a well built campfire with a tent nearby

3 Ways to Build the Perfect Campfire

A Good Campfire is the key to a Great Campout

Camper sitting by campfire at night

When most people think about camping one of the first things to come to mind is the campfire. A fire not only provides warmth and a place to cook and roast s'mores but also a gathering place for friends and family. Here we'll cover the basics of fire safety, wood gathering, building, and lighting a fire so you can impress everyone with your outdoor skills on your next campout.

Always Put Campfire Safety First

Smokey the Bear fire safety sign

"Only you can prevent forest fires." - Smokey Bear

Check Current Fire Danger Level and Burn Restrictions

Usually, any restrictions and the current fire danger will be posted as you enter wilderness areas or campgrounds. Fire danger is rated on a 5 level scale from green (low), blue (moderate), yellow (high), orange (very high), to red (extreme). When the danger level hits Orange or Red the risk of fire is high and burn bans may be in effect.

Always Supervise Children Around the Fire

Never leave children unattended while the fire is burning. Use your best judgment and be sure they know the basics of fire safety.

Use or Build a Fire Pit

Most campsites have metal fire rings but if needed you can easily build one from rocks or dig a fire pit in the ground. A fire pit will shield the flames from wind and provides a protective barrier to keep your fire contained.

Pro-Tip: Never build a fire pit with river rocks as the water content can cause them to crack and explode as they heat up.

Have a Bucket of Water Ready

If your fire gets out of control or a stray ember catches nearby brush you may not have time to grab a bucket and fill it. Always have a prefilled bucket or large pot to put your fire out.

Make sure the fire is out When you light a fire you're responsible for it until it is out and cold to the touch. Douse it with water, smother it with dirt, even pee on it as a last resort to make sure your fire is out.

Tips for Collecting Firewood

Man with a big handful of small sticks for kindling

When gathering firewood anything dead and on the ground is up for grabs. Never cut down or take branches or bark from living trees. You'll not only cause damage to the ecosystem but fresh cut wood won't light easily and will create excessive smoke when burned.

Pro-Tip: Most campgrounds have firewood and kindling for sale to supplement what you can gather. And it is best to buy your firewood where you burn it to prevent the spread of disease and pests.

  • Tinder:a generous helping of tinder will make lighting your campfire easy. Gather dried leaves, grass, moss, shredded bark or any other material that will easily light. Man made items like used paper, cardboard, or dryer lint also make great tinder.
  • Kindling: is made of small twigs and sticks that easily catch fire as the tinder burns. Look for pieces 1 inch in diameter or less or about as thick as your fingers.
  • Firewood: lastly, larger pieces of wood will make up your main firewood that will burn for an extended time and can be added to the fire to feed the flames as needed.

1. How to Build a Teepee Campfire

The Teepee method can be used for small fires or large group bonfires. It's also a great choice when trying to start a campfire in wet or windy conditions since the teepee shape naturally shields the inside from wind and concentrates the flames for catching damp wood.

Step 1: Tinder

Small pile of tinder in the center of a firepit

Place a couple of big handfuls of dry tinder in the center of the firepit. Try and build your pile in a teepee shape so it fits inside the teepee of kindling and firewood you'll add next.

Step 2: Kindling

Small sticks in a teepee with kindling in the center

Build a teepee of kindling around your tinder. Creating a teepee is a balancing act and you'll need to place each stick carefully, but it's ok if the kindling leans on the tinder.

Step 3: Firewood

firewood in teepee arrangement ready to be lit in firepit

Lastly, add larger pieces of firewood around the frame of kindling. Then light the tinder as low to the base of the pile as you can and with any luck, your fire will light on the first try. Eventually, your teepee will collapse or you can push it over with a stick and add more logs to the pile as needed.

2. How to Build a Log Cabin Campfire

If you played with Lincoln Logs as a kid you'll be a natural at building a log cabin fire. The log cabin method Is great for cooking fires where you need your logs to fit neatly under a steel firepit grate. Or if cooking without a grate the log cabin method allows you to start the fire with plenty of large logs for ample coals to cook over.

Step 1: Tinder

a log cabin style fire being built with tinder

Place 2 large pieces of firewood about a foot apart and then use smaller pieces or kindling to create a platform for your tinder pile. This makes sure your tinder gets plenty of oxygen. Optionally you can skip the platform and place the tinder directly on the ground.

Step 2: Kindling

Log cabin style fire being built with kindle added

Lay 2 more large pieces of wood log cabin style in the opposite direction as the first. Then place your kindling above the tinder.

Step 3: Firewood

Log cabin style fire ready to light.

Add another layer of logs in the opposite direction to the last. Then place 2 final pieces of firewood across the top centered over the kindling. Finally, Light the tinder and watch as your log cabin goes up in flames.

3. How to Build a Lean-To Campfire

The lean-to method is great for smaller fires when wood is scarce or you aren't planning on burning your fire for long. We prefer this method in the backcountry where fires are allowed.

Step 1: Tinder

The base of a lean to style campfire with kindling next to base log.

Place a large piece of firewood on one side of your fire pit. This will support the rest of the lean-to. Then lean a large pile of tinder against the firewood.

Step 2: Kindling

Kindling leaning on base log to build a lean to style fire.

Lean the kindling over the tinder in a half circle. It will look like a half teepee

Step 3: Firewood

Lean-to style firewood ready to light.

Lean firewood over the kindling to complete the lean-to. Light the tinder at the base and enjoy.

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