How to Build a Campfire

by Kendra Clapp Olguín

2 months ago

by Kendra Clapp Olguín

2 months ago

Is there anything better than a campfire? The warmth, the smell, the crackling, and the mesmerizing flames, it’s a camping tradition that appeals to all senses. While starting a fire is portrayed as something instinctual to us humans, it requires a strategy and practice. Don’t fret! We’re here to share some tips and tricks to get your campfire roaring at your next Campspot.

While optional, a pair of heavy-duty fire-resistant gloves is helpful around the campfire, especially when cooking. Additionally, a steel log grabber or campfire tongs allow you to move around your firewood safely and easily.

All About the Wood

This is very important: Only use local firewood. Do not bring firewood if you’re traveling from more than 50 miles away to protect the local environment and forest so that you don’t introduce an invasive or foreign insect. Campgrounds are strict with this policy as invasive pests can threaten their business, so be respectful and purchase firewood at the campground or nearby stores.

Kiln-Dried Firewood

Many campgrounds offer kiln-dried firewood for sale. Kiln-dried firewood is firewood that, well, is dried in a kiln. Wood from a recently cut tree is too moist or “green” to burn. If you try to burn it, you’ll notice that the fire is very smokey and is popping pretty intensely. Usually, firewood is dried for several months to reach its prime to make a cozy campfire. When firewood is kiln-dried, the wood dries at a temperature of 140-160 degrees for over an hour. It decreases the moisture, kills bugs, removing the risk of invasive insects, and rids the wood of fungus and mildew. Another great thing about kiln-dried wood is that it ignites quickly and burns more cleanly by producing less smoke. This is all to say, be wary of local firewood sold alongside the road. It’s often green wood from a tree that has recently been chopped down and not ready to be burned.

Air-dried Wood

Some campgrounds air-dry their own wood for a year or even two. This wood, although not kiln-dried, will burn just as cleanly and easily. All in all, wood quality is important to the campfire experience. Feel free to ask the campground ranger or manager about the wood and don’t be stingy. A few bucks saved might mean a night’s worth of a smokey or loud campfire.

From left to right: tinder, kindling, and firewood.

Campfire Combo

The combination of the following materials gets your fire started and allows it to grow.

Tinder

These smaller-sized materials act as a starter for your fire: scraps of wood, dry leaves, and cut up cardboard or crumpled up paper. Other kinds of tinder include various types of fire starters. Some choose to use an ax to split firewood to create smaller pieces for tinder and kindling.

Kindling

Next in this combination is kindling: small pieces of wood, dried twigs, or sticks easy to catch fire but don’t burn up quickly. Kindling helps grow the fire to light the larger pieces of firewood.

Firewood

This one’s an easy one. Firewood is, well, firewood. These bigger pieces will eventually ignite as the tinder and kindling continue to burn and, once lit, will keep your fire going.

Use your Ax & Hatchet

Some campgrounds make it a point to have tinder and kindling with the firewood they sell but the vast majority of the time, you’re going to find yourself with larger pieces of firewood. In these scenarios, you are going to need to figure out how to get tinder and kindling and the easiest way to do so is to bring an ax and hatchet with you and make it yourself! It’s tempting to walk around and gather wood and twigs but if every camper did this, the natural surroundings of these coveted campgrounds would be severely impacted. So, channel you inner lumberjack and get to work.

Make sure you’re wearing close-toed shoes, are away from any children, pets, and campers, and feel comfortable swinging an ax. If not, there are different options you can purchase for tinder and kindling. If new to this, consider using protective gloves as well. When ready, vertically position the firewood by balancing it on one of its ends. Notice the wood grain and knots within the wood as you’ll want to strike the piece going with the grain and ideally avoid knots.
If you’re not feeling comfortable with chopping wood, don’t worry. It’s better to be safe than sorry. There are alternative ways to get kindling and tinder by purchasing fire starters. We personally like Fatwood Firestarters that are “made in the US and are, non-toxic, 100 percent all-natural made from the naturally occurring resin found in the stumps of pine trees. Harvested from logging waste, no live nor endangered tree species are cut to produce Fatwood.”
When you’re ready and your firewood is standing up vertically on its own, step back and take a swift swing, working with the wood grain.
If the piece of firewood is particularly large, strike a third or quarter along the way of the width. The drier the wood, the easier the piece breaks. If you don’t get a clean break and your ax gets stuck, safely swing the ax along with the wood down against hard ground until the ax makes it way to the bottom and the piece breaks free. If the ax is stuck too high in the firewood and not worth continuing to bang the ax through, safely wiggle the ax free and start again.
Once breaking down some of the larger pieces of firewood, use a hatchet and working with the grain of the wood again, slide the hatchet down the wood, applying a moderate amount of pressure. The goal here is to split smaller scraps of wood for tinder.
Sometimes the top of your wood pieces might have initial splittings due to repeated tries when using your ax to split larger firewood. In this case, use it to your advantage and work your hatchet in safely and strip smaller scraps off. If the hatchet is held in tight, use the tactic mentioned before of hitting the entire piece against the ground, using the force to split the wood.

Building Your Campfire

Cone

In the center of the fire ring or fire pit, form a small pile of tinder. Then build a small cone structure with the kindling pieces by leaning the tops against one another, spaced out around the tinder. After lighting the tinder and adding more, if needed, the kindling will begin to catch fire. Once the temperature has risen, and the kindling is well-lit, you can add one or two larger firewood pieces at a time.

Log cabin

Place two pieces of firewood parallel but still spaced out within the fire ring or pit. This will be the base of your little log cabin. Then, perpendicularly place two pieces of kindling parallel to form a square or hashtag. Repeat this, adding one or two layers of kindling and small firewood pieces. Before adding the final layer, put your tinder and a couple of kindling pieces within your log cabin’s center. The last two pieces should still be parallel but placed closer to one another so that it can ignite once you light the tinder below.

Starting the Fire

After constructing your fire structure, it’s time to light it. Light the tinder with a match or lighter. Blow gently onto the flame and base of the fire. Hopefully, conditions around you are dry and mild, that your lit tinder allows your kindling to catch quickly and, eventually, your firewood as well. Kiln-dried wood particularly helps in this scenario. Yet, this is the real world we’re talking about, and in the real world, things happen. You may need to add more tinder or kindling to keep the flame going until the larger firewood pieces catch. If there’s no airflow around the fire ring, you may need to continue blowing gently to feed the fire oxygen. Knowing that it’s the combination of tinder, kindling, and enough air to get the fire started allows you to be prepared to address the variable that might be struggling.

Burn, baby, burn!

When the fire begins to pick up, continue adding kindling and firewood to keep the fire going. Be sure not to add too many pieces at once and run the risk of smothering the fire. Remember, the fire needs space to breathe.

A collapsable bucket or water pail is an excellent thing to have around the campsite. We found this 1942 waxed canvas one at an antique store specializing in militia antiques.

Be sure. Be safe. Be smart.

Be sure to check with the campground to ensure that campfires are allowed at the time because sometimes if the area is under a dry spell, campfires may not be permitted. Usually, they will post signs if this is the case. Another resource to use is Weather.com that will let you know if there’s a wind or wildfire advisory.

Many campgrounds place campfire rings in a specific place within the campsite based on what’s safest for that site, considering trees or overhanging branches. Some campgrounds have the campfire ring leaning on the picnic table and allow their campers to move it where they want within the campsite. In these circumstances, be aware of your surroundings and the fire’s proximity to your tent or RV awning. Looking around, you can usually tell where others before you have placed their campfires to help you choose a safe location. If the campfire ring was not leaning on the picnic table, but you wish to move it, always ask the ranger or campground manager whether you can move it. You can usually tell if the campfire ring was moved around the site or if the campfire ring is in a permanent spot. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

Do not leave your fire unattended and keep a watchful eye on children and pets.

Fill a bucket with water and leave it nearby in case of emergencies. It’s always better to be safe than sorry and you will need it at the end of the night anyway so why not fill it up now?

Extinguishing the Fire

Burn your firewood down to embers and ash. When done, extinguish the fire by pouring water on it. Be mindful that in doing so, hot steam will rise, so avoid standing over it. Keep pouring water until it stops hissing. If, at this point, you’re tired and you think this is overkill, remember that in 2019, humans caused 87% of wildfires. That’s shocking, right?! Stirring the ashes between pours helps put out the fire faster. Again, we recommend packing a collapsable bucket water pail. Make sure no embers are still smoldering, and as Smokey the Bear would say, “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”

We hope this tutorial comes in handy at your next Campspot. As with everything, it takes practice to make perfect. Before you know it, you’ll have the process down pat.

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