Build a fire for camping, cooking, survival and more!
Man and fire are inseparable. And although we no longer depend on wood fires for our cooking and warmth, knowing how to build a campfire is one of the most timeless and fundamental skills we can possess.
But beyond a fire’s utility, the simple act of gathering and arranging wood to be set ablaze is immensely satisfying unto itself.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about building effective campfires including the supplies and materials needed, how to select a fire site, and the basic fire-building procedure.
Then, I’ll show you how to modify a campfire for specific purposes including cooking, staying warm in the woods, and survival.
I promise, you don’t need to a be a big time lumbersexual to do this. Check it out:
Check it out:
|Tinder||Captures initial spark|
|Kindling||Transfers flame from tinder to wood|
|Fuel Wood||Keeps fire going|
|Matches||Lights fire in any situation.Check Amazon|
|Lighter||Optional. Makes fire starting quicker.|
|Flint and Steel||Great if you don't have lighter. Old school approach|
Campfire Supply List
Let’s start with the core ingredients of any good campfire: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood.
Tinder, Kindling, and Fuel Wood
Whether you’re deep in the woods or just hanging out by the river for the day, if you can rummage up these three materials you’ll be well on your way to a roaring fire.
In the fire-making process, the role of tinder is to capture the initial spark or flame you generate in order to spread it to the rest of the wood. There are many different materials suitable for tinder — wood shavings, dry grass, dry leaves, dead moss, newspaper, toilet paper, or even drier lint among others.
No matter what you have on hand, the most important thing to remember when gathering tinder is this:
The drier the better.
Wet tinder is extremely difficult to light and certain to lead to frustration and possibly a fireless night. So, if you’re planning a trip to a damp area or see rain in the forecast, be sure to bring plenty of dry tinder with you.
The role of kindling is to catch the flame coming off the tinder and transfer it to the larger pieces of fuel wood.
Ideal kindling includes twigs and small branches that are dead and very dry. Try to collect a range of kindling sizes from twigs with a diameter smaller than a no. 2 pencil to sticks roughly the diameter of your middle finger. Dry strips of bark can also make great kindling.
Whatever you do, avoid taking your kindling from live trees. Green branches are often very moist and difficult to ignite.
While tinder and kindling are only used when starting your campfire, fuel wood is what keeps the fire going into the night.
The size of your fuel wood is the most important factor to consider. It can be significantly larger than your kindling, but not so large that it struggles to catch flame from the kindling.
For most campfires, dead, dry logs no larger than 5 or 6 inches in diameter make great fuel wood.
Tools for Ignition
Of course, if you want to embrace your primitive side, you can light a fire with nothing more than your bare hands, a stick, and a healthy dose of gumption. But for our purposes, more modern implements of ignition are completely acceptable.
The specific tool you use to ignite your fire isn’t important as long as it can deliver a spark or flame to your tinder reliably and with relative ease.
Here are three of the best options:
Matches that are waterproof and windproof should be on your person whenever you trek into the woods. These are by far the most reliable tools to get a fire started quickly and efficiently. Just be sure the matches you buy are of the “strike anywhere” variety.
Nothing fancy needed here. A simple disposable gas station lighter will do. For added peace of mind, keep one lighter in your pocket and an extra in your backpack.
Flint and Steel
For extended trips into the backcountry, it’s a good idea to bring along a flint and steel. This time-tested combination generates a shower of sparks when struck together, and generally, works even when wet.
Plus, a flint and steel will last way longer than a box of matches or a lighter.
With your combustibles and tool for ignition compiled, your campfire is only a few steps away. However, there are a few other items you should have with you when building a campfire.
Bucket of Water
As a safety measure, keep a bucket of water within arms reach of your campfire. That way, if it gets out of hand you can easily douse it and keep it contained.
When you’re ready to turn in for the night, you’ll use the water to put the fire out completely. More on that later.
Ax or Hatchet
While not necessary, a sharp ax or hatchet can make the wood gathering process much easier.
Basic Campfire Building Procedure
As you’ll discover, once you get the tinder, kindling, and fuel wood in right arrangement and deliver a spark to the perfect spot, the fire happens almost automatically.
But before any wood is stacked or flames sparked, a proper site must be staked out.
Choosing a Site for Your Campfire
Safety is key when selecting a site for your campfire. If you’re camping in an area with designated fire pits, use them. If you’re in the backcountry or in an undesignated area, you’ll most likely have to create your own fire site.
Choose a location that’s far away from anything flammable — bushes, trees, and vehicles. Once you have a suitable location, it’s time to create a fire bed.
Creating a Fire Bed
A fire bed is nothing more than the ground on which you build your fire. And it should be exactly that — earthen ground, not vegetation of any kind. If you can’t find a vegetation-free spot you’ll need to clear one yourself. A shovel can be helpful in this instance, but several stiff kicks of your boot should do the trick.
Ideally, your fire bed should also be even. If it’s rocky or pivoted, add extra dirt to the bed to even it out.
As a final touch, place large stones around the perimeter of the fire bed. This provides a barrier against the wind to keep the coals and embers from escaping.
Building a Teepee Fire
Perhaps the most effective campfire arrangement is the classic teepee. It can be used to build fires of all sizes from a tiny cooking fire for boiling a quick cup of coffee to a raging bonfire.
Here’s how it’s done:
- Place your tinder in the center of the fire bed. Use plenty and keep it compact.
- Place kindling around the tinder to form a teepee shape. Start with your smallest kindling sticks and gradually build up to larger pieces. Don’t cover the tinder completely; keep a small space open for ignition.
- Arrange several pieces of fuel wood in a teepee formation on top of the kindling.
- Light the tinder with your matches, lighter, or flint and steel. The tinder should catch flame immediately and slowly start spreading to the kindling. If the tinder isn’t igniting, gently blow on the embers to stoke the flame.
- If all goes well, the kindling will catch flame and in turn ignite the fuel wood. As the flames increase, the teepee will eventually collapse at which point you can use a sturdy stick to consolidate the burning wood in the center of the fire bed. Add more fuel wood as needed.
Building the Perfect Campfire for Any Situation
Now that we’ve covered the materials and basic procedure for building a campfire, let’s take a look at some ways to adapt a fire for specific uses.
Campfires for Cooking
Don’t be surprised if the meals you prepare over an open fire are the most delicious and memorable of your life. Fire adds a rich, smoky quality to food that’s hard to replicate in the kitchen.
Tip: If you are a bass fisherman, cooking these types over open flame can help to remove some of the “fishy” taste.
To get you started, here are two quick ways to build a campfire for cooking:
Campfire for Quick Meals
If you only need to heat up a can of chili or boil a pot of coffee, start out by building a teepee fire just like we covered.
The main difference here is that instead of adding large pieces of fuel wood, use only small kindling twigs. Light the tinder and when the twigs catch fire, add more to keep the flame going.
Once you have a decent bed of coals, place your pot directly on the fire. To keep the fire going, continue adding twigs around the outside of the pot.
This small but mighty fire is nimble enough to make quick temperature adjustments and only takes a few minutes to fully extinguish.
Campfire for Large Meals
When you want to cook one or more full pots of food, here’s an easy modification you can make to the basic teepee fire…
Start by building a medium to large teepee fire with plenty of fuel wood. Let it burn down enough so that the large pieces of wood are fully burned and glowing.
Now here’s the trick…
After you consolidate, take two large logs — ideally green or wet — and place them on opposite sides of the fire. The logs should be close enough to hold your pot so that it’s positioned over the fire.
Voila! A backwoods kitchen range.
Campfires for Warmth
Whether you’re fending for your life or just enjoying some time backpacking in the woods, staying warm is incredibly important. Here’s a relatively simple modification to make to the basic teepee fire that will keep you nice and toasty…
Building a Reflection Wall Fire
Campfires on their own generate plenty of heat, but the problem is that it disperses in all directions. This technique solves that problem by reflecting the heat of the fire back to you using a wall — just like a fireplace.
There are two main ways to build a reflection wall fire: you can use an existing wall like a cliff or cut bank, or you can build your own wall with logs.
If you can find a suitable cliff or wall, simply build your fire directly in front of the cliff and sit facing it. Much of the fire’s heat that would normally dissipate will be directed straight toward you.
If you can’t find a natural wall, it’s time build your own. Before you build your teepee fire, find two sturdy poles — skinny lodgepole pines work great — and drive them into the ground at a slight angle away from your fire bed.
Next, gather several logs and stack them up against the poles to form a makeshift wall. Try to use wet logs if possible so they won’t burn.
Build your fire and sit facing the wall you just built. Instant fireplace!
Campfires for Survival
The campfire methods I’ve outlined for cooking and keeping warm are relatively specific. But when you find yourself in a survival situation, you might not have the luxury of building a specialized fire for your needs.
While these methods can still be used, a campfire for survival often times must serve many purposes simultaneously.
Here are a few ways you might utilize a campfire when surviving the elements:
- Protection against wild animals. If you find yourself in bear or wolf country, you’ll need to really focus on situational awareness. This means building something that provides plenty of light so that you can see. Even the largest predators typically want nothing to do with humans, and fires and humans go hand and hand. Also, maintaining a fire will keep smaller critters away like raccoons, possums, and snakes.
- Beacon or signal fires. Unless you plan on staying in the woods and living off the land, your goal is to get found as soon as possible. Keeping a fire going will help search crews find you that much quicker.
- Drying clothes. Hypothermia is no joke. If you get wet, fall in a river, or get stuck in the rain make every effort to get dry and warm fast. Build a large one and huddle close. Use sticks to hang your clothes and shoes to speed up the drying process.
Extinguishing Your Campfire
After you’ve enjoyed the warmth of a campfire you built with your own hands and used its heat to cook a tasty meal, it’s time to extinguish. You’ll need a bucket of water and a sturdy stick.
Here’s the process:
- Start sprinkling water onto the fire — don’t dump the water. Use just enough water to extinguish the fire but not so much that you flood the fire pit. Flooding a fire pit is unnecessary and will only make starting your next fire more difficult.
- As you sprinkle water, use a stick to stir the coals. Stirring helps water cover every part of the fire to put it out thoroughly.
- Hover your hand over the coals to feel for heat. If you feel any heat whatsoever, you need to continue sprinkling water and stirring. Only when the bed of coals is completely cool to the touch is the fire extinguished.
Now that you know how to build a campfire for any situation, go ahead — head off into the woods. And if you can’t escape the city, set up in your backyard and stoke some logs just for the heck of it.
I hope you found this post useful!