When you go camping in the woods, one of the essential things you need to know is how to build a fire. Whether you’ll build one on this next trip or not, knowing how to make one may save your life in an emergency.
This guide will cover the basics of how to build a fire. We’ll also go over some fire-building etiquette so you can practice Leave No Trace next time you’re in the woods.
Choose and Prepare Your Location
Before you can build your campfire, you first need to find a suitable location. Depending on where you’re camping, what counts as “suitable” may differ.
Campfires in Developed Areas
If you’re camping in a developed campground, there will likely be fire-building locations marked. These may include fire rings, fireplaces, or grills.
Before you make your fire, clear out any ash, glass, or metal from the fire pit. You’ll also want to check with the camp host or local government agency to make sure it’s safe to make a fire. During the dry season or drought years, campfires may be banned in some areas.
Campfires in Undeveloped Areas
If you’re camping in an undeveloped campground or backcountry, check with the governing agency to make sure fires are permitted. Agencies may include the U.S. Forest Service or state parks services. You may also need to purchase a campfire permit from these agencies.
For these areas, you’ll want to select a site with an established fire ring if one is available. This will minimize your environmental impact.
If that’s not possible, find a flat location several feet away from nearby trees and bushes. Make sure the area is free of brush, grass, or other flammable materials.
Furthermore, it’s best to make your fire on non-fertile soil. This will keep your fire from sterilizing the dirt below it. Gravel, sand, and mineral soil (sandy-colored soil) are the best options.
Once you’ve picked your location, you have one of two choices:
- Fire rings: To build a fire ring, pile 1-2 dozen large stones in a circle 2-3 feet across
- Fire mounds: To build a fire mound, build a flat, circular platform out of mineral soil
Gather Your Firewood
Once you have your location set up, it’s time to collect your firewood.
There are three types of firewood you’ll need to build a proper fire:
- Tinder is the small stuff that gets your fire going. Twigs, leaves, pine needles, and dry moss or bark work well. You can also bring dryer lint or toilet paper tubes from home.
- Kindling is the smaller sticks (less than 1” around) that let your fire build up.
- Firewood, sometimes called fuel, is the logs that keep your fire burning after your tinder and kindling are burnt up.
Where to Gather Your Firewood
Depending on where you’re camping, there may be regulations on the type of firewood you’re allowed to burn.
For a campground fire, use only wood native to the area. Most places don’t allow firewood from more than 50 miles away, as it has the potential to introduce harmful insects to the area.
You may be able to buy firewood bundles from stores, the camp host, or even your campground neighbors. (Typically, foraging for wood isn’t allowed in campgrounds.)d
If you’re camping in the backcountry, foraging for wood is probably your only option. If this is the case:
- Never cut branches from live or dead trees, as the native wildlife relies on these structures
- Only gather from sources on the ground
- Don’t burn pieces larger around than your wrist, as they rarely burn all the way
- Don’t try to burn wet or “green” wood unless you have no other option
Build the Fire
Now that we’ve got our location selected and firewood gathered, it’s time to actually build a fire.
There are five basic types of campfires:
- Cone or teepee
- Log cabin
We’ll discuss how to build each one below.
The cone fire, or teepee fire, is what most of us think of when we think about building a campfire. These fires are one of the best setups for cooking. However, they also burn fuel quickly. If you’re short on firewood, this may not be the best option.
To build a cone fire:
- Place several handfuls of tinder in the center of your fire pit
- Build a cone – teepee – out of kindling wood surrounding the tinder
- Light the tinder and let the fire burn for a few minutes
- When the blaze is going strong, stack firewood in a cone around the burning kindling
Now you have a cone fire!
Star fires are better if you don’t have a lot of firewood at hand. These burn whole logs hot and slow to provide a fuel-efficient fire for hours. They can also be good fires for cooking over. However, these fires require a larger fire pit
To build a star fire:
- Dig a small hole in the ground, 1-2 inches deep
- Build a small cone fire out of tinder and kindling in the hole
- Lay 4-5 thick logs flat on the ground around the teepee in a star- or spoke-shaped pattern
- One end should be touching the cone fire
- The other end should face away from the fire
- Light the teepee in the center of the fire and let the ends of the logs burn
- Push the unburnt ends of the logs into the center of the fire as the wood burns
- As the fire gets hotter, you can drape more length wood over the fire to burn while you sleep
And there you go!
Log Cabin Fires
Log cabin fires produce very hot coals and are built to last several hours. Typically, these are more structurally sound than cone fires. However, they also go through a lot of wood.
To build a log cabin fire:
- Place two pieces of firewood 1-2 feet apart as the base of your fire
- Place two pieces of wood at a 90-degree angle across the first two logs to form a square
- Build a nest of tinder inside the square
- Continue building your “log cabin” by adding two sticks at a 90-degree angle to the layer below. Be sure to push the sticks a few inches closer every layer
- Light the kindling in the center of your fire and add another layer of firewood on top
- Top your log cabin with a layer of tinder, and then a layer of kindling
Ta-da! You’ve built a log cabin fire!
A lean-to fire is a solution to building a campfire in windy conditions. By using your firewood as a windbreak, you can protect your flame until it grows big enough to provide warmth. These fires are also good for cooking meals.
To build a lean-to fire:
- Lay a thick log in the fire ring at a 90-degree angle to the wind direction
- Place the tinder on the side of the log facing out of the wind
- Lay your kindling over the tinder
- Light the tinder and allow the kindling to start to burn
- When the blaze is large enough, add larger pieces of wood until you can throw on a log
Now you have your campfire!
Pyramid fires are the most structurally sound fires. These are also good for keeping warm through the night because they last a long time. They use a lot of wood at the beginning, but because they burn so long, they don’t require frequent tending.
To build a pyramid fire:
- Lay 3-4 of your largest pieces of firewood side-by-side in your fire pit
- Lay 2-3 pieces of smaller firewood on top at a 90-degree angle to the bottom layer
- Alternate your layers one to two more times, with each layer made of smaller logs than the last
- Lay down a layer of tinder and kindling
- Light your fire
What if My Wood is Green or Wet?
Sometimes, all the campfire wood available is wet due to weather or the time of year. If that’s the case, your fire may be difficult to get going. However, it’s not impossible.
If you have nothing but wet fuel available, look to:
- Strip the bark from your firewood. Trees grow bark to protect them from weather, bugs, and fire. Therefore, removing the bark may make it easier to burn your firewood. Use a knife, hatchet, or another sharp edge to help scrape the bark off if you need to.
- Cut your fuel into smaller pieces. This is especially useful if you can’t remove the bark from your firewood. By splitting your wood, you expose the dry wood in the middle, which is easier to burn.
- Find evergreen trees such as firs or pines. The wood from these trees is filled with sticky sap, which burns quick and hot and can jumpstart your fire. Because evergreen canopies are so thick, they also keep the rain off the ground. You may find drier wood beneath these trees than others.
- Adjust your fire to your conditions. If you are trying to build a pyramid fire with wet wood, you’re probably going to fail. By burning kindling first and switching to a hotter fire structure, such as the teepee, you can dry out your firewood and have more success.
Light It Up
There are a few ways to light campfires. Many campers enjoy the ease of a lighter, but it’s important to have other methods on hand, just in case.
For instance, every camper should carry waterproof matches and Firestarter. Flint and steel are an excellent addition to any camper’s emergency kit. However, if you want to “rough it” in the woods, you can use more primitive methods such as a fire plow or hand drill.
To light your fire, always put the heat on the tinder, not the kindling or firewood. Once your tinder lights, gently blow at the base of the fire. This pushes oxygen onto the flame, which allows it to burn hotter and bigger.
Also note that when you build a campfire in the woods, you want to burn all of your fuel (firewood) completely. Therefore, as your fire burns, rotate any embers into the center of the fire. This should help them burn down to white ash.
Extinguish Before You Leave
When you are camping, one of the most important things to do is to fully extinguish your fire before you leave. This may take some time, so plan to start putting your fire out at least 30 minutes before you leave.
One method some individuals use is to pour sand, dirt, or other ground materials over the fire. This is usually a bad idea – not a good one! Sand and dirt act as insulation for fire embers, which can then start a wildfire is the wind exposes the still-warm coals.
Instead, to extinguish your fire, simply pour or sprinkle water over the coals. (Be sure to stand out of the wind, so you don’t get burned by the steam). Use a stick to rotate the coals and ash and saturate them with water. Once your ashes are completely cold, your fire is extinguished, and you’re safe to pack out.
Leave Your Site Clean
One last thing to note about building a campfire in the woods: practice Leave No Trace principles. When it comes to a campfire, this means:
- Don’t burn items that won’t reduce to ash (no plastic, metal, etc.)
- Dismantle your fire pit when you leave (in the backcountry)
- Crush any remaining charcoal chunks and scatter the dust away from your campsite
These practices ensure you minimize your environmental impact and leave the wilderness pristine for wildlife and the next campers to come along.