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Starting a Campfire the Right Way

If you’re going camping, you’re going to want to start a campfire. Why? A cozy and warm campfire is a central hub to the campsite. It provides a place to gather, similar to that of your living room. You will cuddle up with a drink, a comfortable camping chair, and have your friends and family to your side telling stories, having a great conversation, and making memories.

Before all of the fun stuff begins, you need to get the fire started. Maybe your a pro and have started numerous campfires, maybe you’re a novice and this is your first. Regardless, here’s some tips for getting your fire roaring.

Assemble the Fuel

To get started building your campfire, you’re going to need to gather your fuel for the fire. This includes everything from the small pieces of kindling to the larger pieces of firewood. The dryer the wood, the better. Don’t pull fresh branches and twigs off of a tree and hope to start a fire, you have to find pieces that have fallen off long before you arrived.

Start with gathering the smaller pieces then work your way up. Smaller pieces should be no thicker than your fingers. You’ll use these to start the fire, while the larger logs are used to maintain the fire. A safe amount would be enough to fill a 2 gallon bucket, or some more if you want to be safe. You may also want to gather some dried leaves and pine cones as they provide a quick source of ignition to get the smaller twigs going as well. Pine cones burn really, really well and much longer than you’d think.

Once you have an adequate amount of smaller kindling, make sure you have ample logs on hand to keep the flames going once the fire is started. A good size reference for logs would be about the diameter of your arm. Solid oak logs of this size will burn for about 30-60 minutes each, so you will need about 5-10 logs to last you for the night.

Types of Firewood
Photo from rei.com

If gathering your own wood is not your thing, or maybe it is prohibited in the park you’re at, feel free to buy a bundle at a nearby gas station. Many stores near campgrounds offer firewood in small bundles of 5-7 pieces for convenience, but typically on the more expensive end at around $5/bundle. We have a fireplace at home and therefore have a rack of firewood in our backyard, we just grab some of those before we head out. This is much cheaper as you can usually get a half cord for around $100.

Set the Location

You have all of the materials ready to start the campfire, now it is time to select the location for your campfire. Most established campgrounds have a fire ring or a place already conveniently designated for your campfire. However, if there is not or you’re boondocking, there are several factors – both safety and effectiveness – you must consider when selecting the right spot to place your campfire.

Proximity to the Shelter. The fire provides both comfort during a cool night and a fun gathering location for friends and family after a long day of hiking, fishing, etc. You ideally want it closer to your tent, better yet a yurt or RV if glamping, but far enough to not pose a hazard. Your trip won’t be nearly as fun if you burn down your shelter the first night of the trip! Select an area preferably 10 to 15 feet from your dwelling.

Level Terrain and Space. Keep in mind you’re going to be sitting around the campfire with camping chairs and enjoying each other’s company. You should look for an area that is clear of brush, trees, and larger rocks so you can get your camping chairs around it. This is also why you want to look for a relatively level plot of ground.

Stack the Fuel

This is probably the most important step in getting your fire started. You have all of the wood you need, you found the perfect spot that is not too close and not too far from your tents, but now you need to stack the wood and kindling appropriately to get the fire started.

Start by applying either some small paper, cardboard, or dried leaves at the base. This will start the easiest and you want it near the bottom so it will catch the small twigs you’re going to place above it.

Contunue to stack the small finger-sized twigs over the dried up kindling. If you’re able to, stack them vertically with space between them to allow for airflow to kick up the flames.

While it may be tempting, you don’t necessarily need to place a full sized log onto the stack just yet. You really want to get the fire going with the smaller twigs and kindling before full logs as they may end up smothering the fire before they can catch.

Ignite the Fire

Youre all set and ready to get this fire ignited! Using either a lighter or matches, light the dried kindling at the bottom first. This will catch fire and those flames will then ignite the twigs.

I personally prefer long lighters as I don’t burn myself, they’re easily refillable, and they can ignite those hard-to-reach areas without knocking over your twig teepee. Long matches work equally as well and serve as kindling themselves, but you have to make sure you have enough on hand.

You may be inclined to use a liquid fuel such as lighter fluid. While some may say that is unsafe, I think it’s useful if done correctly. Don’t apply the fluid directly to the flames, but instead soak your logs with some of the flammable liquid. Allow it to soak for a few minutes, apply some more, and your logs are now ready to go onto the fire. Using this method prevents the fluid from burning off of the surface before the actual log can catch fire.

Once you have a small and sustained fire going you’re ready to add full sized logs. Add your logs in either a chimney or teepee configuration for best results. Not too many logs, however, one or two will work as you’re simply trying to slowly grow the fire.

Safety Tips

To ensure you don’t hurt yourself or someone else, or burn down a state park, be sure to take safety measures when you have a campfire. Below are some quick tips to keep yourself safe when starting a campfire.

  • Don’t use starter logs. These have chemicals in them to help sustain their flames and you don’t want to roast marshmallows over a chemical-laced fire.
  • Keep an eye on children and pets at all times. An unattended child could inadvertently fall into the fire and get serious injuries. Pets, although are pretty good at avoiding fires, may get their leashes tangled around a fire pit or accidentally knock stuff into the fire.
  • Always be sure to completely extinguish the fire. So many forrest fires have been attributed to campfires not being completely out. Completely douse the fire and coals with water until you are able to touch the ashes and coals with your bare hands.

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