One of the best parts about camping is building a campfire and enjoying all the things that come along with it. You can sit around the fire pit with friends and/or family and enjoy the great outdoors through conversation, song, stories, or even just silence and the crackle of the logs. The campfire is also therapeutic in a way, and the red, orange, and yellow flames can increase melatonin levels, giving you a much needed break from the blue light you encounter every day.
Knowing how to build a campfire is an art, and it’s not something that’s super easy. Let’s break down each step into easy to understand pieces that lead to the perfect campfire. First, you’ll need all the right supplies, the best wood for a campfire, knowledge of campfire safety, the different campfire shapes and techniques, and then the steps on how to build a fire.
Before heading out on your next camping trip, you’ll need the right supplies to make a campfire.
Needing fire wood for a campfire is a given, but did you know that different kinds of woods burn at different temperatures and at different rates? Hard woods like oak, hickory, and maple burn hot, making them ideal for campfires that last longer while making less smoke. More on that below.
Tinder and Kindling
You’ll need dry tinder and you can either bring your own tinder or collect it at camp. Some examples of tinder and kindling are: carboard (with no stickers, tape, or glue like a toilet paper roll), newspaper or wadded up paper, dryer lint, dry pine needles or pine cones, small sticks, and commercial fuel wood like Fat Wood. We also really like this fire starter kit from Wolf and Grizzly – it’s reliable, slow burning, and non-toxic.
Always bring a lighter camping! You’ll also need it for your camp stove, and it will make it a lot easier to get your fire burning with one. You could also bring waterproof matches if you want.
While not necessary, a nice pair of camp gloves can make a big difference in the comfort of the person maintaining the fire. It makes it easier to add wood to the fire ring, move around pieces without burning yourself, and protects your fingers from splinters.
This can normally be found at your campground from previous campers, but you could also bring your own if you wish. Essentially, you need something to poke and stoke the fire that’s a long stick or piece of metal.
Always have a bucket of water near your campfire. It doesn’t have to be potable, and it can be as simple as grabbing some water from a river nearby.
If there’s not an existing fire ring at your camping location, or if you’re unsure about the availability of designated fire pits, you could bring your own or plan on making your own camp fire structure using rocks. Some metal fire rings can be used even in fire bans, so make sure you do your research beforehand. Most campgrounds will provide a campfire pit, so this won’t apply to most people.
Best Types of Wood for A Campfire
The best types of wood are hardwoods – they keep the fire burning longer and hotter, and produce less smoke than softwoods. Some examples of hardwoods are:
- Oak – oak is one of the more readily available options, and it burns slow and steady.
- Hickory – hickory can be harder to split, but it burns hotter than oak and maple.
- Ash – ash can burn even when it’s green, and it produces little smoke and retains minimal moisture.
- Cedar – cedar makes a smaller flame but it makes up for it with heat production. Plus, cedar is a preferred wood for cooking and BBQ because of its pleasing aroma.
If you don’t have your pick of types of wood, you want to at least make sure it’s dry wood that will easily catch fire.
Make sure you purchase firewood ahead of time ahead of time from a local supplier that’s within 10 miles of your destination. Don’t travel long distances with firewood, which can spread invasive forest pests that are hidden in the wood.
If you want to gather wood, make sure doing so is allowed in that campground or national forest, as not all places will let you. We would recommend bringing your own wood instead, especially since it will be dry wood and you don’t know what you’ll get in the forest.
Some woods you should avoid burning are poplar, spruce, willow, and alder. Don’t try to burn wet wood if you can avoid it – it will be a lot harder to built your fire.
Camp Fire Safety
Fire can be dangerous, so it’s important to follow these fire safety recommendations to keep everyone safe while the fire is burning.
- Educate the Little Ones – Take the time with your kids to make sure they understand the dangers of the fire, and how important it is to respect it. This means no running around or rough-housing in the fire vicinity and not getting too close to the campfire ring without a parent nearby.
- Never Leave a Camp Fire Unattended – Once you begin to start your fire, plan on monitoring it for the rest of the time it burns. Never leave it to burn unattended, especially after you go to bed or leave the campsite.
- Put it Out Completely – If it’s time for bed or time to leave your campsite, make sure the campfire is completely doused. Even if you plan on using it again soon, the fire should be completely out with no more hot embers or hot coals. You should be able to wave your hand above the ashes and not feel any heat.
- Check for Fire Bans -This information could be available at the local ranger station, campground office, national forest website, or county website. Don’t be the reason behind one of those devastating forest fires.
- Have Lots of Water – Always have a water supply nearby. It’s easy to just use a utility bucket full of water and keep it nearby at all times. Plus, it makes it easier when it’s time to put the fire out.
- Check the Area – Check the area around the fire ring for dead standing trees and overhanging dead branches that could catch fire.
Types of Campfire Shapes and Techniques
Before you get a fire going, you have to decide which shape you’re going to use. While you could just pile on some sticks and get going, it’s worth learning the different techniques. These are the different shapes recommended for campfires:
- A log cabin fire is shaped like a log cabin and is easy to maintain for long periods of time. Place two pieces of firewood parallel, then two pieces perpendicular like you’re building a structure with Lincoln logs. After you start your fire, continue to build up a couple of layers and alternate your wood parallel then perpendicular until your desired height.
- A teepee fire is shaped like a teepee tent, and involves leaning all your sticks in a teepee shape. This is great for beginners and is one of the simplest campfire shapes.
- A platform fire is similar to a log cabin, but is packed more tightly to create a platform. You would then light the fire on the top of the stack instead of the bottom like other techniques.
- A star fire is great if you can’t split any larger pieces of firewood. It uses them whole and slowly burns them at the end to create a small but long-lasting fire. As the star fire burns, just push the logs in towards the center to keep it going.
- A lean to fire is good for windy conditions and it involves setting up a fire against a wind breaker. This could be a large log or a big rock, and then you lean your sticks on it perpendicularly. It’s shaped just like a lean to shelter.
How to Build a Campfire Step by Step
Now that you’ve learned about supplies, wood, the different techniques, and safety, let’s talk about the art of campfire building.
First, always make sure there’s no fire restrictions in your area before you build a campfire.
Next, prepare the fire pit. If there’s excess ash leftover from previous users, dispose of it properly before starting your own fire.
Collect your supplies. Get your wood, tinder and kindling, fire starter, and water bucket ready. This step does involve chopping wood so you can split the larger pieces of wood into thinner pieces that are good for building up the campfire. Also, make sure you have lots of kindling ready to go.
After that, build your shape. Our personal favorite is the log cabin but we encourage you to try them all out at some point! Now it’s time to get your fire started! Get your starter all set and light it.
Add small twigs to the flame in a loose pile.
Blow gently into the base of the fire to get a small flame going. You’re going to have to get on your knees and bend over so you can blow under the flame as low as possible.
As the flame grows larger, begin adding small pieces of wood, then larger pieces once the flame really gets bigger. This step is the hardest part of the fire building process so stay strong.
Keep the fire going and maintain it by continuing to add large pieces of wood. Now you have a warm and cozy campfire to enjoy some s’mores, cook food, or just use for warmth.
When you’re done with your fire, make sure you put out all the flames completely and there are not hot embers or coals left.
What should you not burn in a fire pit?
You shouldn’t burn soft woods, like conifers or evergreens in a fire pit. These woods burn quickly, not as hot, and put off more smoke than hardwoods. You also shouldn’t burn trash or plastics in your fire pit, or any food that may attract critters or bears.
What is the best wood to burn in a campfire or fire pit?
The best woods for a campfire are hardwoods like oak, hickory, ash, and cedar. They retain minimal moisture, burn hot and for longer periods of time, and produce little smoke.
What kind of wood should you use to start a fire?
You can use your regular fire hardwoods to start a fire by chopping them into thinner pieces to use as kindling. You could also use a wood designed for starting fires, like fatwood.
What are the steps for building a campfire?
First, collect all your fire wood, kindling, a lighter, and a bucket of water. Then build your desired shape and light your kindling in the middle. Blow gently until flames begin to form, then slowly add small pieces of wood, gradually adding larger and larger pieces until your fire is fully formed.
There is a certain level of responsibility when it comes to campfires, so make sure you take the time to prioritize safety, and that you don’t leave the campfire unattended. Follow these steps to have the right gear, pick the right wood, and to build a campfire that’s perfect for your day or evening
Now that you know how to build a campfire, get out there and enjoy all that nature and camping has to offer.