How to Build a Campfire Written by Laura Gibson on April 10th, 2019

For centuries, people have gathered around a campfire for light, warmth, cooking food, and entertainment. Relationships are formed and strengthened by a fire as ghost stories are told from across the flames, or as people carefully roast a marshmallow to golden, gooey perfection. To master the craft of starting a campfire using the materials Mother Nature provided is to admire and respect the outdoors. Starting and maintaining a fire can be tricky, even for the experienced camper. Luckily, this comprehensive guide will detail everything you need to know about building a campfire out in nature. And if you prefer the comfort of your own home, no problem! Use this guide to show off an awesome skill in your own fireplace.

WHERE DO I BUILD MY FIRE?

Your fire needs to be built in a fire pit (also called fire ring, mound, platform, etc). A fire pit houses your fire and contains the embers and coals. A flyaway ember could easily start a wildfire which is the last thing you want on a peaceful camping trip. It also prevents your fire from getting out-of-control.

This fire pit has a wall of rocks to keep flyaway embers away from the surrounding grass. Image from trail.com

Many campgrounds will have a metal fire pit already constructed for you. Use this to build your fire instead of trying to build another one.

Many campgrounds provide fire pits. Some even offer grills, as shown here. Image from tripadvisor.com

If you’re not at a campground but come across a fire pit someone else made, use that one instead of trying to build another one. If there are leftover ashes from an old fire pit, clear away the ashes first. You can either scatter it across the area or put it in a bag to dispose of at home.

If none of the above applies to you while you’re out in the backcountry, then you’ll need to build a fire pit. Pick a place away from under trees and if possible, away from fertile soil and vegetation, like the bank of a river. If that’s not possible, then clear away any vegetation to reveal just the dirt. High heat can damage fertile soil, so if you have gravel or mineral soil (sandy dirt that isn’t fertile), spread that across the ground to act as a base for the fire. If you’re nervous about the risk of wildfire, clear a 10’x10’ area of any forest duff or vegetation (though, depending on the environment, might be excessive).

At a windy location, a wall is needed. Whatever wall you make will protect the embers from getting blown out while still allowing oxygen to flow through. For the wall of the fire pit, you can either mold a wall out of dirt or use non-porous rocks. It’s important to use non-porous rocks because porous rocks contain moisture, and when heated they could explode. Never use rocks from a river or lake for the same reasons. You can also take wet or green logs to form a V shape against the direction of the wind. Wet/green logs will reflect the heat back to where you want while still blocking the wind.

Vegetation has been cleared away inside the fire pit. A wall of rocks contain embers while still allowing oxygen in. Image from Bradshaw Bistro.

Now that your fire pit is ready, you can start gathering the wood you need.

WHAT KIND OF WOOD DO I NEED FOR MY FIRE?

There are three different kinds of fuel in making a fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood (also called firewood). Before making your fire, gather all the wood you’re going to need prior to building the fire. Any collected wood must be from the ground. Never break off branches or twigs from living or dead trees (there are animals that make their homes out of dead trees). In some cases, you might be able to bring your own wood from home. Check with the agency in charge of the area you’re camping in; bringing wood from over 50 miles away could introduce new insects and disrupt the existing ecosystem. When you’re gathering tinder and kindling, gather more than you think you’ll need for the fire. It’s difficult to get a fire going if you run out the small stuff, and adding fuel wood early can smother out the fire.

TINDER: This is what starts your fire. Tinder needs to be dry in order to catch. Dry grass, leaves, lichen, and bark are all tinder material. If it’s been raining, consider bringing from home dryer-lint, wax, sawdust, and cotton balls, as those can also be used for tinder.

Anything dry and fibrous–dried grass, lichen, forest duff–makes for good tinder. Image from
pioneerbushcraft.org.

KINDLING: Once your tinder catches and starts to burn, moving straight to firewood will smother out the embers. Kindling are small twigs and branches, no bigger than a pencil. Kindling also needs to be dry in order to catch. If your kindling is wet, you can try using a pocket knife to carve away the wet bark in order to expose the drier wood underneath.

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Kindling are small twigs and branches. Image from How To Camp Out.

FIREWOOD (fuel wood): Firewood are the big blocks of wood associated with a campfire. This wood can afford to be a little wet, as the heat will dry out the wood as it burns, but too wet and you risk the fire dying out. Firewood is no bigger than an adult’s wrist or forearm, any bigger and the wood will only char, which is not only unsightly but a waste of resources. As you stack it, make sure there is room for oxygen to get to the coals and keep your fire going.

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Fuel wood is the bulk of the fire. If bigger than an adult’s wrist or forearm, chop it down smaller. Image from outdoorzer.com

HOW DO I BUILD MY FIRE?

Now that you’ve gathered wood, collect a bucket of water to keep nearby in case of emergencies, like an out-of-control fire. Stash wood you don’t need yet under a tarp. If the dirt within the fire pit is damp, creating a 1’x1’ platform for the tinder bed will ensure the tinder does catch. Char cloth or a dry piece of wood works. When building the fire, go slowly. Once your tinder catches and starts burning, slowly add the kindling. When that catches and starts to burn through, slowly add the fuel wood.

There are different ways to stack your wood for a campfire. The most common is the teepee method. The teepee method involves forming a cone with the wood, starting with the kindling. Each piece of wood will rest against another, forming a central point. There should be gaps in the cone for oxygen to circulate.

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Image from thegreenhead.com

Another method is the log cabin. The log cabin involves stacking wood in the shape of a square on top of each other, like building with Lincoln logs. The shape is basically an interlocking square ring. Again, there should be gaps in the wood to allow oxygen to circulate.

Image from picsbud.com

Next is a pyramid or upside-down method. This is essentially the same as the log cabin but towards the top you are going to bring the pieces in closer together, like a pyramid. If a straight line were to be drawn on the outside of an upside-down stacked fire, it would be sloped.

Image from Milkwood Permaculture

The star method has pieces of wood laying on the ground in the form of a star, and as the ends start burning away, you simply push the wood further into the center. (The Manual)

Image from The Manual

Another method is the lean-to. The lean-to is very easy to construct. Your wood will lean against a bigger piece of wood, the anchor, and that’s it. With the lean-to, it’s best to have the anchor wood facing the wind, so that the smaller pieces burning aren’t blown out. (swatmag.com)  

Image from swatmag.com

HOW DO I KEEP MY FIRE GOING?

Even with all the dry tinder, kindling, and firewood in the world, it won’t make a fire unless you have a way to light it. Use a lighter with a long neck, because a match or cigarette lighter’s flame are close to your fingers, and matches can easily get wet or blown out. Flints and ferrocerium (ferro) rods are great to have as well, because they still spark even when wet. Flints and ferro rods work by striking them with a striker or a pocket knife, and the force creates sparks. When using a flint striker, hold the flint at a downward angle towards the tinder pile, so that the sparks fall into the tinder. Once the tinder catches, gently blow on it to increase the oxygen flow. Slowly add the kindling, allowing the flames to become prominent before adding fuel wood.

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Flints/ferro rods will work even when wet. Just wipe the water off before striking.
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With traditional lighters, stick to one with a longer neck. Water will affect these, so be careful if this is your lighter.

Once the tinder catches, gently blow on it to increase the oxygen flow. As the fire grows stronger, slowly feed it more wood. Try to burn the wood all the way down to white ashes to avoid wasting resources.

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The wood in this fire mound has been burned thoroughly into white ashes. Image fromDreamstime.com

HOW DO I EXTINGUISH MY FIRE?

Extinguishing a fire takes a long time, so plan to start extinguishing twenty minutes before bed or leaving. Sprinkle water onto the flames and stir the coals and embers as you do so to ensure they all get wet. Government regulations suggest pouring water all over the fire to make sure it’s out, however, by doing that, it will be difficult to make another fire the next morning if there’s water everywhere. As you extinguish the fire, it is completely normal to hear hissing and popping.

Never leave a fire if the ashes are not completely cool. To make sure, hold the back of your hand close to the ashes and if you don’t feel any heat, your fire has been successfully extinguished. Any hissing or popping that still remains means your fire is still not out, so continue stirring and sprinkling water until it stops.

Clean out the pit by scattering the ashes around the area. The fire pit can be used again in the morning or for the next person who comes across it.

Now that you can confidently build a roaring campfire, take your newfound knowledge to the beautiful outdoors. On your way, stop by US Outdoor to pick up some durable cookware for a gourmet camping experience.

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On your way to make new memories and forgot to bring some cookware? No worries, pick some up at 219 SW Broadway, Portland, OR 97205!

Not sure where to go camping in the vast Pacific Northwest? Pop in to ask our outdoor enthusiasts for recommendations. We know the outdoors.

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