Last updated: January 28, 2019 at 12:18 pm
One of the most magical parts of camping is sitting around the campfire with a beverage in hand, chatting away and – of course – the sing-along that always ensues.
How to make the TV dream become your reality, you wonder? Well, it’s really not as difficult as it might initially seem, especially if you follow our quick and easy steps.
The Secret to a Kickass Campfire
The secret to achieving the desired campfire is two things: surface area and airflow.
To ignite a flame you will need as much surface area as possible so the flame can catch and spread quickly. Paper is perfect for this, as its surface area to volume ratio is extremely high. Although, when people stuff the spaces between logs and branches with newspaper, it usually backfires.
If there isn’t enough air to reach the newspaper to activate its burning potential, it will stifle the fire and do the opposite from what you’re wanting. Oxidation requires a bountiful, steady supply of oxygen to occur in a stable way. Air needs to be able to circulate and reach the flame; in a fire, cool air has to come in from the bottom to replace the hot air escaping from the top.
Another common mistake people make is to blow on fires that need an extra kick, thinking their own oxygen will help the fire grow. Usually you blow too hard and end up putting the fire out. You should blow softly and accurately towards the bottom of the flames, maintaining a steady airstream.
How to Make a Campfire in 11 Steps
Follow these steps for a surefire way to get your campfire going:
1. Check the weather! If the grounds are expected to be damp or wet then you should bring sufficient newspaper, cardboard boxes and lint. Also, this will save you from getting your campfire hopes up if it’s to rain!
2. Find or make a clearing for the fire pit. Ideally, fires should be constructed on bare dirt as it’s the safest and most convenient terrain. If you’re camping in a campsite then make sure to follow the guidelines and use the designated areas, and if you’re camping elsewhere please make sure your fire is away from any flammable woodland debris.
3. Dig a large dent into the ground where you’d like to build your campfire. The centre should be the lowest point to allow for the best fire control, and to act as a container of the ashes afterwards.
4. Collect medium-sized stones from the area and position them in a circle around the dent. This will help set a boundary and contain the fire, too!
5. Prepare extinguishing tools and materials – buckets of water, a fire extinguisher – so that you’re protected before the fire starting happens.
6. Gather your tinder and kindling wood and make sure it’s dry and dead. Dry leaves, dry bark, dry glass and any dry bits of wood are perfect to be used as tinder. Kindling wood – that’ll start the spark – will be small dry branches and twigs.
7. Collect your firewood from the area surrounding your pit. These dry pieces of wood should be about the length and width of your arms.
8. Create a bleeding of tinder inside the fire pit, laying it towards the centre.
9. Stack the kindling wood in the shape of a tepee over the tinder – this usually has the best results. Keep adding more until it takes a solid structure and then add the firewood against the pieces to strengthen the tepee. Leave a space in the wind’s direction so air can flow!
10. Lightly douse the wood with a fire-starter or accelerant, like paraffin wax or gasoline. Otherwise, simply light a match or a gas lighter and slowly bring it closer to the tinder until the flame sparks and tinder catches fire.
11. As the fire burns and wood starts to disintegrate, keep adding new pieces of firewood to the fire in the tepee structure to keep it going!
When it’s time to put the fire out, gradually sprinkle water onto it and save the buckets of water or extinguisher for large fires that must be put out immediately. When the fire dies down, use a long stick to mix the ashes and check that all of the embers are dying and put out. Once the ashes have went cold, you’ll know it’s fully out.
Campfire for Cooking
Building campfires for cooking amps up the anticipation even more, knowing that those aching bellies will soon be sorted! Nowadays there are many things to consider before starting one. Caution and respect are key – gone are the days when campfires were taken for granted. Concerns about air quality, restricted areas for camping and fire kindling, and dwindling firewood availability in campgrounds make campfire cooking a little tougher but still very much worth all the effort and carefulness.
Campfire cooking is also downright civilised in our time, with a plethora of possibilities in terms of cooking equipment and hardware that can support the primitive act of cooking over a naked fire.
There are some differences to consider when building a campfire for cooking purposes as opposed to one you can sit next to.
First of all, the fire should be as hot as possible, burn cleanly and be much more compact than the large, tepee-style campfire described above. Dry, seasoned wood is the best to achieve this; stripping trees of wood while they’re still green is futile and will only create unnecessary pollution without giving you the blaze you need to cook your food. If you think the right firewood won’t be readily accessible, pack some with you for the journey. If you’re staying at a campsite, enquire about their firewood stock in advance.
Coal is a fitting alternative to firewood for a slow-burning fuel that will brown your meats fabulously and produce excellent campfire meals. Stack the coal in a layer that bulges in the centre above a layer of kindling wood and beneath a layer of tinder. Think about the total cooking time you’ll be faced with so you can prepare enough fuel and control the intensity of the fire depending on the type of food that needs to be cooked. Raw meat and foiled loaves of bread, for example, will require lengthier stretches above the fire to cook properly than pre-cooked dishes, vegetables and food on a stick.
The wisest course of action is to keep the function of your fire in mind when building it. If you simply want to warm a small, pre-cooked dish of food or heat up your thermal flask of coffee, building a mini-tepee that burns out quickly instead of an all-consuming campfire will save you time, energy and fuel you could use for a campfire that keeps you warm and entertained throughout the night. This type of fire is aptly called a snack fire.
Check out our assortment of fun camping food ideas and recipes if you’re stuck on how to put a campfire to good use and eat like a pro outdoors.
Campfire for Warmth
The style of fire best suited to keeping campers warm when the evening chill descends is the pyramid fire. It’s built by erecting a foundation framework made up of large logs laid side by side to form a solid base. A slightly shorter log is laid perpendicular to and on top of this base layer. Each subsequent layer is made up of incrementally shorter logs, alternating levels at 90°.
The resulting mass of right-angled firewood will present a challenging ignition process but is well worth the work. The construction will produce a healthy amount of coal in a perfectly structured manner – lighting the fire from the top will result in a gradual build-up as it burns through the layers. If constructed properly, this campfire will last for long and emit a glow that will surely warm your heart on those cold camping nights.
A few things to remember when using a campfire for warmth is to always maintain a safe distance between yourself and the flames, paying particular attention to your face, hair, hands and clothes, as these are high-risk areas. Always build the campfire away from tents – which can catch fire easily – and following campsite regulations and common-sense logic to prevent accidents.
Campfire for Fun
Finally, when all your cooking and warmth concerns are out of the way, campfires are there to be enjoyed and to foster a sense of unity within the camping experience. Campfires have a very long history that points to a communal spirit, and traditional tribal activities held campfire rituals in high regard. In many countries, campfires still have that special significance, and in festivals even throughout the UK, campfires crop up sporadically in the campgrounds and there are also performers carrying out fire-juggling, fire-dancing or fire-eating acts.
For the rest of us mere mortals who cannot incorporate acrobatics into our campfires, sitting around a campfire sharing stories is a one-of-a-kind bonding experience. Whichever fire you wish to build, and whatever your intentions for using it, exercising good judgement and training yourself to follow the 11 crucial steps detailed above will ensure you truly have a postcard-perfect camping trip.
Fire is always to be taken with heaps of caution as it can quickly spell disaster if not handled with care. You and your fellow campers’ safety is paramount, so make sure you follow our guidelines for building a campfire safely and stick to tried-and-tested methods – don’t take unknown shortcuts.
The following do’s and don’ts apply to any fire you decide to start:
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As this year’s Bonfire Night is quickly approaching in the UK, we’ll be seeing a ton of campfires and fireworks on display all over the country. Bear in mind that the safety measures we’ve listed can also be applied to fireworks. Have fun – responsibly!