Discover the Best Methods for Building a Campfire
Gathering around a campfire as the stars shine brightly above you, is one of the greatest reasons to go camping. Being able to build your own is a skill worth perfecting.
Next time you are outside, be the person to build the fire. Build one with the materials found around your campsite. You can easily have a campfire of your own in any climate or condition.
It’s a Necessary Tool
Building and keeping a campfire will prove to be the most useful creation of your camping trip.
You can cook over the fire. There are numerous meals that will only be tasty when cooked in the great outdoors. Check out an American style recipe in my “Guide to Overnight Hiking”.
Fires maintain the perfect social space. Without electronics, the fire takes us back in time, to a simpler way of life. Entertainment for the evening is not some multi-million dollar movie. Instead, it is the creation of energy. Burning logs and throwing small sticks onto flames is a meditative experience. A campfire can elicit in depth conversations that otherwise would never happen.
On a cold night, the warmth of the flames can keep you from shivering. Wet clothes due to a river crossing or torrential downpour can be dried over a robust campfire. The peace of mind a fire gives, lifts spirits and soothes a hard day’s hiking.
With so much potential for happiness, it is a good idea to learn the basics and become a fire expert.
Creating a Fire Ring
Keeping your fire contained is an important part of backcountry stewardship. Fires built without proper containment can cause wildfires. Your fire ring does not have to be excessive, .5 meter x .5 meter should be more than enough room.
- Dig a hole. It is possible to have a fire ring without excavation but digging a hole will only help in the long run. Creating a small depression for your fire pit helps to contain coals and create stronger fires.
- Circle of stones. Rocks and stones are the best materials to build your fire ring with. They don’t burn and are heavy enough to resist being pushed around by falling logs and wind. When constructing the ring of rocks, make sure they are all touching. Overlap is good and the tighter your ring, the more contained your fire will be.
- Not too high. Keep the fire ring one or two layers of rocks tall. The purpose of this construction is to keep the base of the fire contained. You can also customize it to allow for cooking and drying wet clothes.
Building a Campfire
The following steps need to be followed in the order they are listed. Think of it like a recipe, each step leads into the next one. Fires start small and need to be coddled into growing.
As the fire gets bigger, start feeding it more. Add larger sticks, fueling the flames as they grow. When the fire is to the size you want, your labor input can be reduced. Maintain the flames with the largest fuel sources, logs.
The first step in building any fire is collecting the fuel. This involves all of the wood that will be burned throughout the duration of the campfire. Having large piles of wood around your fire will make maintenance much easier. After the sun goes down, wandering through the underbrush looking for sticks becomes difficult.
Never feel compelled to pack your own wood for a fire, the natural world will provide. On an overnight hike, there will be plenty of fuel sources within gathering distance to your campsite.
- Collect tinder and tiny twigs. Tinder refers to the smallest and driest of materials. Dry grasses, pine needles, and even dryer lint make amazing fire starters. When collecting tinder such as dry grass, gather 5-10 or more handfuls of this material. The more you have, the faster your fire will grow. Collect tiny twigs, dried, with a diameter less than a toothpick. Again, you will want 5-10 handfuls, the more you have, the easier it will be to get the fire going.
- Gather small twigs and branches. Gather 5-10 handfuls of fuel that is slightly larger than your tinder. It is good practice to gather a few different sizes, organizing the branches by size and diameter. Feel free to break off the sizes you need from larger dead branches. Try breaking smaller branches off larger ones, cracking them to the length you want.
- Collect some larger branches. Find blow downs and dead branches littering the forest floor. Fuel at this stage can be of greater diameters. Sticks as thick as your wrist are ideal. Larger fuel is needed to increase the size of your fire, creating a more evenly burning creation. With larger sticks, your labor input will be reduced as the fire needs fewer branches being fed into it. If you are having problems making the branches the right size, break them over your knee. You can even bring a small saw to cut them into manageable sizes.
- Find stumps and logs. These larger sized wood pieces will be the hardest to find. You will also need the least amount if any. The stumps and logs will be the final piece to your fire, creating a sustainable flame for many hours. I forego fuel this size on most camping trips because I prefer to sleep.
Time to light the tinder and start building your blaze. No need to get fancy with flint, or even matches, just use a lighter. Lighters are lightweight and easy to find, there is no shame in using one.
Keep your handfuls of grasses and tiny twigs within arm’s reach. Take a small clump and fold it over itself into a bundle, this will be your initial fuel source. As the flames spread rapidly, lightly place more grass on top.
A good way to add additional grass is by hanging the new additions slightly over the small flames, encouraging them to reach up. You want your flames spreading vertically as it makes the fire grow faster.
Keep feeding it, adding small twigs, the goal is to create some embers as your base.
If your fire smolders, lightly blowing on the hot goals will give it a boost of oxygen and cause the flames to seemingly rise from the dead. When there is smoke, you can get a fire started.
Once your tinder flames are burning with little assistance, time to add the small twigs and branches. These small diameter wood pieces will smoke at first. If you start with the smallest pieces, they should light up.
Giving the fire a few good breaths at this point is usually required. Slowly start stacking the small branches in a teepee formation. Keep the hottest flames as the center of your fire. Fire burns hottest when it is advancing uphill, the sharp angle of a branch at nearly vertical encourages this. Keep stacking the wood, slowly growing the teepee larger with greater diameter pieces.
It’s time to start adding the larger branches. The flames at this point should be very sustainable and you shouldn’t have to breathe on the fire to keep it burning. The larger branches can still be stacked in a teepee shape.
As the fire grows, your textbook fire shape may be lost, and that is ok. If wanted, you can begin to flatten out the flames and make them more amenable to cooking. Laying new branches in a log cabin configuration will keep the flames low and hot.
If you are satisfied with your fire and want to end the constant task of adding fuel, then it is time to throw a log on. Build up the fire to a hot roar, throwing smaller branches and even some tinder onto the flames. This will increase temperature dramatically, making the fire hungry for a large fuel source.
Gently place a log on top of the hottest part of the fire. If the fire has reached a large enough size it should light within minutes. You can even build a teepee structure around the new item, helping the fire to heat up once more.
Tip! Place your logs in close proximity to the fire while it is being built. The heat from the flames will dry it out, making it easier to light when you finally place it on top.
Following these 5 steps will help you build a fire, anywhere. Practice makes perfect and it is a good idea to hone your skills before testing them on an overnight hike.
Fire in Wet Conditions
Inevitably, you will be hiking in wet conditions. It rains outside and in areas with trees, it tends to rain a lot more. Just because the forest is wet and most of the wood is soaked, does not mean you can’t make a campfire.
If it is pouring rain, it might be better to just call it a night and take shelter in your tent. But if the rain has stopped and you are itching to dry off those socks, then have yourself a campfire.
First off, examine the ecosystem around you, look for standing timber with dead branches and twigs. Undergrowth in heavily wooded areas will be made up of dead branches and they are flammable.
Because the branches are off the ground, they dry fairly quickly and will be easy to light. Avoid any wet wood that has been lying on the ground, as it will be thoroughly saturated. Walk through the forest, breaking off the driest pieces you can find. Treat your fuel gathering just as you would any other fire, collecting small tinder on up to larger branches.
Another good tip in wet conditions is to use the dry wood inside larger pieces of logs and branches. If the wood has been soaked on the outside, the center will still be dry. Using a knife, you can shave off the wet parts and create dry fuel. This is especially useful in moist areas and even during times of torrential downpour.
Once you get the campfire roaring, collect wet wood and dry it out by the flames. Allowing wet branches and logs to dry will increase your fuel source. The more you have, the better your rainy day fire will be.
Just because the ground is wet and most of the wood is saturated, does not mean starting a fire is impossible. The prep work will take longer in wet conditions but once the fire gets going, maintaining is the same as in dry conditions.
Fire in the Snow
When Winter camping, particularly in the snow, having a campfire can truly be a matter of life and death. With snow on the ground, your best bet for fuel is finding hanging branches and sticks that have escaped the snow.
The outside temperatures will be much colder and the process of starting a campfire will take longer. It is important to have more than enough tinder to quickly bring the flames to a usable size.
Be careful to find a dry area, without snow, as your fire’s location. When the snow melts, it will turn to water, potentially flooding your flames. It is also important not to build the flames beneath trees with snow in the branches. The flames will melt the snow, causing it to rain over your fire.
Overall, treat starting a fire in the snow similarly to starting one in wet conditions.
Fire in the Desert
On first glance, starting a campfire in the desert may seem like an impossible task. With almost no trees and sparse vegetation, finding enough fuel may seem like a fool’s task.
This is not the case.
Unless you are in the middle of a large sandy desert, like the Sahara, most deserts will have plenty of vegetation and fuel.
In fact, starting a fire in these dry biomes is even easier than most forests. Gathering dry grass and small twigs can be done exceptionally quickly, old cactus and small bushes are everywhere. Because of the lack of moisture, all the wood and organic materials will be bone dry. Ever see someone starting a fire with just a spark? Most likely, they are in a desert where the tinder is dry enough to allow for such a quick start.
The only downside to desert fires is how quickly they go through fuel. The lack of large branches and logs compounds the problem. The desert has very few trees and large fuel sources are rare. Desert fires need large piles of fuel and will most likely have a shorter life than your other fires.
Becoming a Fire Master
By following 5 simple steps, collecting fuel, lighting your tinder, building up the size of fuel used, adding large branches and potentially logs, you will quickly become an expert fire maker. There are no conditions and environments where having a fire is impossible. Wet conditions require more prep work and deserts require more of fuel.
I encourage you to go outside today and practice building a fire of your own.