Learning how to craft a campfire is a vital skill for anyone that spends serious time in the woods. Consider it Outdoors 101.
Are you interested in learning how to craft a campfire? You should be.
How to Build a Campfire
Unlike the campfire building of our ancestors, making one is no longer an arduous task for modern humans. If you are dealing with wet firewood and tinder, that is a different matter. There are some steps to take and things to keep in mind to make it efficient and avoid constantly relighting.
Now, we're not talking about driving up to your favorite campsite, throwing a half-cord of Doug fir in the fire pit, dumping unleaded gas on it, and sending a roaring inferno up to the stratosphere.
It's effective, but not practical at a walk-in backcountry site. Make sure you understand local ordinances and landowner rules in regards to bringing your own firewood and whether fires are even permitted, especially during fire season (the driest parts of the year, namely summer).
And of course, know and practice basic campfire safety steps, so that a nice camping trip doesn't turn into a serious wildfire threat.
Here's how you craft a campfire the right way.
1. Gather fuel
Be it a front-country campground or backwoods elk camp, you will have to either gather firewood or buy it in bundles and bring it with you. Obviously, if you are hiking in, you won't be carrying bundles of firewood. In that situation, you will be collecting it from the surrounding area. Use leave no trace principles and never cut live trees down.
You will bring or collect three types of fuel: tinder, kindling, and firewood. Tinder is your firestarter. Kindling is smaller pieces of wood that will ignite quickly and keep your initial fire going. Firewood is, of course, your larger fuel and main material that's going to sustain your fire. Fire-starting works best with dry wood, the drier the better.
Lots of grocery stores, convenience stores, and even thrifty residents along the rural highways that you travel to get to your destination will have firewood for sale. Some campground hosts sell wood as well.
Sometimes, you can even get kindling at these locations too. If you buy firewood to bring with you, make sure to buy locally to avoid problems, particularly the transfer of forest decimating insects.
2. Make a fire ring
There is a good chance that a fire ring from the last camper was left behind. If so, use it. If not, it is easy to throw one together.
Simply gather appropriately-sized river rocks or stones and arrange them in an 8 - 12 foot circular shape.
3. Add tinder to the middle of the fire ring
Place your tinder material in the center of your fire ring. This could be wood shavings, bark chips, small twigs, small pieces of newspaper, dried leaves, pine needles, dried out lichen, dry grass, or even pine cones. Dried cones from a Ponderosa Pine make killer tinder, FYI.
You can also purchase a commercial firestarter or use a homemade classic like cotton balls and petroleum jelly. Carry this additional tinder in a Ziploc bag to keep it dry.
4. Arrange fuel
Smokey Bear identifies four forms for arranging your fuel wood. If you can't trust Smoky Bear when learning how to craft a campfire, who can you trust, right?
The idea is to arrange the kindling and larger pieces of wood to allow oxygen to flow and sustain your fire. Fire requires three things: oxygen, heat, and fuel. In wildland firefighting training, we referred to this as the "fire triangle."
If you don't allow enough spacing in your fuel, you take out the oxygen leg of the triangle. You will wind up with the familiar wafts of trailing smoke after your fire has gone out for the thirteenth time.
Arrange the larger kindling around your tinder in one of these forms:
The teepee fire, lean-to fire, log cabin fire, and cross technique all create good air flow and are easy to build up to a sustainable campfire.
Light the tinder with a candle lighter or waterproof match. As one of the Mountaineers Ten Essentials, you should always carry a second lighting source along with your primary.
For instance, carry a lighter, flint and steel system, or a magnesium fire starter along with your matches.
You want the tinder to catch fire first, preferably in the center of the fire.
6. Add more fuel and air
Add more tinder and blow at the base to help the fire grow. Once the fire has grown enough, add more kindling and then a couple pieces of firewood. Keep adding firewood periodically for the duration of your fire. That's it!
Now that you know how to craft a campfire the right way, you should be able to do so more quickly and with less frustration.
Knowing how to start a fire from scratch is great, not only for ambiance and warm meals, but for the fact that it could literally save your life. Watching a fire burning after you built it, lit it, and kept it going is a proud moment for any outdoorsman or woman.
Now it's time to start practicing, and consider this skill mastered.