Check out these simple tips to learn how to start a campfire at any campsite in any weather condition you experience on your camp trips.
Some of our favorite camping tips are about campfires because we love cooking with them, hovering around them and tending them so they produce those magical dancing flames that are so relaxing to watch!
Purpose For Your Fire
The type of camp fire you build depends on what you are using it for, like:
If you are doing some campfire cooking, you will want to build your campfire in a tepee fire or lean-to style. You want a nice bed of coals under the cooking grill grate with an ample supply of fuel from burning logs on the side to keep the cooking heat constant. Get more campfire cooking tips for this type of fire.
If you want a fire for warmth, you want a robust fire with lots of flames and heat. Don’t create too big of a fire, you want it to stay within the existing fire ring and don’t want sparks flying onto flammable materials.
If you want to relax around the fire and enjoy campfire activities and games, you will want to build your campfire in a crisscross or log cabin fire style … both create long-lasting campfires. Using hardwood is the best because the longer burn time means you don’t have to keep feeding it as often compared to softwood fires. That way, you can concentrate on relaxing rather than constantly tending the fire.
For campers in distress, especially in the backcountry, it is best to use emergency signaling devices like Garmin’s inReach Compact Satellite Communicator or sirens/whistles to send an SOS signal for help. An emergency signal fire may be necessary if no other options exist. Proceed with extreme caution so a wildfire is not accidentally started. We’ll discuss this type of fire later in this post.
No matter which type of campfire you build, the best campfire starter depends on the gear you have and how easy you want the process to be.
Simple Steps To Start A Campfire (and put it out too)
Step 1: Determine a suitable location to start your campfire.
How do you start a campfire safely?
- Verify campfires are allowed and obtain a permit if one is required. Contact the authorities who regulate the area, the local ranger station, camp hosts at campgrounds and officials in national parks are the best resources for this information.
If it is too dry and campfires are prohibited, here’s how you go camping without fire to stay safe, legal and still have tons of fun!
- Use the designated fire ring at your campsite or create a new one, if necessary and allowed.
- Clear a 10-foot area free of tree limbs, grass,
leaves, firewood or any other flammable materials.
- If you are camping in a dispersed location that
does not have a fire ring, create a fire pit to build a fire and keep it
contained. Consider these campfire safety matters when you create a pit …
- Choose a site that does not have lots of brush, dry grass or low-hanging branches. Sand or gravel surfaces are best to reduce the impact to healthy soils.
- Select a location away from flammable objects and vehicles (like canopies, tents and RVs).
- Dig a 1-foot deep hole for your campfire.
- Create a circle of rocks around the campfire zone to prevent the fire from spreading outside to the surrounding area.
- If you are camping in a dispersed location that does not have a fire ring, create a fire pit to build a fire and keep it contained. Consider these campfire safety matters when you create a pit …
Step 2: Collect your burning materials.
You’ll need three sizes of wood products to start your campfire and to keep it going.
From smallest to largest, you’ll need to gather: a tinder bundle, kindling and firewood.
Tinder: Is the smallest-sized material that is usually tiny twigs, dead leaves, dried up needles etc.
Kindling: Is the middle-sized material that is usually dried sticks that are less than 1-inch around but can also be the thin wood pieces that result from splitting logs with an axe or maul.
Firewood: Is the largest-sized material that consists of dried pieces of wood that fit inside the fire ring.
Campfire Safety Tip: Keep your firewood stacked away from the fire on the upwind side.
NOTE: There is one camping fire starter we used that does not require tinder or kindling AND it lights wet wood. We did a review of Pull Start Fire that includes a VIDEO that will show you why we think this is one of the easiest ways to start a campfire!
Step 3: Build your campfire.
Remember, fire needs oxygen to burn so when you build your campfire you need to avoid tightly packing the burning materials … instead … loosely stack them to enable airflow and ignition.
Place some tinder in the center of the fire pit … two or three handfuls is usually good. Making dryer lint fire starters is a fun project that makes economical gifts too!
Stack some kindling on top of the tinder leaving room for airflow.
Step 4: Start your campfire.
There are so many cool camping fire starters available … you can use one of those or just a regular lighter or matches to light the tinder.
The tinder and kindling should catch fire but you may need to continue adding smaller pieces of kindling, dry leaves, small twigs, bark and a larger piece of kindling (or more) to get it going well enough before you begin adding pieces of firewood.
Step 5: Continue building your campfire.
When you are first starting a fire, you’ll need to build up to large pieces of wood.
Once you have the tinder and kindling well underway, continue by adding smaller pieces of your firewood until you eventually have a large enough fire to ignite a larger piece of wood and ultimately the largest logs on top.
If you don’t have a campfire log grabber, you can use a long piece of kindling to stoke up your fire.
Step 6: Maintain your campfire.
Add larger pieces of your firewood to keep your fire burning.
Practice campfire safety by …
- Maintaining your fire to a manageable size.
- Planning to let the wood totally burn down to ash with plenty of time before you go to bed.
- Always attend your fire … Don’t ever leave it unattended.
- Always supervise kids and pets around your campfire.
Step 7: Extinguish your campfire.
As Smokey Bear teaches, “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”
Drown ALL embers by pouring a bucket of water on them … you are not done until the hissing sound stops.
Use dirt or sand if you don’t have water … you are going to bury the fire if you use this method.
If you have sticks and logs that have not burned to the point of ashes, use a shovel to scrape off remaining embers … if embers still exist or the wood is still smoldering … you are not done yet.
Continue to stir until all the material in your campfire pit is cool … add more water, dirt or sand as necessary.
Best Wood For Campfires
Softwoods are great for starting your fire but they burn out quickly.
Hardwoods are great for long-burning fires that generate long-lasting heat.
It’s best to start with soft wood like pine then transition to hard wood like maple, oak and mesquite to keep it burning throughout the night.
We will often start with a teepee style then transition to a log cabin wood pattern after we have a nice bed of coals in our fire pit.
We can help if you’re asking yourself, How much firewood do I need for camping?
How To Start An SOS Emergency Fire To Signal For Help
- Identify the location for your fire. Hilltops and ridges are best because they are easiest for rescue crews to see from a distance.
- Clear a cone of safety around the area, about 6-8 feet in diameter. Remove any flammable materials from the safety area. If clearing the area is not possible, build a barrier using rocks so the fire can not spread outside of the area.
- Gather your tinder, kindling and firewood as well as the materials you’ll use to produce the smoke, like green leafy branches, wet twigs and pine needles etc.
- Layer the material as described above, leaving room for airflow and oxygen.
- Light the fire. If you don’t have matches or a lighter, hopefully you have flint and steel strikes in your emergency kit.
- If you have no other option, you should be able to produce a spark by scraping a knife against a rock using a rapid, repeated scraping action. That should light the tinder.
- After the fire is going, you’ll want to cause dark smoke to rise into the air to send the signal you need help. Add your smoke-producing materials to create the clouds of smoke.
- Don’t forget to put the fire out after you’ve been rescued. You don’t want to be like the Arizona hiker who started a wildfire in 2018 while hiking in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area which is northwest of Sedona. He was ordered to pay $300,000 in fines.
Tips & Recipes For Campfire Cooking
Check out these easy campfire recipes for new menu ideas.
And don’t forget to pack your favorite campfire cooking equipment you’ll need to create your meal.
FREE Printable Camp Trip Planner
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