There’s nothing quite like a campfire when you’re out on the trail. The dancing blaze does as much to warm the soul as it does the body, especially after a long day on your feet.
Last year, I had the pleasure of trekking the Annapurna trail in Nepal. We would walk for around 20 miles every day with massive elevation changes as we hiked deeper into the Himalayas. As soon as we crested a peak, it was time to drop back into the valley, and the altitude made it hard to catch our breath. Long story short, a campfire at the end of the day would have been a welcome reprieve. But we had one major problem…
There was no wood!
We were hanging out in the alpine biome (10,000+ feet), which meant there wasn’t enough carbon dioxide for trees to survive. It was disappointing, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do about it. Until our fourth night of camping when we saw a glimmer of light appear… Our guide had managed to start a fire! We were all amazed since we didn’t see anything around that could burn well. When we asked him what he used, he grinned and pointed to an old wooden fence that was now missing some planks.
While it worked for us at the time, I don’t recommend going around pulling planks off of fences! So let’s go through some steps to show you how to build a campfire on your own.
The Pros and Cons of Campfires
Most folks only have fond thoughts of campfires, the heat they’ll be receiving, the warm glow, the s’mores they’ll be eating, and so on. But there’s a bit more to the story than happy times for all when it comes to starting a fire. Before you light that match, consider some of these pros and cons to determine whether it’s absolutely necessary for you to make a campfire.
- Warmth. When you’re camping in the colder seasons, a campfire can be just what you need to hold back the biting chill, in addition to a 4 season tent and sleeping bag liner.
- Cooking. If you have no other way to prepare food, making a campfire can be an acceptable option. However, bringing a camp stove or single propane burner is always preferred.
- Relaxation. At the end of a long day, there’s nothing better than setting down your camping chair around the roaring fire to take a nap. Just make sure there’s always someone keeping an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get out of control!
- Wildfire risk. About 90% of all wildfires have a human origin. This includes arson, equipment malfunction, and yes…campfires. If you need to build a fire, make sure you keep it small and manageable, and never leave it unattended.
- Smoke pollution. Regardless of what you’re burning, smoke is full of cancer causing carcinogens, including formaldehyde. You probably don’t want to breathe that in, and neither do the animals and plants around you.
Before you get started
Making sure you have access to fire is one of 10 essentials for staying safe in the wild, and provides a nice source of ambience for your evenings. But before you go lighting matches, there are a few things you’ll want to double check. First, review the rules at the place you’ll be setting up camp. Depending on the time of year and the local regulations, campsites might not allow fires. This could be due to the risk of starting wildfires or having some other environmental impacts.
If you do decide to start a fire, make sure you have a way to put it out in case it starts getting out of hand. It’s always a good idea to have a shovel, or a container and nearby water source to quickly douse the fire before it spreads.
Additionally, make sure you stick to burning local wood. Different kinds of pests and bacteria can make their home in wood, and we don’t want to be transporting these foreign agents into a new location!
Finding a location
As nice as it would be to make a fire wherever you want, that’s not a good idea if you want to keep yourself and others safe. If there’s a fire pit available, use it. If there isn’t one, try to avoid digging your own, as it may not be allowed due to archaeological concerns. Find a large space that’s made of gravel or dirt, and that’s well protected from wind gusts.
If you know that making your own fire pit is allowed, avoid digging underneath any low hanging branches. Ideally, you’ll be close to a water source if an accident happens, so you can put out the fire right away. Just in case, you’ll also want to surround your pit with stones for some added protection. And remember to keep your tent and any flammable objects far away from the fire!
The Three Types of Firewood
Now that you’ve decided on your location, it’s time to find stuff to burn. We can break firewood down into three different categories: tinder, kindling, and fuel.
Tinder is what you’ll use to start your fire. This includes things like small twigs, dry leaves, grass, needles, or anything else that’s easy to get burning right away.
Once you’ve got your tinder burning, you’ll want to start incorporating some kindling to build that flame. Kindling refers to small sticks that are about an inch in diameter. They should be a little bigger than the twigs you were using as tinder.
Finally, once you’ve got a decent fire going, start adding in the fuel. This is your firewood, which are larger logs that will sustain your blaze as the smaller sticks start burning out.
Avoid taking wood from live or dead trees. Live wood won’t burn very well, and dead trees are home to birds and other wildlife. Scavenge around the ground for dead branches that have fallen off the tree, and make sure it’s dry or you’ll be frustrated when it comes to starting a fire!
Want to learn more about the science behind how firewood burns? Check out this article!
Building your campfire
There are a few different ways to build your campfire, and what you choose depends on what you’re hoping to do. Looking to cook? Build a teepee or lean-to. Want a long lasting fire? Go with a log cabin. Let’s check each of these out in more detail:
One of the more popular campfire methods, start by placing your tinder in the center of your fire pit. Then, take your kindling and start leaning them together in the shape of a cone around your tinder. There should be gaps to allow airflow and access to the tinder for lighting. The cone shape will eventually collapse, at which point you can start adding in some of your bigger logs for fuel.
Find a long kindling stick and push it into the ground at a 30-35 degree angle. Gather your tinder and place it underneath this support stick, laying some other small pieces of kindling around it. Find some other smaller kindling and lay it against the support stick before adding another layer with larger kindling. Light the tinder, and enjoy the heat!
Start by making a teepee campfire. Once you’ve done that, take some larger kindling or small logs and build a “fence” around the teepee. It should look like you’re building a Jenga tower. The idea is that as the fire grows, the bigger pieces of wood will collapse into the fire, making it last longer.
Starting your fire
You’ve built your wooden structure, and now the sun is setting off in the distance. Time to light it up!
There are ways to start a fire using unconventional methods, but if I’m being honest, just use a lighter or matches. Depending on what you’re doing, it’s probably good if you get some that are waterproof.
Gather up those small twigs and dry leaves, and start it on fire, blowing gently at the base of the flame. Fires need fuel, oxygen, and heat, so blowing on your newborn flame can help it to grow.
Once you’ve got a good blaze going, keep an eye on it. The fire will consume the kindling and fuel you’ve added, so you’ll want to keep tossing in more, if you want to keep your fire burning. Just remember not to go overboard with this, as the fire can get out of hand. Keep it manageable, and always have a bucket of water at the ready to put it out if necessary.
If you’re like me, part of the fun of making a campfire is coming back smelling like wood smoke. Sadly, like all smoke, breathing in too much of it can be harmful for your health. If this is a concern for you, there are some tricks that will help you manage the amount of smoke coming from your fire.
Green wood or wet wood will emit a lot of smoke once lit, so try to find plenty of dry, dead branches.
Also, try to find hardwoods like ash and oak to burn. Not only do they burn cleaner, but they also burn longer, so they’re a better option all around. Using softer wood, like pine, as kindling is still a good idea though, as it lights easier.
Putting out your fire
Arguably the most important part of this process is putting out your fire. As a rule of thumb, never leave your campfire unattended. All it takes is a random gust of wind for it to get out of hand.
Grab your bucket of water and start to pour it out until everything is completely drowned. Take a large stick and start stirring the ashes and embers around until they’ve been completely covered in water. Once you’re satisfied that everything is wet, hover your hand over the embers to see if there’s any heat coming off of them. If there is, keep adding water until everything is cool to the touch. If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave!
If you don’t have easy access to water, dirt or sand is another viable option. Make sure you have a good shovel or stick to mix it around, and keep doing the heat test until you’re sure everything is cool to the touch.
Be responsible, stay safe
Campfires are the quintessential hallmark of camping or glamping, especially when you’ve got a large group together for laughs and stories around the roaring flame. Even solo backpackers in their one person tents or bivy sacks can barely resist the inviting temptation that a campfire brings, as the mind automatically imagines the rustic glow of flames dancing around a fire pit, while marshmallows turn golden brown.
I mean, who can resist s’mores, am I right?
When done properly, there’s nothing better than a campfire. If you’re building your own firepit, try to have a Leave No Trace (LNT) mentality, so you can keep the scenery as beautiful for the next person as it was when you found it.
Now that you have the tools to make Smokey the Bear happy, get out there and build that fire!
Want to learn more about camping and what you should prepare for your next adventure? Check out our guide on How to Go Camping for more info!