How To Make A Campfire The Right Way

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How To Start A Campfire The Right Way

A campfire is the most iconic image we associate with overnighting in the great outdoors but can be a fickle master. Learn all the essential knowledge you’ll need to learn how to build a campfire, the right way.

Matt Suwak
Matt Suwak
Last Updated: October 15, 2020

Building a Campfire, Learn the Skills Here

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

    • What preparation is required
    • what is the proper way to start a fire? How to lit a fire safely
    • Learn to start a fire 5 different ways
    • How to safely extinguish a fire

I love starting fires.

Okay, okay, let’s get the pyromaniac jokes out of the way now, guys. Besides, I’m talking about building 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 make a fire, with an instructional on the importance of a fire ring and the high art of putting out a camping fire. Before we get to it let’s look at the key points of building a campfire and fire safety:

Do

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

Don’t

  • Never leave a fire unattended
  • Don’t leave a fire until it is completely extinguished
  • 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 start a campfire.

What a Fire Needs

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

  • Heat: This is what gets the party started. Heat can be anything from an external flame source (match or lighter) to sparks to concentrated sun rays, to straight-up extreme heat.
  • 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 tinder, kindling, and pieces of wood.
  • Oxygen: Fire is a chemical process, and the presence of oxygen allows it to occur. Fires need airflow to get going.

Leave No Trace Camping

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 start a fire.

Use Existing Fire Pits

Use the fire 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 make sure 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 make campfires.

Gathering Pieces of Wood

Before you learn how to start 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.

Fire wood piled up next to a campfire intext
“Finding kindling and firewood can be as complicated a process as you want it to be”

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 your tinder from the field use stuff like dry pine needles (not spruce or fir), dry grasses, dry leaves, and wood shavings. You could also use newspaper (or any paper), dryer lint, and char cloth if you like to come prepared with tinder from home.
  • Kindling: Smaller pieces of wood, e.g. small twigs and larger sticks, usually no thicker than 1-2 inches in diameter (about the thickness of your thumb). Break these into roughly 12” pieces.
  • Firewood: These are your larger pieces, so anything larger than kindling. This could be a log, thick branches, or any other large, slow-burning fuel.
camper preparing kindling for campfire intext
“Finding kindling can be as complicated a process as you want it to be”

Tinder lights the kindling, and the kindling fire the larger pieces of firewood. If you’ve got plenty of matches or a lighter, and you’ve got dry conditions, you could skip the tinder, but I recommend practicing with it when learning how to make campfires.

The Fire Pit

Most campgrounds will have metal campfire rings. Always make sure to 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 make your own to practice building campfires. What do you do if that’s the case?

Fire roaring in a metal fire pit intext
“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. Make sure to clear out flammable material in a ring around the campfire ring. 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 cause your tent to catch fire, along with everything inside of it. Do you want to burn everything to the ground when practicing campfire building? 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 Campfire Ring

Are you establishing a permanent camping site? 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 fire ring pit and use it whenever you make campfires.

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 fire ring 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 dirt 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 start a campfire), and practically erasing any trace of your presence, is to craft a mound fire.

Dog watching over a campfire intext
“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 dirt.

Prep the location of your firepit. Scrape loose heavily mineralized dirt (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 dirt to help keep sparks, ashes and coals in place, make 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 making a campfire.

Tools of the Trade

Everybody should have these when making 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 waterproof 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 start campfire.

Man starting a fire with flint
“Graduate to starting fires with flint and steel.”

​​​​​​​​​​​​Miscellaneous

You’ll want a camping saw 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 help save the day if sparks, ashes 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 building campfires a more straightforward experience.

folding pocket saw jammed in wooden log

How to Make a Campfire: 5 Different Methods

Alright, showtime!

When learning how to make campfires, 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
“Teepee style campfire waiting to be lit’”

The classic fire shape, the teepee campfire is the usual method people use when learning how to build a camping fire. It’s an easy technique to learn and is useful when boiling water, cooking, or as a means to get tinder and fire kindling started. Unfortunately, the teepee campfire also not very long-lasting as it’s 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 (dryer lint, leaves, etc) on a piece of bark, or simply on the ground.
  • Get a long piece of kindling and jab one end into the ground. Use four-five pieces to form a teepee over the kindling.
  • Continue to add kindling to the structure but make sure to leave open access to start the fire by lighting the tinder within.
  • Once you have the fire going, and the structure burns add additional kindling and firewood. When it collapses you can start placing 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 is a long-lasting campfire, 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 they catch fire. It takes practice, but this is another step in learning the ins and out of fire-making.

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).
  • Place your kindling in the middle tier of the structure and your tinder at the top.
  • Light the tinder and allow the hot embers to drop to the larger wood logs below. This can take a while and may require a few additional attempts at lighting, or additional tinder and kindling.
  • 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 campfire 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 campfire pit. Lay out large pieces of firewood radiating from this center point like you’d see on the face of a compass.
  • Over the tinder add additional kindling, and once ready ignite the tinder.
  • Continue feeding the fire until the radiating logs start to burn.
  • 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 making 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 airflow), but it is still one of my favorite methods for starting a campfire.

How to Build

  • Place a large wood log in your fire ring and place some tinder underneath it.
  • Lean pieces of kindling over the tinder and onto the log.
  • When it’s lit, and as the fire burns you’ll continue adding pieces of tinder/kindling on the log to keep your fire going.

The Log Cabin Fire

Log cabin fire ready to be lit

​I saved my favorite for last. 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

  • Make sure to place your tinder in the center of the fire pit.
  • Lay your largest kindling parallel to each other (facing east to west), about a foot apart. Place two similarly-sized pieces of kindling on the ends of these pieces running north to south.
  • Continue building the log cabin until you reach a height of at least 6”.
  • Light the tinder and watch it go up. As the fire grows, and starts to collapse, you can add larger kindling and fuel 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 start a campfire, guarantee you know the importance of extinguishing one.

Let It All Burn

In an ideal situation, you’ve got nothing but ashes and smaller pieces 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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