Heading out for your first camping trip and want to get the campfire done right? New to this and not sure where to start? Follow this quick guide on How to Build a Campfire.
When I think about camping, I think about a campfire, it just pops right into my mind. Campfires are a timeless tradition in outdoor overnights. Like Christmas and presents, except this type of Christmas present is really hot, and outside, and makes your clothes stink, and can murder thousands of acres if not wrapped properly.
So, I suppose you could say I didn’t use the best analogy. However! It is the one thing people expect when camping, especially kids. If you’re new to camping, you may not know how to build a campfire, and thats OK! The following guide is a great starting place to level up your campfire game.
How to Build a Campfire Precautions and Advisories:
Now, this should go without saying, however, please check your local areas and make sure there are no burn bans in your region you are camping. A burn ban is put in place because of dry climate conditions and fire greatly increases the risk of a devastating forest fire. Just check and if the ban is in place, don’t do it.
We went camping in Northern Colorado last weekend and there was a burn ban in place. Guess what? People were still lighting fires. It’s an unnecessary risk to the forest. Ok, I’m done, that’s all I’ll harp on that subject.
Nearly all non-dispersed campgrounds have some version of a firepit approved for you to build a campfire. They are generally designated by a circular rock formation, a metal ring dug into the ground are a box-shaped metal frame to contain the fire.
Any fire pit designated area is the best place for a campfire, it’s generally in a safe setup with minimum risk. Additionally, these fire pits are raised up and help keep a barrier between you and the fire.
Once you arrive at a campground check the information board or a staff member of a campground to see if they have any fire restrictions or suggestions. Heck even ask them how to build a campfire. Don’t be embarrassed at all about asking, they WANT you to ask and would rather you ask instead of there be some sort of issue later on.
Don’t bring firewood from out of town or far distances. Seems silly, but it can introduce invasive species that can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. Check out what happened to thousands of once beautiful acres in Wyoming here.
If you’re camping in a public land “dispersed camping” area, check-in advance with the local office that manages it (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc) as they usually have a physical office nearby or a quick check of their website will usually have the latest advisories. In some public land areas, the fire may be permitted, but only with a campfire permit.
Before we jump into this, you may want to check out our write-up to determine How Much Firewood Do You Need To Go Camping?
How to Build a Campfire When They Are Prohibited:
Campgrounds that are privately owned will have designated areas for a fire. Some, if geared towards RV’ers in more of a “Glamping” situation may not have fire pits at all but rather a fixed grill that you can BBQ on. Or as discussed earlier, some camping areas have burn bans even in the national forest area.
When this happens, we keep handy out “propane “campfire” it’s super easy to set up, clean, contained, and does not emit any flammable embers that pose any risk or violate burn bans. We love it, needless to say, it’s cheap on Amazon, check it out here.
Step 1: Area Considerations
Once you arrive at your location, check out the area and the surrounding conditions. Make sure the area around the fire is cleared of any flammable twigs, brush or another item that could catch fire if an ember made contact. This won’t be rocket science, just give it a look and clear what you need.
Step 2: Build a Fire Pit or Ring
If your campground does not have a designated fire pit and its allowed, you will need to build a fire pit or ring. This can be done by clearing away loose debris and creating a 3x3ft circular “wall” of large rocks. Rocks are not flammable and will serve as a barrier to prevent any fire fuel from falling outside the ring.
Step 3: Firewood Formation Types
You have several options when you build a firewood formation. One thing to consider is wind speed. If winds are higher, you may want to build a formation that helps shield some wind and create an internal “no wind zone”. The most common types of fire formations are the Pyramid and Log Cabin styles.
Step 4: Fuel For a Campfire
The fire consists of 3 parts that are oxygen, fuel, and heat, if anyone of those is missing, you won’t have a fire.
Typical types of fuel are in 3 parts:
- Tinder, which serves as the quick lighting fuel for the initial lighting of the fire, but generally is not dense and will not burn for more than 10-30 seconds (think dry leaves or pine needles). You can gather this nearby, or if you’re not in an area with dry tinder, you can always bring a pre-made tinder that you can pick up for cheap and almost always works. I always keep this in my bag, check it out, here. This is also good to have if you are expecting rain or wet weather.
- Kindling, which is now a bit thicker, denser and can burn a bit longer (small sticks, narrow in diameter but thick enough to burn for a few minutes). This is generally what is going to catch from the tinder. If you can’t find any or do not want to change it, you can bring these they are a PERFECT combo of tinder and kindling in one item. It’s another item I always have a few of.
- Firewood, this is your traditional 6in x 2ft type firewood you’ve seen all your life. Depending on the type of wood, it can burn fairly fast or very slow, but that’s a whole other topic. If you have any firewood, it works great. I’m not linking firewood, you know how to get that. Check gas stations and grocery stores along your route, if it’s a camping area, they will have it.
Step 5: Lighting the Fire
Lighting the fire is sometimes more challenging than expected. There isn’t much worse than your 8-year-old son saying beforehand “dad can make a fire anywhere, he’s the best at making a fire”. 10 minutes later he’s watching you with a confused look on your face as you are STILL trying to light the fire.
You will want to use a lighter or matches obviously. If you’re testing your skills you can try several primitive methods but I don’t think if you’re still reading you will be doing that. When lighting the fire, start by forming your kindling under your firewood in one of the above-mentioned firewood formations.
Light the tinder and lay it under or on the kindling. As the tinder starts to make contact with the kindling, be sure to lightly blow on the tinder and it will help give more oxygen to the flame keeping it going. In turn, this will flame upwards toward your firewood and a chain reaction of fire momentum and heat will spread out and up along your firewood.
If you’re having trouble (most likely from wind), you can use your body and the fire pit as a shield and cup your hands down inside your body’s wind block, which should reduce the wind enough to light the tinder and kindle. Once the fire is lit, the wind won’t have much effect on the fire’s ability to maintain (neither will rain).Once your fire is going well enough, you can relax and enjoy it, just toss on a new piece of firewood when the fire appears to be dying down.
Step 6: Putting the Fire Out
Never leave a fire unattended until you are POSITIVE it is out completely. Once the fire has died down and you no longer want to add wood, you can let the flames completely burn off on their own (under your supervision).
Once the fire is no longer burning, pour water over the hot coals in interval periods./ Be sure to use enough to completely put the hot coal out. In some areas, recreation officials will recommend dirt to smother the fire out, just check with local regulations for clarification if needed. Both dirt and water will work.
That’s it! You now know how to build a campfire. You are all ready to head out and have a great time camping, complete with a campfire and all, it’s like Christmas :).
If you’re not quite sure what all to bring on your family camping trip, check out this helpful guide to Family Camping Tips & S’More. Be sure to remember to leave the woods better than you found them. My kids have a little rule when we camp, we bring all our own trash out, but also try and find any other litter left behind to take out with us, better than we found it. For more information on that, check out Leave No Trace.
Mike is a Colorado resident, a combat veteran, and a former Police Officer, and an avid outdoorsman. Mike has camped, hiked, and Overlanded all over the United States. From backpack Elk Hunts on Public Land, solo truck camping to Multi-week Overlanding adventures with his family, Mike is very familiar with these outdoor topics.