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Campfires 101: What You Need To Know

Camping, Tips & Tricks October 26, 2016 No Comments By DisclaimerTakeMeCamping.org may at times be given products for review, and may also at times be compensated for those reviews, however, all views expressed on this site are our own honest opinions. We take your camping experience very seriously and vow to always provide you nothing but transparent reviews to help make your camping experience a pleasureable one.

Campfires are quite possibly THE MOST essential part of camping, and for good reason.  They provide warmth, a source of heat for cooking, and a great place to gather around. Knowing how to make a proper campfire is an absolute must, so let's help you learn everything you need to know.

The Three Essential Ingredients Of A Campfire

Building a campfire requires three essential elements, and those are fuel, heat, and air.

Fuel -  This is the material that will burn, most commonly wood logs, and you can use smaller sources to get your fire started such as twigs and dry leaves for kindling.

Heat - Heat is what actually gets the fire going. You start with a spark and ensure that the heat from the smaller fuel source (think kindling wood) is placed properly to provide heat to the fuel around it.

Air - Air is what keeps the fire going. If you've ever put a lid on a candle to extinguish it, you know how removing the source of oxygen from a flame will put it out. When it comes to a campfire, you need to ensure that your fire is getting the right amount of airflow to keep the flames going strong.

One of the most important things you'll want to really remember here is air control.  Making sure your fire has the right amount of airflow means you'll be able to control how it burns.  Too much air makes a fire burn hotter and faster, which means you'll be burning through your wood much quicker. Allowing only a small amount of air to get to the fire will keep your wood burning longer, but of course not enough air, and your fire will go out.  More on this later.

The Different Types Of Campfires

Most people don't realize that the way you stack your wood or build your fire is extremely important.  Often, people assume the teepee style of campfire is best, because it's the one most people remember seeing, but let's go over the most common types of campfires and their uses here:

The Tepee

tepeefirePossibly the most common type of fire people envision when they think campfire - the tepee style fire is built by leaning logs onto each other over a base of kindling or dry brush.  The smaller fire burning in the middle will catch the larger logs that are leaning over it, eventually causing them to burn and fall into the middle.  You will need to keep adding new logs to this type of fire as the existing logs fall into the middle.  This type of fire is good for sitting around as it produces a lot of heat and light, but the downside is that it is fast burning, so you'll go through your wood supply quicker.

The Self Feeding

selffeedingfireA self feeding fire can also be called a log cabin or criss-cross style fire, but whatever you call it, the main idea is the same.  Stack larger logs on the bottom level and then get increasingly smaller as you build higher, alternating direction with each layer.  Put some twigs and dry brush on the very top and start your fire from the top down.  The benefit to doing this is that as your smaller fire burns on top, coals will start to fall downward into your base layer logs and keep the fire feeding itself.  A self feeding fire is exceptional for cooking over since it will put out a steady heat and burn for a long time. It doesn't throw off as much heat as a tepee fire though, so if your only goal is sitting around a fire for warmth, tepee style may be better for you.

The Keyhole

keyholefireA keyhole shaped fire requires a little more effort since you need to dig out a little trench for your coals, but if you're going to be camping for more than a night, the effort up front will be rewarded.  The main idea here is using the larger circular section to build a tepee style fire for some general warmth and light, and then raking some of the goals to the smaller rectangular section for cooking over.  This allows you to better regulate your cooking area as you can move coals in and out of the cooking section to make sure you have the right amount of heat to cook over.

The Swedish Torch

swedishtorchfireThis type of fire is ideal for someone who has a limited source of fuel (wood) but needs to boil water or setup a small fire for cooking.  The idea here is taking a large log and slicing it halfway down in an 'X' shape, so you create just enough airflow to allow a fire to burn in the center and straight up the middle.  When the fire is young you should have enough stability still on the log to sit a pot or kettle right on top of the log, and let your fire make direct contact.

Building Your Campfire

There's a few really important things to know when if comes time to actually build your fire after you're picked which type of fire is right for you. Those are:

Location - Pick a spot that is at least 10 feet from your sleeping area and preferably up wind.  There's a lot of reasons for this, however the main ones are preventing sparks from landing on your tent and catching fire to it, keeping smoke away from your sleeping area so you don't have to inhale it all night long, and if you are cooking - you'll want to keep that aroma as far away from you as you can so in case curious animals stop by in the middle of the night they don't also wander into your tent looking for whatever you cooked.

Airflow - Consider the direction the wind is blowing, and pick a spot that's not going to be too windy, remember airflow is critical for a proper fire. Aside from not wanting to be blowing the smoke toward your tent, you also want to make sure you're not setting a fire in a place that will be getting so much wind it will be putting your fire out, or not enough that your fire is starving for air.

In most places you go camping, they'll already have a fire ring setup, usually just a small circle of large rocks so you should have the location part figured out for you already.

The other big consideration here is safety.

Campfire Safety

Regardless of what type of fire you decide on, whether you plan on using it for warmth or cooking, and even if you don't make an actual campfire but still plan on cooking with propane - being smart with your fire is seriously important.

We already covered location above, but we'll stress it's importance here as well.  Make sure when setting up your fire you pick a spot that is far enough away from piles of dry brush and trees that potential sparks from your campfire won't spread to unintentional fuel sources.  Forest fires are SERIOUS BUSINESS, and you want to do whatever you can to make sure you prevent them. Always pick a spot for your fire that is as safe as possible, and NEVER leave a campfire unattended.

When it comes time to put out your fire you'll want to make sure you do it properly and fully. Putting out a campfire that is almost dead is obviously easier, so try to plan ahead when considering wether or not to add more wood to your fire.

The best way to extinguish a fire is as follows:

  • Using a bucket or basin spread water over your fire to extinguish the main flames.
  • Use a stick to stir the fire bed and then pour more water over the area.
  • Repeat as needed until there is no more 'hissing' sound coming from the area when you are pouring water over it.
  • Cover the area with dirt

Always try to plan ahead at least half an hour before breaking camp for the night or leaving the area to make sure you are around in the rare event the fire sparks up again. Remember that if you've been burning the fire for an extended period of time the coals at the very bottom will be quite hot, so it will take a bit of time for them to fully cool off, even when being doused with water.

If you're camping in a developed campground like a private campground or RV park, most places don't require you to have a permit, however if you're camping out in the wilderness, you may need one so best to check before you go on your trip! Fines for unpermitted campfires on state land can be pretty pricy, so you'll want to make sure you check ahead of time.  If you have any questions on this, you can always ask one of our Camping Concierge members, they'll help you make sure you are good to go, or you can always stop by the nearest forest ranger office to make sure you obey their rules.


Jim Sabellico
Jim Sabellico
Jim Sabellico is the founder of TakeMeCamping.org, and an avid outdoors fan who loves traveling the world with his family, cooking over an open campfire and all things outdoorsy. When Jim isn't camping, he's running his marketing agency J. Louis.

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