How to build a campfire: a step-by-step guide

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Our detailed and easy-to-follow guide on how to build a campfire will ensure you can enjoy a satisfying and safe campfire when camping

Many a man claims to be an expert firestarter – in the same way, many a man claims he does not need to ask for directions…

Alpha male or not, nothing should get between a camper and a glorious night spent around a campfire beneath the stars. This step-by-step guide on how to build a campfire will have even the most reluctant urban dweller embracing this long-standing tradition of the wild.

How to build a campfire

Follow our eight-step guide on how to make a campfire:

Step 1: Position your campfire

First things first, position your campfire at least 3m (10ft) away from anything flammable like your tent or overhanging trees. Ideally, the area will be sheltered from the wind but always leave enough distance to protect yourself and the environment.

Look for flat ground on which to build your campfire to prevent flaming embers from rolling down the hillside.

A campfire positioned away from a tent
Dreamstime Look for flat ground on which to build your campfire

Step 2: Create your fire bed

If your campsite has designated fire pits, always use them. If you’re wild camping, use a pre-existing fire bed whenever possible. Naturally, there will be occasions on which you have to make your own.

Your fire bed should be on exposed earth and not grass (especially dead grass). If you can’t find an area like this, you can dig away grass and plant material or pile up some dirt into a small platform (always check local guidelines first).

Give your fire plenty of space by creating a large bed for it as dry grass, branches and plant material can all be a hazard.

A used pre-existing fire bed
Dreamstime Always use a pre-existing fire bed whenever possible

Step 3: Create a ring of rocks

It’s good practice to use a ring of rocks to help contain the fire. Use dry rocks about the size of a clenched fist and space them apart so some air can still circulate at the bottom of the fire.

Don’t build your fire against large boulders or objects as it will leave unsightly marks. Also, avoid using damp or wet rocks as they can spit moisture and even fracture as they heat up.

Using dry wood to build a campfire
Dreamstime Avoid using damp or wet rocks

Step 4: Gather your wood

It goes without saying that you want dry wood. Avoid anything that is green, too wet or that bends without snapping – it almost certainly won’t burn well. Try to use only fallen wood – this is better for the environment and burns more effectively too.

Always collect more tinder and kindling than you think you’ll need; it burns quickly and if you run out early on, your fire will never get going.

Tinder: Every good campfire starts with good tinder. Campfire tinder should catch fire easily and burn fast. Material such as dry leaves, grass, bark and wood shavings all work well. If you’re a smart camper, you’ll bring your own tinder such as dryer lint, char cloth or firelighters.

Using tinder to build a campfire
Dreamstime Every good campfire starts with good tinder

Firelighters: A survivalist may scoff at the suggestion of firelighters but a smart camper will pack them regardless. These handy flammable cubes save time and effort and weigh next to nothing in your backpack.

If it’s wet underfoot and you can’t find dry tinder, you’re not going to have a campfire. Lightweight high-performance firelighters like Zip will give you the best chance of a successful campfire. Use them alongside or instead of tinder.

Kindling: You can’t move directly from tinder to your main fuel such as logs as this will smother your fire. Like tinder, campfire kindling needs to be as dry as possible or it won’t burn as easily. Try to find small twigs and branches about the length and width of a pencil.

If you’re struggling to find dry kindling, you can use your penknife (of course you have a penknife) to whittle down larger damp twigs and branches to get to the drier timber underneath.

How to build a campfire using kindling
Dreamstime Pencil-sized twigs make ideal kindling

Fuel: Unlike tinder and kindling, you can get away with your fuel wood being a little damp. A well-built fire will dry it out (but it’s still not ideal). You’ll want a range of different-sized branches and logs for your main fuel – not just woodsman-sized logs.

Gather a range of branches and logs that are roughly as wide as your wrist or your forearm.

How to build a campfire using logs
Dreasmtime Use logs that are roughly as wide as your wrist or your forearm

Step 5: Lay your fire

There are several campfire-building techniques depending on what your needs are. Nearly all start with either a tepee or lean-to fire lay.

Tepee: Place a bundle of tinder in the centre of your fire bed and then build a tepee around and above it using your kindling wood. Leave a small gap for lighting and to let air in.

Gradually build this up with kindling and then add to it with some of your smaller fuel wood. With both the kindling and the fuel wood try to keep the thicker ends at the bottom.

How to build a campfire – the tepee type
Dreasmtime The tepee is a popular campfire setup

Lean-to: Stick a long piece of kindling into the ground at about a 30-degree angle – this will be your support stick. It can also be leaned against a bigger log instead.

Bundle tinder and some smaller kindling under the support stick before laying kindling against it around the outside. Add another layer.

Now stand back and admire your work for a moment. You now know how to build a perfect campfire.

How to build a campfire – the lean-to type
Dreasmtime The lean-to is another popular campfire setup

Step 6: Light your fire

When lighting your campfire you want to alight the tinder right in the centre as quickly as possible. Matches can get wet and easily blow out outdoors.

Cigarette lighters are not good for getting right inside the tinder bundle. I use Zippo’s Flex Neck Utility Lighter which has a wind-resistant flame, ideal for lighting campfires in all conditions.

using a wind-resistant lighter
Zippo A wind-resistant lighter is ideal for getting directly to the tinder

Step 7: Build up and add to your fire

Once your fire is going, it’s time to build it up. You have a number of choices depending on your needs. Whichever method you choose, build up your campfire slowly and steadily, working through your fuel from the thinner branches up to the larger logs.

I rarely cook on my campfires so tend to stick to either the tepee or lean-to and continue to build them using the same method. When I do cook, I opt for the log cabin which provides the best support.

An infographic featuring four types of campfires
Dreamstime The four best ways to build a campfire

Step 8: Extinguish your fire

This is the saddest part of an evening around a campfire but it’s also crucial. Give yourself plenty of time and start to extinguish your fire at least 20 minutes before you want to be tucked in your sleeping bag. Hopefully, you have allowed your campfire to die down so it’s no longer roaring.

Lightly sprinkle water onto the fire bed and stir the embers and ashes with a stick. Heat test the fire by holding the back of your hand close to it. If it’s too hot to keep your hand there, the fire is still too hot to leave. Continue to sprinkle water and stir until safe to leave.

An extinguished fire
Dreasmtime Sad but crucial

Leave no trace

Finally, any campfire setup must follow the Leave No Trace Seven Principles and patch up any disturbed ground. Most importantly, always know and follow the fire regulations of the area you’re visiting.

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Lead image: Stas Tolstnev/Shutterstock

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