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Here’s How to Build a Great Camp Fire

Young couple eating marshmellows next to campfire.

Whether it’s a warm summer evening or a chilly fall day, building a fire is a wonderful way to enjoy the outdoors. Whether you’re looking for warmth or planning to roast some marshmallows and hot dogs, here’s how to build a good one.

The first Saturday in August—which just happens to be this weekend!—is National Campfire Day, but having a cozy fire in your backyard is fun all year round. Before you start your next campfire or bonfire, though, keep these tips in mind.

Choose the Right Wood for Your Fire

Wood selection is, as you would imagine, a critical part of building a good fire. While you do need large chunks of firewood to serve as long and slow-burning fuel, there’s more to it than just putting a match against a big chunk of oak. Along with those larger pieces, you also need smaller sticks for kindling, and you’ll want to collect items for tinder.

Tinder starts your fire and consists of anything dry that will burn easily, like dried grass, leaves, and bark. (They all need to be dry, or they won’t burn efficiently.) The tinder helps get the kindling going, which, in turn, stokes the fuelwood.

You can bring tinder and kindling with you on camping trips (or have some handy for backyard bonfires). Dryer lint makes a great fire starter. For both fire starting and kindling, you can make these neat DIY pinecone fire starters.

Make sure you have more than you think you need of all three of the above. Depending on how big your fire is or how long you plan to keep it burning, you maight quickly go through your supplies.

Building Your Fire

Once you have all of the firewood, tinder, and kindling together, you need to build your fire. There are different ways to do this, but the most important thing is to leave some open “air” under your kindling sticks and fuelwood. Although you can’t see it, the heat from the fire creates an air movement that sucks cool air up to drive the combustion.

If you build your fire in such a way that there isn’t room for air to easily get to the fuel, it’ll smolder and burn out. Anytime it seems like your fire just won’t start, but you have adequate (and dry!) tinder, kindling, and fuel, the problem is almost always airflow. Making some space for air to move freely through the fuel will solve that issue.

A campfire on the shores of Lake Superior, roaring against the background of sand and the distance sunset.
Jason Patrick Ross/Shutterstock

The most basic steps to building a better campfire are as follows:

  • Place your tinder bundle (whether it’s dry leaves, dryer lint, wadded-up newspaper, or a specially made pine cone) in the middle of your fire pit.
  • Place your kindling branches (even if you’re using a pine cone as partial kindling) into the fire over your tinder, so they form a teepee around it. You’ll need one open space to light the tinder and to let air flow through to feed the flames. (Pick the side where a breeze is already coming through.)
  • Don’t stop with one layer of kindling—start with the thinner branches and build out to bigger one, but continue leaving the “entryway” to the teepee. The teepee will burn down and topple over as the fire starts to grow, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  • Follow up your kindling teepee with your fuelwood, staying in the same formation. As your larger wood chunks burn down and topple over, add future pieces in the same leaning formation, leaving space for air to get into the hot fire within (because fire needs oxygen to grow and keep going)

The larger the fire, the more fuelwood you’ll want to add around the outside. Remember, you can always add more as the fire starts to burn down.

That’s all there is to it! With a little careful planning, a little care in building the “structure” of your fire before lighting it, and a bit of tending as it burns down, you’ll have a long and enjoyable campfire experience. Just be sure to finish the ritual by fully extinguishing the fire to ensure your backyard or campsite is there to enjoy in the future!

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow is a professional writer with two decades of experience. She has written and edited for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and more. Yvonne is a published poet and short story writer, and she is a life coach. Read Full Bio »
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