Campfires are a staple for camping trips. What better way to end the day than gathering around a fire, drinking a few beers, and reminiscing on the day’s events? Campfires are easy to build, because they only require 3 elements to work: oxygen, fuel, and heat. But the challenge is getting all of those elements together in the best way possible with the resources you have available at the time.
This guide will help you build a campfire, no matter what resources you have around to start it!
Before You Start a Fire
Make Sure It’s Legal to Start a Fire
Before you go to gather all of your supplies for building the perfect campfire, you must check and see if there are any fire restrictions for the area that you are going to be camping in. In recent years, summers have been particularly dry, making starting campfires a risk to creating larger wildfires. The last thing that you want to do before starting your fire is to accidentally start the next big fire!
A great way to make sure that you know whether or not to start a fire is to check with the local land managing authority. Usually, it is the organization that is associated with the area you’re about to go recreate in. For example, if you are planning on going camping in the U.S. the U.S. Forest Service is usually the organization that is in charge of managing most of the camping areas around the country.
Once you have learned which organization manages the area that you are planning to recreate in, go to Google and type in the name of the forest you’re planning on visiting. When you get your results, you’ll be able to click on the U.S. Forest Service page for that forest area and check to see if fires are legal to use or not.
Besides risking starting a wildfire, you also risk having hefty fines and possible jail time if you are caught making a fire when there is a fire ban on. So, know before you go before you start a campfire!
Make Sure It’s Safe to Start a Fire
Once you have determined whether it is legal to start a fire, you need to determine whether it is safe for you to start a fire. Consider the following before starting your campfire:
- How windy is it?
If wind speeds are above a gentle breeze, don’t start a fire. High winds can cause fires to go out of control pretty quickly, which might lead your gentle campfire to become a raging conflagration in almost no time at all. If winds are above 5-15 miles per hour, don’t start a fire!
- Do you have a safe place to start your fire?
This is a relatively easy step to follow before you start your campfire. If you go camping in an established campground, there are usually fire rings that are placed at every campsite. These fire rings are great because they are designed to keep your fire inside of it and to prevent it from becoming a wildfire.
When camping outside of established campgrounds, you have a couple of options:
- Bring your own fire ring.
- Build your own fire pit.
There are a lot of companies that sell fire rings that are easily transportable. But what if you are going backpacking or you don’t have enough space to travel with a fire ring? Building a fire pit is an easy way to make sure that you responsibly enjoy a campfire.
To build a fire pit do the following:
- Look for a level spot with very little brush or grass around. The less brush and grass are around, the better. It will make digging easier and also reduce the risk of your campfire accidentally catching the nearby vegetation on fire.
- Dig a hole that is deep enough to keep the flames from reaching above the hole. Think about how large you want to build your fire. If you need a big fire, you should dig a big hole. If you need a small fire, dig a small hole. The reason why you should aim to dig your pit so that the flames don’t extend above it is so that you reduce the risk of those flames catching something outside of your pit on fire.
- Line your freshly dug fire pit with rocks. Stack rocks around the top of the pit to help further reduce the risk of your fire leaving the pit.
- When you are done with your pit, make sure to fill it back in and move the rocks away from the area. Leaving the area the way you found it is considerate to those who are going to use the area once you’re done. Leave no trace of your former pit to be a considerate and responsible camper!
- Do you have a way to put your fire COMPLETELY out?
A lot of man-made wildfires happen because people neglect to properly put out their campfire. Add the following to your camp gear to make sure that you properly put your campfire out every time:
- A shovel
- At least 5 gallons of water
Shovels are necessary to break up hot spots in the fire as well as mixing in cool dirt with the hot embers that are still around. What your goal should be is to bury the fire so that you can’t see any glow coming from it anymore.
Once you have properly buried the fire, it’s time to douse it with water. Pour water over your buried fire to help cool down any remaining hot spots. A pro tip here is to have one person pour water over the fire while another person uses the shovel to stir the fire to reveal hot spots that still need to be cooled.
- Are you sure it’s completely out?
Now that you’ve thoroughly buried, doused, and stirred your campfire, you need to check it’s completely out before leaving it unattended. Place your hand just above where the fire was at and see if you can feel the heat. If it still feels really hot, continue to pour water and stir with the shovel. If it feels cool, your fire has been put out and you have responsibly taken care of your fire!
Campfire Basics: Let it Breathe!
What is the number 1 mistake that people make when they try to make a campfire? They put way too much wood into the fire ring or pit before they begin trying to light it. Read the tips below to make sure that your fire gets lit and stays lit.
Start with small pieces of wood first
When starting a campfire, inexperienced fire builders tend to get excited and put large pieces of wood into the fire ring or the fire pit. They then get frustrated when they have used all of their matches or lighter and they still aren’t sitting around a roaring campfire. The key is to break the large pieces of wood down into small pieces first.
Think about it like when a baby first learns to walk. When a baby is learning to walk for the first time, they don’t even start with walking! They learn to crawl first. This same idea can be applied to starting campfires, because you have to start with small pieces of wood to get a fire going and then add in slightly larger pieces once a consistent flame is present.
Notice how the flame is doing and where you might need to place another piece of wood. If your fire looks like it is growing, go ahead and start adding larger pieces to the fire. If it looks like it’s starting to die down after you placed a piece of wood on top, consider shifting that piece of wood to the side or moving it away completely in place of a smaller piece of wood.
Starting a fire take patients, but once it is going, managing the fire is a pretty easy task!
Methods to Starting a Fire
Below are some different methods to help you get your fire going. Remember to have all of your safety precautions in place before beginning any one of these methods.
The Log Cabin Method
Did you ever play with Lincoln Logs when you were a kid? Have you ever seen a log cabin before? If you answered yes to either one of those questions, you’ll definitely be able to use this fire building method!
Before you begin building your cabin, make a pile of small, easily burnable material in the center of your fire ring or fire pit. You can use pretty much anything you have available, but some good ideas to use for small burnable material are:
- Dry pine needles
- Dry leaves
- Crumpled up newspaper
- Paper towels
- Wood shavings
Now that you have a pile of small, dry material at the center, it’s time to build your cabin! Start by laying two small pieces of wood on either side of your dry material. They should be parallel to each other, which will give your cabin a solid base.
Once your base is set, place two more small pieces of wood on top of the base pieces. These two pieces should be placed perpendicularly on top of the base. From there, continue to stack small pieces of wood in that same pattern until you have created a small structure that is roughly 4 to 5 inches tall.
Now that you have constructed a small log cabin, it’s time to light it on fire! The best tool for this is a long grill lighter, because it can easily pass through the cabin and set the dry pile inside of the cabin on fire. But if you don’t have a long lighter, consider using a long, small stick that you’re able to light to reach inside to ignite the dry pile.
Now that you’ve ignited the dry pile, it’s time to manage adding in wood. Monitor your fire to make sure that it’s growing steadily. If it looks like it’s dying down a little bit, gently blow on the fire to encourage it to continue to burn. Once it’s gotten going, start adding slightly larger pieces of wood. Go easy with this part. Getting excited and putting a lot of wood on top of a fledgling fire will surely put it out!
Once your fire no longer requires you blowing on it and the few larger pieces of wood have successfully ignited, it is safe to begin adding more wood onto your fire!
Keep in mind that the log cabin is just a structure pattern that makes it easy to remember to allow for air to reach the inside of the fire so it can grow. You can substitute any structure you can really think of for a log cabin, as long as it gives the fire plenty of air. Two other structures that are helpful to know to build a fire are:
- A teepee structure
- An A-Frame structure
The Lighter Fluid Method
So, you tried the log cabin method and you weren’t able to get a fire going? Or maybe you need to get a fire going quickly and you can’t afford for it to not light right away? Using an accelerant like lighter fluid or gasoline will definitely help get the fire going quickly!
USE EXTREME CAUTION WHEN USING THIS METHOD. While accelerants are useful to getting a fire going quickly, adding an accelerant to an active fire could lead to potential disaster. NEVER EVER ADD AN ACCELERANT TO A FIRE THAT IS ALREADY GOING AS THE FIRE CAN TRAVEL UP THE STREAM OF ACCELERANT AND IGNITE THE CONTAINER, WHICH WOULD RESULT IN THE CONTAINER EXPLODING.
With that being said, the best way to use an accelerant like lighter fluid is to get smaller pieces of wood covered with the accelerant first. Small wood still works best here, because what the accelerant will do is it will make sure that the flame stays lit longer than if accelerant wasn’t used. This allows for a better chance that a small piece of wood catches fire. If you just dump a lot of lighter fluid or gasoline on a pile of large pieces of wood, all that will happen is your accelerant getting burned off and your fire left un-started.
Start with a small pile of small pieces of wood first and gradually add larger pieces of wood to make sure that your fire takes off once the lighter fluid or gasoline has burned away.
The Minimalist Method
The minimalist method is for true fire-starting masters. If you are just starting to get into the minimalist method, a really good product to buy at any outdoor goods store is a strike starter with some magnesium. Look for the strike starters that have the magnesium on them, because small pieces of magnesium are very flammable. This will assist in you getting a fire going quickly with your strike tool.
Like the log cabin method, start by setting up a small pile of dry material in your fire ring or fire pit. Once you have your pile, shave off a few small pieces of magnesium from your starter. Try to pile the shavings in one place as it will produce a stronger flame when sparks hit it than if the shavings were scattered around.
With your dry pile now mixed with your magnesium shavings, move your strike tool close enough that the sparks you’ll make will easily hit the pile. Strike your tool a couple of times until the sparks it sends off catches the magnesium and the dry pile on fire. Carefully add small pieces of wood to your new flame. You’ll also need to gently blow on the flame to help get a flow of air to reach inside the flame.
As your fire builds, gradually add larger pieces to the fire and enjoy! And be sure to brag to your friends about how you can start a fire without a lighter, match, or accelerant!
Anyone who goes into the outdoors should know at least one of these methods to start a campfire. Remember to be safe with your fire building by checking first that it is legal to start a fire and that the weather conditions are right for safe fire use. Ensure that your fire is started and maintained in a fire ring or fire pit to reduce the risk of it turning into a wildfire. And always make sure that your fire is put out completely before leaving it.