How to Start a Campfire
Whenever you think of camping, the idea of sitting around a campfire is part of it. Campfire coffee, campfire ghost stories, campfire marshmallows, campfire fun, all of that. More than just to warm up on a cold night, a campfire brings people together, cooks your food, keeps the bugs away and brightens the dark sky. Campfire has a hypnotic allure and we can stare at it for hours.
Find out if it’s safe to build a fire where you’ll be camping. If it’s been a dry season, check with the ranger station, campground check-in or local fire restrictions online. You may need to register for a campfire permit. In California alone, humans cause 95% of the wildfires. Human neglect is generally the case with most wildfires. Leave the firestarters on the dancefloor. Always keep a water source close by for emergencies.
If your campsite doesn’t have a designated fire pit, look for a space that’s not close to trees or bushes. Clear away any grass or vegetation. You want about a 3 meter (10 foot) diameter of bare dirt. Dig a shallow pit, about 15cm (6in) deep. Form a circle around the fire pit with the loose dirt you just dug out. You can use this dirt if the fire starts to spread outside the circle to put it out. If you can’t dig a shallow pit, use rocks to form a perimeter around the fire pit. Rocks are also useful if you plan on cooking with your fire, as they’ll support a grill or a skillet.
2. Gather materials
There are 3 different types of material you’ll need to get your fire going: tinder, kindling, and firewood.
Tinder. It’s the smallest and easiest burning material. A few examples are: dry bark, dry grass, or dry leaves, wood shavings, pine needles, cardboard, newspaper, commercial fire sticks, wax and even dryer lint.
Kindling. Tinder catches fire quickly and you need something to keep the fire going. A big log is too big to catch fire right away. You’ll need some kindling: dry twigs or small branches.
Firewood. It keeps the fire burning. Firewood doesn’t have to be big, thick logs, which often take longer to catch fire. You can start off with smaller logs or branches about the size of your wrist and build up.
3. Build the fire
No matter what method you choose, make sure when you’re setting up your tinder, kindling and firewood that you give your fire enough room to breathe. Don’t suffocate it or it’ll go out.
Pick your method:
Tipi (Teepee). Place your tinder pile in the middle of your campfire site. Arrange your kindling above the tinder, leaving a ‘door’ for you to reach the tinder and for air flow. Then build a larger tipi of firewood around the kindling, starting with smaller firewood and gradually increasing with size as the fire grows. Remember to leave a ‘door’ open so you can add to the kindling if needed. Simplest and most effective way to get a fire going. Good for bonfires and cooking.
Log Cabin. Start by making a kindling tipi above your tinder. Use the thickest logs for the base, alongside the tipi. Place two logs onto of these to form a square. Build the square up using smaller and shorter pieces of firewood until you’ve formed a log cabin or pyramid shape. A low maintenance, long lasting fire.
Lean To. Take a green (moist) branch to use as a ridge pole, and stick one end into the ground at a 30 degree angle. Add a small tipi of tinder underneath the ridge pole with kindling and firewood leaning against it. Good for windy or rainy days when the fire needs protection to get started. Also good for cooking.
Star. Just like in the cowboy movies. Start with a tipi of tinder and kindling, then add logs around the fire in 3-5 points. Good for fire pits and all-night fires. Low maintenance, especially if the logs are angled down into the pit, they’ll naturally slide down once they burn off.
4. Light the fire
Light tinder from the bottom, using the match to light it in multiple places. Watch the flame to make sure the kindling catches and add additional kindling if needed. Don’t add too much at once as a fire needs airflow to burn. Once it gets going, sit back and enjoy your fire! Add firewood as needed.
5. Put it out
You’ve made your dinner, s’mores and stared into the burning embers. You’re done with your fire. Start early. A fire burns longer than you think. Start putting your fire out about 20-30 minutes before going to bed. Sprinkle, don’t pour, water onto the fire. Don’t flood the firepit in case someone wants to use it the next day. As you sprinkle, stir the embers with a stick to make sure all the coals get wet. If you don’t see any steam or hear any hissing, you know it’s almost totally out. Place your hand above the ashes. If you still feel heat, add more water and stir. Don’t feel anymore heat? The fire is out. Remember what Smokey the Bear says:
Final cleanup. If your campground has a fire pit, clean out your ashes when you leave, so you don’t leave them behind for the next camper. If you made your own fire bed, patch up the ground and return the space to how you found it.
Enjoy the warmth of your fire and the campfire stories!
Looking for more campfire entertainment than the glow of the fire? Check out our blog on The Best Camping Games. Keep on camping!