While everyone camps a little differently, there are a few elements of camping that are the same across the board. For example, we are all looking to reconnect with nature, explore, and build memories.
More tangible aspects might include eating delicious trail mix and snacks and drinking plenty of water, each a critical part of the camping experience.
But no element is more universal than the campfire. The campfire is almost synonymous with camping — they both share a root word for a good reason. Even still, building a campfire the right way can be difficult, especially considering that improperly built campfires are a risk to your safety and the environment.
If you don’t know how to build a campfire or want a refresher course, we are here to help. Learning the proper technique will help minimize inherent risks and dangers associated with flames. Luckily, with just a little bit of knowledge, you can learn how to build a campfire the right way — and it actually makes it easier to light.
Here is a classic campfire building technique for your next camping trip:
What Wood Is Best For Starting Campfires?
Let’s just jump right in and start talking about the first choice you will have to make when building your campfire: what wood to use for your campfire.
The most vital thing about wood is making sure to use local wood only for your campfires. If you are traveling any farther than 50 miles, you should purchase your firewood locally to help keep the environment safe. If you bring foreign wood, you might introduce invasive bugs and insect species that might cause significant environmental damage.
Then you will have to choose between air-dried and kiln-dried wood. Freshly chopped wood is considered “green,” meaning it is still too moist to burn cleanly, with low smoke and excessive popping. You must be careful when buying firewood from the side of the road, as this wood is often undried wood that won’t give you the best or safest campfire.
There is no major difference in the quality of kiln-dried and air-dried firewood. As long as the wood is nice and dry, it will burn cleanly and quietly. Many campsites will sell one of the other; it’s a bright idea to buy from the campsite to ensure it follows the campground regulations.
What Is the Difference Between Tinder, Kindling, and Firewood?
To light your campfire, you will need three types of wood or fire-starting items: tinder, kindling, and firewood. They are each different forms of fire burning wood, and they are each necessary to light the fire properly.
What Is Tinder?
Tinder is the combustible that will start the fire. Tinder is usually very dry, lights easily, and burns quickly. Leaves, newspaper pages crumpled up, wood chips, and pieces of cardboard are all great tinder sources that can get a fire started.
What Is Kindling?
Kindling is the middle child of the woods, larger than tinder but smaller than firewood.
Kindling is generally small sticks and pieces of wood that the time will light to grow the fire. These pieces of wood may take slightly longer to light but will burn harder and longer than kindling. Kindling provides the lighting flame to get the firewood burning.
What Is Firewood?
Finally, your firewood is the logs that are the primary fuel source for the fire. Your firewood will be the longest-lasting portion of your fire. Once your firewood is lit, you should only have to add more firewood; no additional kindling or tinder is needed.
How To Build a Campfire
Now that you have your tinder, kindling, and firewood squared away and understand the importance of your firewood choice, you are ready to start building your campfire.
Here is a step-by-step look at how you can build a campfire safely every single time:
Build the Fire
The first step is building your campfire structure with your local wood. Shaping your firewood in an intentional design will help your fire light faster, and stay light better than using a random stack of wood.
There are two commonly trusted ways of building a campfire: the cone and the log cabin.
How To Use the Cone Method
The Cone is exactly what it sounds like and is probably what your mind first jumps to when you imagine a campfire. You will start by placing a small pile of tinder and then construct a tent-type structure with your kindling. This should create a cone-type structure. Once lit, you will add firewood a few pieces at a time, maintaining this cone shape.
How To Do the Log Cabin Method
For your log cabin, you will also start with a small pile of tinder, but then, instead of building a cone, place two pieces of kindling on opposite sides of the pile parallel to each other. Then place two more pieces on top of these, perpendicular to the bottom two logs, creating a square around your tinder. You can add another layer of parallel kindling pieces for a larger fire.
Light Your Fire
Now that your structure is done, you are ready to get the fire started. Unless you are super dedicated to survival camping and trying to cultivate the survival skill of being able to light a fire with flint and steel, then we suggest that you just use matches or a lighter.
If the conditions are dry enough you should have no trouble using a match or lighter to get your kindling to light. Once your kindling has lit, you should add some firewood and get that lit as well. With a well-built structure, getting a consistent and high-quality campfire is much easier than you might have previously thought.
When you are ready to put out your fire, douse it in water completely until no embers remain. Even burning embers have the potential to ignite a fire and should not be left unattended.
Essential Campfire Safety Tips
It would be irresponsible to give you advice on building a campfire without also providing you with some warning of the dangers that a campfire poses. Obviously, a campfire is a fire and, as such, poses a health and safety risk to everyone and the environment. Safety must always come first anytime fire is involved.
Always make sure that it is safe and allowed to construct a fire where you are camping. Only build fires in designated fire pits, or construct a stone or brick ring around your fire to serve as a pit if there is no other option.
Check local weather conditions to know if there is an increased fire risk. Never leave your fire unattended, nor leave children unattended around an open campfire.
Lastly, keep an emergency water bucket large enough to douse the fire in the event of a sudden and unexpected emergency. While building your campfire properly can help avoid instability and unpredictability, it is always better to be safe than sorry. If possible, try to have access to a hose or source of running water so that you can have as much water as necessary to stop a serious emergency from taking place.
Campfires are an essential part of the camping experience. But building a campfire and keeping both yourself and the environment safe requires some practice and attention to detail.
You need to start with the right kind of wood. Your wood ought to be local to your campground and must be dried somehow. Kiln-dried wood and air-dried wood are both high-quality options that you may find; just be wary of streetside sellers who may be selling undried wood.
You are also going to need tinder and kindling to light your fire. Tinder is a very small and dry, flammable item that starts fires, and kindling are medium-sized pieces of wood that make the structure of your fire.
Build your cone or log-cabin-style fire structure over a small pile of your tinder, and you are ready to light your fire. It is smart to just use a lighter or match.
Remember to always stay safe. After everything is all said and done, lean back, relax, crack open your cooler, and raise a toast to the starry sky and Mother Nature herself.
And while you are out camping, just as important as your campfire is to keep you nice and warm, your cooler is important for keeping your food and drinks ice cold.