Photo: Robb Hirsch/Tandemstock

Everything You Need to Know about Campfires

Learn how to make safe and responsible campfires.

Sitting around a fire outdoors is a primal experience. It deepens conversations and laughter, warms cold nights, and casts a beautiful glow—it makes the wilderness feel a little more like home. But with this primal pleasure comes great responsibility. You need to know how to start and maintain a fire properly, minimize impact, and whether or not you should have one at all. Use this guide to become a campfire master.

In this article, you’ll learn how to:

  • Decide if a campfire is safe, legal, and ethical.
  • Prepare a campfire site.
  • Find the best tinder, kindling, and fuel.
  • Build and start a campfire.
  • Deal with common fire challenges.
  • Safely extinguish a fire.

Can You Start A Fire? Should You?

Before you hit the trail, check fire regulations with the relevant land management agency (such as a national park or national forest). Some places always prohibit campfires in certain sensitive areas or above certain elevations. There might also be temporary restrictions in place based on wildfire danger.

But even if you get the official green light for a fire, ask yourself: Should I? Campfires can have an impact on fragile environments such as high-alpine zones, deserts, or heavily used areas, so they aren’t advised. If there’s little dead and down wood around your campsite, don’t strip every last stick out of the area just for your fire. And if it’s windy, be very cautious: Wind can carry burning embers a considerable distance and possibly start a wildfire. There’s no hard rule for making this decision; assess the conditions and err on the side of caution. 

Preparing a Campfire Site

Everything looks OK for a safe and ethical campfire? Next step: Find your site. By far the best place is an established fire ring (you don’t want to make yet another impacted spot). If there isn’t one at your campsite, follow Leave No Trace guidelines and make a “mound” fire, which helps minimize impact and protects organic soil from the heat. First, find a spot well clear of your tent and any overhanging branches. Clear the ground of anything flammable, then build a platform for the fire out of at least three inches of sand or gravel (preferably from a disturbed area). Gather rocks and make a rock ring around the mound. Tip: Placing a folded tarp under the mound makes cleanup easier. (See below for how to disassemble everything when you’re done.)

Another option: Pack in a fire pan (a metal disc made to hold a small campfire). Place it on top of a small circle of stones and build your fire inside it.

Photo: Tobias MacPhee/TandemStock

Essential Campfire Ingredients

Gather your fuel before you start a fire. You’ll need four things:

Firestarter

This should be something highly flammable that burns long enough for the rest of your ingredients to catch fire. The best ones come from home: dryer lint, a candle, a cotton ball dipped in petroleum jelly, or a commercial firestarter.

Tinder

These are small items that catch fire quickly. Think wood shavings, very thin twigs, pine needles, or dry forest duff.

Kindling

Search out a couple of handfuls’ worth of sticks and twigs that are thumb-width or smaller. Only pick up dead, down, and dry wood, and gather from a wide area.

Larger fuel

The largest wood you should burn in the backcountry is wrist-thick—this is not the time for a bonfire. 

Building the Campfire

Experienced campers usually have a favorite method for arranging tinder and wood. Here are two classic approaches:

Teepee

Nestle your firestarter among the tinder, then pile kindling in a conical shape around it. Make sure to leave plenty of spaces for air to circulate. You’ll add larger wood around the teepee shape as the fire gets going.

Log cabin

Arrange your firestarter and tinder the same way as the teepee method, then build a log cabin-style cube around it with kindling. Lay several sticks parallel to each other on either side of the tinder, then stack more on top to form a square. Repeat until you have a small, open-top cube. 

Starting the Fire

Use a lighter, waterproof matches, or flint striker to light the firestarter. Blow gently on it to add oxygen and feed the flame. As your tinder and kindling start to burn, add progressively larger pieces of wood. You might need to repeat this step a few times until things really catch. 

Dealing with Campfire Challenges

Sometimes, campfires practically start themselves. Other times, weather conditions make fire a real challenge. Here’s how to deal with two common challenges:

Moisture

Whether it’s actively raining or just stopped, wet weather can stymie even the most experienced fire-builder. Scout for dry tinder and wood in protected areas, such as under alcoves or thick forest canopy, or in areas sheltered by downed trees. If it’s raining, build your fire under a tarp or an overhanging alcove (but don’t get too close to the rocks—fires can leave long-lasting scars).

Wind

If light breezes are blowing out your baby flame, build your fire behind a natural windbreak, such as a boulder, or use your backpack or body to block the wind. Cup your hand around the firestarter for further protection. Wind still blowing things out? Reconsider having a fire at all if it’s that windy. 

Putting Out A Campfire

The most important campfire skill? Knowing how to put one out completely and safely. When you’ve fully burned your fuel, douse the remains with several liters of water. Stir the ashes with a stick, then add more water if necessary. Continue stirring and pouring until the ashes are cold to the touch. Any remaining steps depend on where you made your fire. 

Established fire ring: Your work is done. 

Fire pan: Scatter the cold ashes widely. Put the rocks back where you found them.

New fire ring: You need to dismantle it. Return any rocks you used and scatter the ashes widely, then move the mound material back to where you found it (if you used a tarp, you can just fold the tarp around the material to move it easily). The idea is to remove any sign that you had a campfire at all.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.