Campfires are one of the best things about camping. The crackling flames warm you on a cool summer night, give you a cozy place to chat with friends, and can even be used to cook a meal. But campfires can also cause deadly wildfires, especially in the western United States. So for this week’s Conscious Camper series, we’re looking at how to safely build, control, and put out a campfire so you can enjoy this beloved camping tradition.
How to Start a Campfire
How you build a campfire depends on what you want to do with it. Are you looking to keep warm? Cook dinner? Or just have a fun light source as you hang out with your friends and family and maybe roast a marshmallow or five? No matter which type of fire you’re looking to build, you’ll need a few basic items to start.
Tinder – these are small and easily burnable materials like as small wood shavings, bits of cardboard, dried leaves, wadded up paper, or store bought or homemade fire starters.
Kindling – twigs and small branches that are a slightly bigger than tinder. Usually they’re less than one inch in diameter and are placed on top of the tinder.
Firewood – split logs or whole logs, this is what keeps the fire burning. Always use locally sourced firewood. Using wood from other areas can introduce problematic insets into new forests, damaging the ecosystem. Many campgrounds will have firewood for sale onsite, but local stores also offer bundles for sale. If you’re boondocking and looking to gather wood from the nearby area, only gather wood from the ground and never break it off living trees. Not only is that bad for the environment but it’s also too fresh to burn properly. Many national and state parks prohibit gathering wood from the area, so always check if gathering firewood is allowed where you’re camping.
Different Types of Fires
Here are some of the most common types of campfires and how to build them.
Teepee or Cone Fire
This fire is named for its shape and is good for cooking quick things or boiling water for coffee. To build, loosely pile some tinder in the fire ring and arrange the kindling in a cone shape (like a teepee) over it. Then add another teepee of firewood around the kindling. When you light the tinder, the fire will get plenty of oxygen and rise up through the wood. Once the fire is going, you can add more firewood as needed in the teepee shape to keep the fire burning. To cook, waiting until the teepee of firewood collapses and makes a bed of coals.
Log Cabin Fire
This fire is also named for its shape and burns long and hot. Place two pieces of firewood parallel to each other inside the fire ring with room in between them. Set two more pieces of firewood parallel on top of them so they make a square (like a log cabin). Add your tinder and a few pieces of kindling inside the square. Continue building up the outside “cabin” with more layers of firewood. Then light the tinder.
Platform Fire or Upside Down Pyramid
This style of fire is similar to the log cabin fire, but it burns down instead of up, which makes it a great option for cooking. The base creates a good bed of coals that you can set cast iron pans directly onto them. To build, start by laying three or more pieces of firewood on the ground beside each other. Place three more pieces of firewood perpendicularly on top of them. Add two more pieces of firewood perpendicular to that layer (so they lay the same direction as the bottom layer), and then add another two pieces of firewood perpendicularly to that layer. Finish with a pile of tinder and kindling on the top and light it. The fire will start at the top and feed its way down to the bottom.
Lastly, this style is great for keeping a fire going if you don’t have much firewood. To build this campfire, start by making a small teepee fire with tinder and kindling. Add five larger pieces of firewood all around it, with one of their ends in the fire and the other ends pointed away from the fire so it looks like a star. As the fire burns, push the ends of the logs into the fire to replace what has burned away.
Campfires are amazing, but they can also be dangerous and lead to deadly wildfires. Conscious campers do what they can to help prevent that by following campfire safety guidelines.
First things first, no matter if you’re staying in a campground or boondocking, always check if campfires are permitted. Especially in the western states where drought and hot summer seasons create a high risk of wildfires, fire bans may be in place. Confirm with your RV park or campground to see fires are allowed. If you’re camping on U.S. Forest Service or BLM land, check with the local ranger station or the agency’s website to see if any fire restrictions are in place or if fire permits are needed. The U.S. Forest Service website is a great resource for the National Fire Danger Rating System.
Use established fire pits. Whether you’re in a campground or boondocking, don’t just build a fire where you feel like it. If a campground or RV park doesn’t have a fire ring at the site, the camp host or registration office will be able to tell you if campfires are allowed. When you’re out in nature, always look for an existing fire ring at a campsite or boondocking spot. If there isn’t one, it’s safer not to make a new one. It’s not allowed in many places and can damage the environment and pose a risk for wildfires if not done correctly. Play it safe and hang out inside your rig or break out a battery operated lantern for light instead.
Check the weather and surrounding vegetation. Even if there’s an established fire ring, high winds in dry conditions can blow embers into nearby grasses and ignite a fire. Make sure the area around the fire ring is clear of brush and low hanging tree branches. If a storm is brewing or it’s a windy day, skip the fire and wait for safer weather conditions.
Lastly, never leave a fire unattended. Make sure the fire is properly extinguished before going to bed or leaving the campsite. And always keep water, dirt, or sand on hand to put out the fire in an emergency. Not sure how to properly put out a fire? Read on!
Properly Putting out a Campfire
When you’re ready to head to bed or leave the campsite, it’s very important to put out your campfire correctly. To put out your campfire, pour water over the fire slowly to douse the embers, then stir the ashes. Repeat the steps until you’re sure the fire is completely out. To check, hold your hand close to the ashes to see if you feel any heat. If you do, keep dousing with water and stirring until you don’t feel any heat. Once you’re confident the fire is completely out, spread the ashes in the fire ring.
Using dirt or sand to put out a fire can lead to problems, since the coals can become insulated and ignite later, causing a wildfire. If you used dirt or sand to put out your fire, make sure to use the water method to fully extinguish your fire before you leave the campsite.
Now that you know how to safely build and put out your campfire, be sure to check out the other articles in our Conscious Camper Series.