameter from any debris or flammables, to create a safe campfire area.  If you’re in a really dry area, you’ll want to make that even bigger. Experts suggest that your ring should be at 15 feet in measurement. If the weather is dry, make your ring bigger. Maintain a safe distance between your tent and the fire. The tent could be ruined by a single spark and major damage could occur from getting any fire sparks or embers on your tent.  

Make A Campfire Ring with Rocks

A small campfire ring with dry firewood in it

If you’re planning on visiting this location frequently, and it isn’t wilderness or a protected area, build a stone fire ring pit and utilize it for all of your campfires. Select the best location for your campfire and clear the area of any trash or flammable materials.  Campfires need to be contained and one of the easiest ways to do that it with a stone fire ring.  

Simply clear an area and set up a ring of large rocks about 2’-3’ in diameter.  This helps to contain the fire and also creates a designated space for future burns.

It is suggested to not build a permanent stone fire ring, if you’re in a wilderness area and are trying to follow leave no trace principles.  

Fire Starting

Kindling a fire with a flint

There are several different methods you can use to start a fire.  Plan on having at least 2 different fire staring methods, in case one doesn’t work.

Lighter:  We love long handled lighters for starting fires because they make starting the tinder at the bottom of a pile, significantly easier and they reduce the risk of burning yourself.  The downside is that they do require fuel, so need to be occasionally replaced.

Strike Anywhere Matches:  This is our go-to and almost never fails.  While you can get the little books of strike anywhere matches, the matches in the large boxes are thicker and break less often (and seem to light better).  While we don’t always want to carry a big box of matches around with us, it’s easy to throw some in a ziploc bag and strike them on a rock.

Flint and Steel:  Yes, people still use flint and steel to start fires.  This is a great method to use if you want to test your survival skills, or are just looking for a challenge.  The disadvantage of flint and steel is that it only starts a spark, so you need to have the skills to get a spark to burn into a flame and then convert that into a campfire.  Typically, flint and steel started fires take longer than other methods.  

Important Things You Need to Carry For Campfire Starting

For chopping up firewood, you’ll need either a nice camping saw or a compact hatchet. I promise you’ll thank me later. Firewood could be bundled together using some string or paracord. When you’re making a mound fire, both a filled sack and a shovel/ trowel come in very handy. 

Activities involving a fire require extra water. If embers, ashes, or sparks start a fire, even freshwater from a surrounding water stream kept in an empty cooking pan can rescue the day. Pair of nice gloves is also helpful if you do not like having charcoal and ashes all over your hands. 

Gloves are useful for splitting wood and chopping too unless your fingers are already trained through routine work or sports like mountain climbing. Using this equipment simplifies the process of building a campfire.

3 Different Techniques to Build a Campfire

There are three main designs that we recommend when building a campfire.  The teepee, the star and the log cabin. Each of these ways to start a fire is very reliable and can get a fire started quickly and get it burning well.  

TeePee Fire

People typically learn how to build a campfire using the traditional fire design, the teepee fire. It is a simple method to master and great for building a quick fire. 

A burning teepee camp fire

Due to its propensity to collapse, this type of campfire is sadly not very durable, and will likely collapse at some point.  Don’t let that worry you, since once the logs are burning, the main goal of the teepee fire has been accomplished.

Here’s how to build it:

  • Put the tinder (leaves, dryer lint, etc.) on some bark or just lay it down on the floor.
  • Grab a few longer piece of your kindling, and arrange them in a teepee shape over the top of your tinder.  
  • Keep adding the kindling, but make sure to provide a clear path for igniting the tinder inside so that the fire can be started.
  • Add smaller logs over the kindling, so you have a layered teepee fire area. 
  • NOTE:  Make sure to leave an opening to light the tinder.  A long lighter works best for lighting a teepee fire.  

Star Fire

This type of campfire is the standard illustration in the wilderness and works well in a larger fire pit. 

A star fire in a shallow fire pit

It is beneficial to practice making a fire no matter the size, even a little one. Star fire’s biggest drawback is the time it takes. But once it does, it is a wonderful campfire when there isn’t much fuel available because it burns little firewood as well as requires less management.

Here’s how to build it:

  • Your firepit should have some tinder right in the very center.  Arrange larger pieces of wood in a fanning pattern from this central point.
  • When ready, arrange several pieces of  kindling over your tinder and light it.
  • Once the scattering logs begin to burn, keep adding fuel to your campfire.
  • You can either leave these logs alone for a little while to burn slowly or move them closer to the fire’s center as it ignites. 

Log Cabin Fire

A burning log cabin camp fire

This is a great fire building design for both large and small fires, and is really easy to build.  It really does resemble a log cabin with a square shape being created with the logs. 

Here’s how to do it: 

  • Start with some tinder in the middle of the fire.
  • Arrange logs around the tinder in a square shape with the edges overlapping.  Each set of 2 parallel sides should match each other and the next 2 sides are stacked on top of that. 
  • Between every square, place a few long pieces of kindling across the middle for the tinder to start (do this for about 4-5 rows)
  • You can stack the wood anywhere from 3-8 rose high to begin, and then when you need to add more, simply add it in the same log cabin sequence.

Make Sure You Extinguish the Fire

A spent camp fire from the camp

Never, ever, ever, leave a burning campfire unattended.  If it’s not cool enough to run your hand through, it’s too hot to leave alone (even if there are no flames.)  Many people think that they can let the fire die off on it’s own and go to bed in a nearby tent, only to be awakened by a wildfire of their starting. 

  • In a perfect world, all that’s left are ashes and bits of coal. When the remains are cold enough to handle, you can scatter and disperse them all over the site to completely erase your existence there.
  • Throw some water over whatever that is still burning. Pour water continuously until the campfire causes sizzling as it comes into contact with the wood, then fully extinguish all the flames. To make sure you’ve covered everything, use a rake to roll over the wood logs and get to the narrow areas.

To Wrap It Up…

Learning how to build a campfire is an important skill to have especially if you are a nature enthusiast. You now have all the information needed to make a campfire. Utilize those abilities and follow fire safety procedures at all times.