Last updated: May 28, 2018 at 15:36 pm
One of the things campers most look forward to when they’re off on yet another overnight outdoors adventure is the thrill of building a campfire in the wild. There’s no camping picture that looks complete without the image of a burning fire that really sparks off that camping spirit.
Campfires are made for a number of different purposes. You could be using it to power your cooking efforts, or as a defence against the cold, or, better yet, simply to huddle around for fun and togetherness – steaming mug of tea in hand and good conversation at the ready. Whatever your motivation, building campfires is an exciting and enjoyable enterprise that will be the centrepiece of your camping trip.
Getting that campfire going isn’t as straightforward as dumping a lit match or two into a pile of logs, however. If you’re aiming for a campfire that’s strong, sturdy, long-lasting and safe to be around, you’ll need some expert advice to avoid dangerous mistakes and not waste one whole night of your journey attempting to light and maintain a fire the wrong way.
For starters, understanding the basic science behind fire and how combustion works will give you the fundamental framework you need to prevent yourself from making silly missteps that can prove hazardous for you and those around you.
The Secret to a Kickass Campfire
The answer to this is surface area, and airflow. To ignite a flame (and therefore, create a spark), you need as much surface area as possible for your flame to catch and spread. Paper is perfect for this, as its surface area to volume ratio is extremely high – that’s why newspaper is a camper’s favourite when it comes to kindling a fire. However, when people stuff the spaces between logs and branches with newspaper – expecting the fire to be set ablaze instantly – the desired result normally evades them. This is because not enough air can reach the newspaper to activate its great burning potential, so it ends up stifling the fire instead.
Oxidation needs 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.
A common mistake people make is to blow emphatically on fires that need an extra kick, thinking that they’re helping the fire grow. People blow on fires too hard and too quickly in most of the cases, and the fire ends up deteriorating instead of improving. You should blow softly and accurately towards the bottom of the flames, maintaining a steady airstream. Save your effort for longevity as you’ll be needing a lot of lung capacity to regulate your breath to a constant.
How to Make a Campfire in 11 Steps
Follow these steps for a surefire (literally!) way to get your campfire going:
- Check the weather report in advance to prepare supplies for making a campfire from home if the outside environment is expected to be damp and wet. If it’s going to rain throughout the camping trip, it’s probably best to leave the campfire for another time. If the weather is forecast to be fine after showers, bring your own tinder and kindling material from home in the form of newspaper, cardboard boxes and lint. Remember to carry good-quality fire-starting materials and accelerants such as gasoline.
- The first step is to find or make a clearing for the fire pit. Ideally, fires should be constructed on bare dirt, as this is the safest and most convenient terrain. If you’re camping in a campsite, stick to the designated fire pit areas and strictly follow the rules regarding campfire construction and safety. If you’re camping in an uninhabited area, remove any flammable woodland debris such as dry wood, grass and needles from coniferous trees. Make sure there’s an overhead clearing free from trees and hanging branches totalling at least 2 metres.
- Dig a large dent into the ground in the area where you intend to build your campfire. The centre point should be the most depressed to allow for the best fire control, also to provide a safe natural container where burnt wood ashes can fall within the campfire itself. If you’re using a pre-dug dent which was the site of a past campfire, clear the area of any old ashes so your campfire can be started afresh.
- Collect medium-sized stones from the area and position them side by side in a circle around the dent. The function of the rock ring is to contain the fire and set a boundary between the flames and combustible material nearby, as well as yourself and other campers.
- Prepare extinguishing tools and materials so that you’re protected even before the fire is started. A fire extinguisher is always handy, as well as several buckets of water or large, non-flammable, flame retardant plastic sheets.
- Gather your tinder and kindling wood, making sure they’re completely dry and dead. Tinder is any very small pieces of material that are highly combustible and therefore catch fire quickly, helping to kickstart fires. Dry leaves, dry bark, dry grass and any dry bits of wood are perfect to be used as tinder. Kindling wood consists of slightly bigger combustible material like small, dry branches and twigs that will catch fire from tinder and kindle the campfire.
- Collect your firewood from the area surrounding your fire pit. Take a walk and gather long, dry pieces of wood that are approximately the length and width of your arm. Choose only wood that feels desiccated (a good test is to try to break off small twigs off the main branch – if these make a distinct snapping sound, they should be ideal for use). The size of the pieces can vary but try to avoid wood that is very flexible or has significant moss growth. Choose one piece of fuelling firewood that should be the thickest and largest piece you use to build your campfire.
- Create a bedding of tinder inside the fire pit. Lay the tinder towards the centre, working your way out in the form of a square.
- Stack the kindling wood in the shape of a tepee over the tinder – this should yield the best results. Keep adding more kindling wood to the tepee until it feels firm and constitutes a solid structure. When you’ve used up all your kindling wood, lean the firewood against the kindling pieces to strengthen the tepee and enclose it further. Leave a space in the tepee in the wind’s direction, so the motion of the air will aid your campfire.
- If adverse conditions necessitate it, lightly douse the wood construction with a fire-starter or accelerant, such as 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 the tinder catches fire. Retreat from the fire pit immediately, and proceed to light the tinder from other spots if no fire-starter or accelerant has been used. As the fire burns and the wood starts to disintegrate, keep feeding new pieces of firewood to the fire, adding them in the same manner as before to maintain the tepee structure.
- To extinguish the campfire, gradually sprinkle water onto it. Save the buckets of water for large fires that you want to put out immediately, as this technique can be messy and you won’t be able to use the same fire pit to start another fire. As the fire dies down, use a long stick to mix the ashes and check that all embers are dying and put out. Once the fire pit is completely dark and devoid of glow, slowly bring the palm of your hand closer to the ashes to see if you can feel any heat emanating from them. If the ashes are still hot, continue to sprinkle water and mix them up. Once the ashes have went completely cold, the campfire has been successfully extinguished.
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!