Campfire 101: When, Where, and How

The smallest of things can make or break your campfire. So, knowing the nitty-gritty details of setting up a proper campfire can be indispensable for an avid camper.

Let us take a look at what it takes, and how to start a campfire that fits your needs.

Where to set it up – Location

Most campsites have a dedicated fireplace or ring to build a campfire. If you do not have a fire ring, you can set up a mound fire by creating a platform of soil that is six to eight inches (15-20 centimeters) high. Use the platform as a base to start your campfire, and then disperse the platform after putting your campfire out.

If your site has low-hanging branches, make sure that your campfire is small. The campfire should be upwind, and a minimum of 10 feet away from your tent. This is a precautionary measure to prevent the wind from blowing sparks toward your tent and catching it on fire. The upwind location also keeps the food aroma from attracting curious animals into your tent.

Ingredients of a Campfire

The three most vital ingredients of a campfire are fuel, air, and a fire source. If even one among them is unsuitable, you will not be able to start or sustain a campfire.

Letting your campfire breathe – Air

As long as you have air under control, you will have your campfire under control as well. If the airflow is optimal, you will be able to keep your wood burning longer.

Too much air can lead to your campfire burning hotter and faster. You will also run out of wood faster. Likewise, weak airflow can quickly extinguish your campfire.

Ensure that your campfire is constructed in a location with sufficient airflow. Do not overload your campfire with firewood, as it will undoubtedly suffocate it.

Getting the intense flames – Fire source

Once you have chosen your location, you will have to light your tinder to start the campfire. Waterproof matches and fire-starters are excellent choices for a fire source.

If you do not have matches, you can use the alternative methods listed below to start a fire:

  • The age-old method of rubbing two rocks against each other to create sparks. Agate, quartz, flint, pyrite, obsidian, and other silica-rich stones work best.
  • Rubbing both terminals of a battery in steel wool can cause the wool to ignite. You can then use it to light your tinder.
  • Using friction, you can rub the wood with a bow or hand drill to create fire.
  • You can ignite your tinder by concentrating sun rays on it using a convex lens or a transparent bottle filled with water.

Feeding your campfire – Fuel

To fuel your campfire, you need tinder, kindling, and firewood. Start with lighting your tinder, the smallest and simplest material to start a fire. It is a good idea to bring your tinder from home so that it is dry.

Wood shavings, cardboard, newspaper dipped in paraffin wax, cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, char cloth, and the down of birds are some excellent examples of tinder.

Once you have lit your tinder, you will need to keep it burning. This is where kindling is required. Kindling is material larger than tinder, but not large enough to suppress the flame at its initial stage. You can collect kindling at the campsite.

Dry twigs and branches with a thickness of 1/8 to 1/2 inch (3-12 millimeters) are good choices for kindling. You can use a knife to remove any damp portions before adding the kindling to the flame.

To keep the flame burning longer, you will need to add larger pieces of wood. The firewood should be 1 to 5 inches (2.5-13 centimeters) in diameter, or the size of your wrist or forearm. You can use complete logs if they are slender, and then split the thicker ones.

Look for branches that have dropped to the ground already. The wood should bend or snap easily, as this is a sign that it is dry enough to use as firewood. If your firewood is too large, it will take longer to begin burning.

Types of campfires


In a tepee-style campfire, the logs lean against each other on a base of kindling to form a cone shape. The fire burning in the middle will burn the larger logs leaning over, and will cause them to fall in the middle. You will have to keep adding firewood to keep the fire burning.

This type is great to sit around. However, it is fast burning and emits a lot of heat and light. Consequently, you will need a larger supply of firewood.

Self-Feeding Fire

This is also called a log cabin or crisscross-style fire, because of the firewood arrangement. The larger logs form the base of the stack, with increasingly smaller logs of wood placed above.

The fire burns from the top-down fashion with the kindling on the top. This type is excellent for cooking, as it emits steady heat and burns longer.


As the name suggests, the fire pit looks like a keyhole. A large circular portion contains the main fire, and an auxiliary rectangular section holds a smaller fire. The coals from the main fire feed the smaller fire and regulate the temperature.

Because of the ease of temperature regulation, this type is also excellent for cooking.

Swedish Torch

This is a simple campfire that uses a log split halfway in an “X” shape. The fire is lit in the middle, and allowed to burn with just enough air to keep the fire from dying.

This type of fire is perfect for someone with very limited firewood and a need to cook.

Extinguishing the campfire

When you no longer need the campfire, you will have to put it out completely.

Sprinkle the campfire with water; do not douse it with water. Stir the coals and keep sprinkling water until you stop hearing any hissing sounds.

Use your hands to check if there is any heat left. If the site is still emitting heat, sprinkle water until it stops. Finally, remove the ashes from the fire pit or ring and dispose of them outside your campsite.

From the moment you ignite the first piece of tinder, the campfire is your responsibility. Never leave a campfire unattended, or leave the campsite without putting it out.

Safety tips for campfires

Here are some safety tips to consider:

  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast – Building a fire on a windy night is never a good idea. Save it for the wind-free evenings for a safe and hazardless experience.
  • Keep away canisters or aerosols – These types of chemicals are extremely flammable, and can cause toxic fumes.
  • Use the right wood – Oak is the best type of wood for campfires, and it is easily available. But, if you don’t have it handy, you can also use ash, cedar, or hickory. Never use treated or coated wood. Also, avoid spruce, willow, alder, and poplar wood for campfires.
  • Wear proper clothing – Instead of throwing on flip-flops or rubber sneakers, go for hard-soled shoes. Try to wear fitted clothes, and avoid fabrics like rayon, cotton blends, or acrylics. 
  • Consider travel insurance – Camping can be expensive, and you don’t want to be brooding over the losses in case of a mishap. To keep both your family and wallet safe from the misadventures, consider getting travel insurance for your camping trip.

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