Being handy with fire is always a valuable skill on the trail, and you’ll likely want to sit around the fire after a long day of hiking, fishing, or other activities. But, always consider fire regulations first and use designated fire pits or fire rings. Keep fires small, and be mindful of how much firewood you use. Make the most of your time at your campsite and learn about the different ways to start a campfire.
Building a campfire 101
While many have their preferred methods of building a campfire, there are some key steps to take when assembling their campfire. Always make sure you have a first aid kit on hand when camping, hiking, and building a campfire.
Find a fire pit or make or find a fire ring
If you are at a campground, you’ll usually find fire pits or rings provided for you. Backcountry camping requires finding one that has already been used or safely putting one together. Regardless of where you are camping, remove any and all flammable items such as dry leaves, grass, paper, and other highly flammable material. It’s easier than you think to create a campfire that quickly gets out of control.
Gather or bring dry firewood, tinder, and kindling
You can’t have a campfire without firewood, so prepare accordingly. If car camping, you can bring some along with you, buy from a local store, or see what your campsite has to offer. Remember, if you are traveling to your campsite from a distance (say 60 or so miles), never bring your own firewood. This can bring new insects to the area and cause infestations that may cause devastating effects to the ecosystem.
Not only do you need firewood, but you also need materials for tindering and kindling. Tinder can include twigs or dry leaves. Kindling items are small sticks that you can use to get your fire going, as they are small and easily flammable. Another eco-friendly way to light up your campsite is by making a homemade fire starter. All you need is some dryer lint, a cardboard egg carton, newspapers, candle stubs, and some scissors.
Assemble the campfire
This is where you’ve got some leeway in how you build. There are a handful of common fires campers will create when they’re out in the wild.
The Tepee or Cone Fire
Just as the name suggests, a tepee or cone fire is shaped like a cone. It has a wide curricular base that allows in oxygen, keeping the fire going. This fire is easily maintained and doesn’t require much effort once it’s going. To build it, lay down a large bundle of tinder, use small kindling items to form a cone shape. Once the fire has started to build, continue to add larger logs on top.
The Log Cabin Fire
A log cabin fire is easily maintained, easy to put together, and is great for campfire cooking. Using a fire pit, stack wood as if you are building a cabin—think back to your childhood when you used to play with Lincoln Logs. Put two logs parallel to each other on the bottom, then another two on top perpendicular to those logs. After that, repeat the process until it’s at the height you want it at. Once the logs burn, they’ll fall back into the firepit, creating more kindling for the fire to keep going.
The Upside-Down Pyramid Fire
Also known as a platform campfire, this is similar to the log cabin setup and can be used to cook food easily. In this type, logs are packed more tightly together and the fire is started at the top. This way, the fire burns down, leaving a flat platform of hot coals. Since the logs fall into themselves, this is a self-sustaining fire and needs little tampering as the night goes on.
The Lean-To Fire
Lean-tos are one of the best types of campfires to build if you are dealing with high winds. They create a tall fire that protects itself from winds that are coming in a single direction. To make a lean-to fire, use a large log to place horizontally from the wind’s direction. Keep your kindling behind the large log, keeping them sheltered. This will help prevent it from going out or becoming out of control during windy nights.
Light the fire
If set up correctly and in the right conditions, lighting a fire is a breeze. Light your tender using a match or charcoal lighter fluid. Remember, NEVER use gasoline to start a campfire. More creative options include flint and steel, using a glass lens, and friction (creating a spindle and making a notch in a log).
Extinguish and clean up properly
Once you’ve had your fun, extinguish your campfire and clean up the site properly. Local guides or campground managers will let you know how to extinguish the area you are in safely. The best practice is generally pouring water on it—making sure you stand in the opposite way of where the steam will be coming out. Make sure that the ashes are completely cool before you leave, and ensure that there are no embers left anywhere.
Test out your new skills at a campsite near you
Now that you know how to start a campfire, it’s time to put those skills to the test. If your campsite allows for fires, try out a couple of different methods over the course of a few days. You’ll probably find one that’s your favorite and you can perfect.
Author Bio: Derek Edwards is a thirty-something Southern California outdoor adventurist and explorer. When he’s not out exploring the desert or hiking up a mountain, he can be found enjoying some fresh fish tacos in Pacific Beach. If you liked this post you can follow his adventure over on his blog.