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by Mountain House July 22, 2020

How to Build A Campfire: Techniques, Safety & Etiquette

With summer camping season in full swing, many are relishing the age-old joys of the campfire. Some are perhaps relishing those joys a little more fully than others: After all, more than a few of us are, when it comes down to it, amateur fire-builders—maybe reaching for ye olde lighter fluid a bit too readily, or spending most of our time not enjoying the flames but rather just trying to keep the thing from going out.

Many of the common problems with getting a campfire going—and keeping it going—have to do with the fire construction process. To mark this camping-heavy time of year, we thought we’d throw together a few campfire building techniques—and review some of those all-important campfire ethics in the process!

Campfire in woods.
Image by sagar pradhan from Pixabay

Campfire Ethics, Etiquette & Safety

Campfires are mighty hard to resist, but sometimes we should resist them. In certain areas and during certain times of year, fires are all-out banned to prevent wildfires or environmental impacts. Even where they aren’t prohibited, backpackers and primitive campers should always assess their location to determine whether or not to have a fire: In heavily visited backcountries, or sensitive habitats such as above-timberline country where campfire fuel is inherently limited, favor a stove over a fire.

Firewood in fire ring.
Image by SupremeRyan from Pixabay

“Leave No Trace” Four D’s

If you do decide to have a fire, remember to do so ethically, with both safety and ecological sensitivity in mind. Don’t transport firewood long-distance, as that can spread pests and pathogens to wild woodlands and forests; buy or gather wood locally. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics advocates abiding by the “Four Ds” when it comes to gathering firewood:

  • Downed (don’t break branches off from standing trees or shrubs or cut them down—even dead ones, which provide important habitat)
  • Dead (use downed deadwood)
  • Dinky (in other words, small—use wood smaller in diameter than your forearm or wrist)
  • Distant (don’t gather in the near radius of your campsite, and spread out your wood-collecting)

Fire Rings

If there’s an existing fire ring, use it to minimize your impact. If there isn’t one, don’t build one. Instead, choose a spot such as open gravel, sand, or bare mineral soil. You can also build a fire on top of a mound of mineral soil spread atop fire-resistant fabric (such as a fire cloth) or a specially made firepan, which is the most Leave No Trace approach.

Extinguishing Campfires Properly

When extinguishing a campfire, use plentiful amounts of water, sifting and spreading ashes in between dousings; your job’s not done until the ashes are cool to the touch. If you’ve made a fire outside of a designated fireplace or fire ring, disperse these cooled ashes and restore the site to as natural an appearance as possible—and return any mineral soil you moved to a fire cloth or firepan to wherever you scooped it up.

Always keep plenty of water on hand for extinguishing a fire. A shovel can also be used to help snuff out flames and embers, but water is better for safely dousing them: Dirt or sand dumped on coals can actually insulate them, raising the possibility of a subsoil fire spreading or wind removing the overlying material and reigniting a surface fire.

Campfire ashes in grass.
Image by aixklusiv from Pixabay

How to Build a Campfire: Common Designs

You can start some pretty vigorous discussions on the subject of which campfire design is the very best. The truth is, there isn’t a “best” style; it’s good to know a few different arrangements for different conditions, different fire uses (heat vs. cooking camping meals, for example), and different environments.

Before we get into some techniques of campfire-building, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page vocab-wise.

  • Tinder is the material—anything from dry leaves, moss, or “fatwood” to petroleum-jelly-soaked cotton balls, dryer lint, or paper—that catches the initial spark of the fire, which then lights kindling: twigs, branches, and small splits of wood that build up the fire’s initial combustion and heat.
  • Flame then spreads from kindling to larger, thicker fuel wood: what you might just call firewood or “logs.”

Here are several of the most basic campfire constructions:

The Lean-to

Among the very simplest campfire designs is the lean-to. At its most simple, this may take the form of a piece of fuel wood laid on the ground with tinder nestled on one side and kindling and other firewood leaned against it. Some folks build a lean-to fire using a piece of green wood actually wedged into the ground and kindling/firewood braced upon this “ridgeline.”

Lean-to fires are not only easy to build and effective: The version with the supporting firewood placed directly on the ground is an especially good way to go in windy conditions, with the fire lit on the leeward side.

The Teepee or Cone

Another widespread and easy-to-build campfire style, the teepee or cone consists of kindling and then firewood leaned together in a conical shape, with the tinder ignited in the center.

The Log Cabin

Logs stacked in alternating perpendicular layers with tinder and kindling placed in the relatively open middle create the cabin design. As the logs burn, they roll into the fire to keep things crackling along.

The Pyramid

A sort of variation on the log cabin, the pyramid also consists of stacked logs, but more densely arranged and becoming progressively smaller from bottom to top. The tinder and kindling are then placed atop this scaffold so that the fire’s lit from its “roof” and then burns downward.

The Star

With a lean-to or teepee structure in the center, lay larger logs around it like wheel spokes, with one end in the fire. You feed the star fire by pushing these radiating logs into the flames as they burn.

The Fire Triangle - 3 Essential Elements

Keep the three fundamental ingredients for fire in mind: heat, fuel, and oxygen.

  • You need a source of heat—the “pilot light”—to ignite a fire
  • You need a steady supply of both fuel and oxygen to feed it

Losing any one of the three elements means you lose the fire. A well-built and maintained fire will get to the point where it can supply its own heat and suck in oxygen via drafts.

Starting and Maintaining a Campfire

First, light the piled-together tinder—framed by some pieces of small kindling—and then gently blow on it or fan it to provide a good, hearty pulse of oxygen. Add progressively larger kindling and then logs, making sure the wood is close enough to catch and transfer flame but not so close that the fire’s choked out.

Give the fire “breathing room:” Don’t fiddle too much with it once it’s self-perpetuating. That said, shifting firewood around every once in a while is important—partly so you’re knocking off some of the accumulated ash that can, left undisturbed, can restrict the fire’s airflow.

Emergency Fires

If you’re headed into the backcountry this summer—even if you’re planning on solely using a stove—make sure fire-starting materials and tools are part of your emergency supplies in case an unexpected situation means you need to get a blaze going. Read our blog post devoted to starting emergency fires to learn more.

Large campfire in woods.
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

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