The Basics: Building a Campfire

The Basics: Building a Campfire

The Basics: Building a Campfire

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Building a campfire is one of the great treats of camping. There’s almost nothing more relaxing than the smell of burning embers, the orange glow of the flame and the sound of crackling firewood. Besides, do s’mores ever taste better than when they’re cooked on an open flame?

Learning the proper technique of building a campfire is a great skill that can provide all of this plus warmth during the colder times of the day (mornings and evenings), and could even be useful for survival and signaling should you find yourself lost in the woods. Building a campfire is one of those basic skills that everyone needs to know. This is what you have to keep in mind while learning how to build that first fire.

Location

The vast majority of “car camping” campgrounds are going to have fire pits built into the campsite so you won’t have to figure out where in your campsite you’ll be building a campfire. For campsites without a predefined fire ring, however, you’ll want to make sure to be attentive to a few rules of thumb:

  1. Find a flat space. The last thing you need is for the structure of the fire that you build to be sliding down a hillside. Make sure that, when you’re building your fire, you find an area that won’t send burning logs rolling into your tent.
  2. Keep it 100 feet away from any natural water source. This one often goes overlooked and it speaks mainly to zero impact backcountry experiences. When you find yourself next to that great stream or beautiful lake, most of us want to stay close to itFire, though, can send foreign substances into those beautiful bodies of water and possibly contaminate them for their native inhabitants.
  3. Keep it away from your stuff. This might sound like a given but you’d be surprised. You want to make sure that the area that you select for your fire is at least 10 feet away from any of your gear – your tent, your bear bag, etc. This is especially important for any dry trees, brush and any other plant life that could catch on fire from any errant sparks.
  4. Make sure you have enough space for your fire ring. If your campsite doesn’t have a fire pit for you, you must build one for your fire. Find enough large rocks to create a circle large enough for the fire that you plan to make. This fire ring will help you contain your fire so you don’t have to take responsibility when Smoky the Bear comes looking for the person who started the forest fire.

Preparing Your Campfire

Now that you’ve found the spot where you’re going to build your fire, it’s time to start setting up your fire. Remember, if you take the time to set up you fire correctly you won’t have to do too much work while you’re lighting the fire. To prepare your fire, you’ll need to collect a few materials first. I like to think of it as three layers, one layer lighting the other until the fire is big enough to resist being smothered by larger pieces of wood.

  • Tinder is made up of small materials that are easy to light with a spark or a small flame. Thru hikers using guidebooks will sometimes use the pages from the book that they’ve already used as tinder, while others will save up old dyer lint. If you don’t want to pack it with you, you can usually find it out on the trail in the form of dried grass, leaves and bark just make sure that it’s as dry and thin as possible to make it easy to light.
  • Kindling is the medium sized material that will catch the flame from the tinder quickly. I typically use small twigs and sticks, although larger pieces of bark will work, too. I try to avoid back and leaves, though – when they get going they’ll start to produce a lot of smoke.
  • Fuel is the larger, sustainable material that you’ll use to keep the fire going until you’re ready to put it out. They’re typically larger sticks, tree branches and logs. When I build a fire, I like to start with large sticks and, once they start burning, move up to tree branches and finally use logs to keep the fire burning long term.

Building A Campfire

There are two main styles of campfire for most backcountry situations – the tepee fire and the log cabin fire. If you plan on building a campfire to cook, the log cabin fire is the way to go because of the flat top it provides, making it easier to rest your cookset on. If you’re just looking for a fire then either one will work for you. My recommendation would be to try both and find out which one is easier for you to build and light.

Building a Campfire: The Log Cabin

Log cabin campfires are my personal favorite since I find them easiest to build. As the name implies, you build a structure for the fire in the shape of a log cabin. To start, build your tinder and kindling base in the center of your log cabin and bring the sides of the log cabin in close enough to be touched, and ultimately lit, by the fire. Again, remember that if you’ve prepared your tinder and kindling base well then you should only have to light the tinder in one or two spots and let the fire start to develop itself.

Building a Campfire: The Tepee

A tepee campfire is probably the most widely used campfire setup because it is pretty straightforward to set up. To build your tepee campfire, simply pull together your tinder into a ball (be sure to keep it loose enough to allow it to catch fire and burn without smothering itself), stack the kindling into a cone shape around the tinder and then lean the fuel into each other. Be sure to keep a space in the tepee to allow room for lighting the tinder. Remember that the flame from the kindling has to reach the fuel logs so either make sure that you have a lot of kindling or fuel that’s short enough to be hit by the flames.

Building a campfire can be one of the great joys of camping, so get out there and enjoy it!

Ian Campbell Ian Campbell is the founder of Love the Backcountry, a freelance writer and a long time lover of adventure travel based in San Diego, CA. When not writing about the backcountry, he can typically be found hiking, backpacking and camping in the mountains around San Diego and looking to lay his head beneath as many trees as he can find.