How to Start a Campfire

By Brenna Swanston

A beginner's guide to sparking flames

How to Start a Campfire

It's easy to keep delegating the campfire responsibility to that one person in the group who builds them best – but eventually, it's time to learn how to build one. Here's how to get the job done quickly and safely.

1. Choose a spot for the fire

Check ahead to make sure campfires are permitted. Developed campgrounds usually restrict fires to designated fire rings and grills, and undeveloped sites on federal land sometimes require campfire permits from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sites with lots of brush or low-hanging branches pose a higher risk, so keep campfires small in these types of areas. Where fire rings don't already exist, consider building one by clearing flammable material from a circular area and padding the ground there with gravel or soil. Dismantle the fire ring before leaving, to minimize impact to the site.

2. Gather materials

A successful campfire runs on three types of fuel: tinder, kindling and firewood.

  • Tinder: twigs, dry leaves, pine needles, wood shavings, paper, dryer lint
  • Kindling: small, dry sticks
  • Firewood: larger pieces of wood that burn for longer periods of time

Don't break branches off trees for firewood, and stick to local firewood if possible to avoid bringing outside insects into the area.

3. Pick a building method

Some of the most popular ways to assemble a campfire include the teepee, log-cabin and pyramid styles.

  • Teepee: Loosely pile tinder in the center of the fire ring and create a cone of kindling around it. Once the fire's going, add larger logs.
  • Log cabin: Place two parallel pieces of firewood for the base, and two smaller pieces on top perpendicularly to create a rectangular space in the middle. Put tinder in that space. Continue the pattern to add a few more layers of firewood, then finish with a layer of kindling and tinder on top.
  • Pyramid: Lay three or four large logs side-by-side at the base. Add a second layer of perpendicular logs on top. Continue layering, using smaller logs with each layer, and finish with kindling and tinder on top.

4. Start the fire

Use a match or lighter to light the tinder from several sides, and blow lightly at the base. This provides oxygen, which helps grow the flame and ignite the wood.

If weather conditions are damp, the fire-starting process is a little more complicated. Because kindling and tinder usually soak up moisture easily, spread some sticks at the base of the fire pit to separate the fuel from the wet ground. Try to keep the fuel materials as dry as possible leading up to starting the fire, and waterproof matches can really come in handy for wet-weather fires.

Once the fire's going, feed it additional wood as needed. Don't build the flames too high, especially if the fire's in a dry area, and don't leave the fire unattended.

5. Extinguish the flames

It's simple: Pour water on the fire. Stir the ashes, and pour more water. Keep repeating until the ashes are cool to the touch.

Leave the area as close as possible to the way you found it. If the fire ring wasn't there before, extract charcoal pieces and dismantle the ring. At a campsite, clear trash and food pieces.