How To Build A Perfect Campfire

For many outdoor enthusiasts there’s no greater source of pride than mastering the art of building a perfect campfire. Pride notwithstanding, how to safely and efficiently build a functional campfire is something everyone should know.

Supplies List For Building A Campfire

When you pack your camping gear, pay close attention to campfire supplies—you may not have a fire at all if you arrive unprepared. Contact the camp before heading to your site to find out what it comes equipped with and what you need to bring.

Suggested Items:

  • Waterproof matches or lighter
  • Dryer lint, char cloth, or other ready-made tinder
  • Pocket knife
  • Small shovel
  • Hand axe or saw
  • Bucket for water
  • Several gallons of water for sites without an immediate water source
  • Treated firewood for sites where you can’t gather it

Firewood: Buy It Where You Burn It

Firewood has become a convenient vessel for invasive species. Destructive forces like Asian longhorned beetles, European gypsy moths, sudden oak death, beech bark disease, laurel wilt disease, and hemlock wooly adelgids use traveling wood as a means of charting new territory. Unfortunately, the presence of these pathogens, pests, and fungi can’t be confirmed by simply looking at firewood and they pose very serious threats to our native wildlife.

What can you do to prevent the spread of invasive species if you must bring firewood into a campsite?

  • Source firewood less than fifty miles from where it will be burned (ten miles or less is even better). If traveling further than fifty miles from home, buy local wood when you arrive. Find suppliers before your trip or contact park officials for recommendations.
  • Only buy firewood from responsible suppliers. Make sure they can tell you where their wood came from; some states issue safe firewood certifications to suppliers.
  • Research any county or state regulations that prohibit moving firewood across borders. Some regions require firewood be heat-treated to certain temperatures or that self-cut firewood have special certificates. Others may have quarantines or firewood exchanges in place. Strictly enforced regulations can have repercussions if you don’t abide by them.
  • Look for packaged, heat-treated wood with a USDA APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] treatment seal. “Kiln-dried” wood alone is not properly treated to prevent the spread of invasive species.
  • Resist bringing your own firewood even if there are no known infestations where you live. It often takes several years for authorities to recognize infestations.
  • Leave unused wood at the site or with park officials to prevent bringing invasive species home.

How To Make A Fire Pit

Set up your fire pit before you gather any wood. If your campsite already has a fire ring, use that to preserve the natural state of the camp. If your site does not have an established fire pit, find a spot fifteen feet from tents, shrubs, trees, and other flammable objects. Check for low hanging foliage and avoid building your campfire at the bottom of a hill—fire travels uphill very easily. Clear any duff—decomposing, loose leaves and brush that lines the forest floor—from the surrounding area. Duff may look like dirt but it’s flammable and can conceal live embers for several days.

Dig a fire pit that is 6 to 12 inches deep and 2 feet wide. Use the extra dirt to create a rim around the pit and to refill it later. Circle the surface rim of the pit with dry rocks—never use wet rocks, like what you might find in a riverbed. Once heated, steam pressure could fracture the rock and cause injury to campers.

Gather Three Types Of Wood To Build Your Campfire

After you dig your pit, gather the firewood. It’s always a good idea to gather extra as you may be surprised how quickly it burns. Use only dry wood; “green” (living) wood produces more smoke than flame, and may not burn at all.

Gather these three types of firewood.

  1. Tinder: Tinder is any small, easily burnt material. It catches fast and burns fast; it’s meant to start the fire, not sustain it. Leaves, bark, wood shavings, pine needles, dry grass, and dryer lint are all excellent examples of tinder. Make a circle by touching your thumbs and fingertips together. You will want enough tinder to fill that space.
  2. Kindling: Kindling is what keeps your flame going as you build it up. Look for small branches, sticks, and twigs that are no thicker than your thumb and about as long as your forearm. Gather one or two large armloads of kindling.
  3. Firewood or Fuel Logs: This is what maintains your fire once you get it going. Gather a knee-high stack of larger branches. Again, they should be dry and fallen, not torn from a living tree. Look for pieces at least as thick as your wrist and as long as your arm.

How To Build Your Campfire Structure

There are lots of ways to arrange wood to build a campfire. Many die-hard outdoorsmen will swear by one method as the “best” way, if not the “only” way but there’s no wrong approach as long as you achieve a safe, steady campfire in the end. From trip to trip you can experiment between methods or you may find that the specific firewood you have gathered suits one structure over another. Whichever method you choose, know that airflow is important. When you are trying to get the fire to catch, make sure that your materials are loosely arranged and not packed too tightly. Then build up from small to large materials. Most techniques start the fire with tinder and kindling, and add fuel logs just as the kindling burns through too quickly to sustain the flames. The most efficiently-burning fires are as tall as they are wide.

Try these structures for cooking over your fire:

  • Lean-To: Drive a piece of kindling into the ground at a 30-degree angle with the end of the stick pointing into the wind. Then lean shorter pieces along both sides of this support to build an A-like structure. Place a loose pile of tinder underneath and ignite. Add fuel logs as the fire fully catches to the kindling.
  • Tipi: Arrange several pieces of kindling over a loose bundle of tinder so that they lean against each other in a triangular, tent-like formation. If there is a breeze coming from one direction, leave an opening on that side so the wind aerates the fire. Once lit, continue to add tinder and kindling to the formation until the fire’s ready for small fuel.