The wisest course of action when making a campfire 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, you’ll want to build a completely different fire to one that will keep you warm and entertained throughout the night.
In this guide, we expertly advise you on the different types of campfires so that you can make an informed decision about which one suits your purposes best. We’ve split the guide into 3 sections, how to build a campfire for cooking, how to build a campfire for warmth and lastly (but definitely not least), how to build a campfire for fun.
If this seems a little advanced for your liking and you need to go back to basics, why not have a read of our How to Build a Campfire Guide.
The Secrets to a Kickass Campfire
The secret to achieving the desired campfire consist of 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 can backfire.
This is because if there isn’t enough air to reach the newspaper and activate its burning potential, it will stifle the fire and do the opposite of 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.
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 camping 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.
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, forming 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 the full evening and emit a glow that will surely warm your heart – along with everything else – 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 to building a campfire will ensure you truly have a postcard-perfect camping trip.