How to Build a Campfire: Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners

A warm crackling fire is one of my favorite parts of camping! In this guide, we’ll cover exactly how to prepare, build, maintain, and extinguish a campfire. Let’s get started!

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campfire in the desert

Whether you want to stay warm, cook a meal, or simply enjoy the sounds of a campfire outdoors, there are many reasons to build a campfire on your camping trip.

In fact, the crackling sounds and flickering light can have a relaxing effect on humans.

So let’s start our fire-making journey by first checking for local fire restrictions or regulations.

Checking for Local Fire Restrictions

It’s always important to check for local fire restrictions before your trip. Fire restrictions are becoming increasingly common and they can vary year to year based on conditions.

When there are fire restrictions in place, there’s usually a good reason.

It’s especially important to check if you’re dispersed camping or hiking in the backcountry. You can’t count on signs to tell you.

Where to Check:

There are a few different ways to get information about fire restrictions. If you’re going to a campground, check the website for any alerts about fire restrictions.

You can also find a local ranger station and give them a call. Lastly, I like to Google “fire restrictions” followed by the state I’m camping in.

For example, the state of Utah where I live has an interactive map showing the current fire restrictions.

Now that you’ve checked for any fire restrictions, let’s talk about some of the basic gear I recommend for making a fire easily at camp…

Amanda cooking over a campfire

Gear for Building a Campfire

  • Way to Ignite the Fire – This could be a lighter, waterproof match, a Ferro rod, or a small blow torch attachment on a propane canister.
  • Fire Starters (optional) – Fire starters can act as your tinder and make it easier to start the fire.
  • Water Bucket or Jug – So you can have water nearby to extinguish the fire.
  • Shovel – I always have a small shovel near my water bucket for mixing the water when extinguishing the fire.
  • Hatchet – A hatchet can be used to break apart larger logs if needed.
    • **Important Safety Note: Don’t try to hold a log while hitting it with the hatchet! A better way to split wood is to stand up a log, put your hatchet on it, and then hammer the back of your hatchet with another piece of firewood.
  • Pocket Bellows – This small bellows is the best way to get a concentrated stream of air into your fire without having to put your face close to it! This is one of those camping items that I wish I bought sooner.
  • Fire-resistant gloves – A pair of heat-resistant gloves is good to have to protect your hands and arms from the heat. While many of these gloves are “fire-resistant” or “heat-proof” things can still get hot through the gloves! They’re not invincible, so make sure to always be careful around the fire!

Now that you have the gear, next we need to choose a location to build the campfire…

Related >> Best Campfire Cooking Kits (put to the test!)

Deciding Where to Build Your Campfire

There are a few options for where to build your campfire depending on where you’re camping:

1. Metal or Cement Fire Ring:

These fire pits are very common at campgrounds and picnic areas.

Sometimes you’ll see a thin metal ring, other times there can be a thick cement column. Sometimes the fire pits also come with a grill grate that you can lift up and down.

metal fire ring at a campground

2. Pre-existing self-made fire ring:

If you’re dispersed camping (camping outside of a campground on national forest land or BLM land) then you can start by looking for pre-existing fire pits. You can tell because there will be a ring of rocks.

If possible, it’s best to use a fire pit that’s already made, but if you need to, you can also make your own (unless there are local regulations prohibiting it).

rock ring for building a campfire

3. Build your own fire ring:

Lastly, there’s an option to build your own fire pit if needed and allowed in the area. There are a few important things to consider when doing this.

First, choose a location that’s at least 15 feet from tent walls, bushes, trees, or other flammable objects. Make sure to also look for any low-hanging branches.

Clear a 10-foot radius around where the fire pit will be on a flat surface. Dig a pit in the dirt about 1 foot deep and surround it with rocks.

firewood and a hatchet

The 5 Components Needed to Make a Campfire

Let’s get into it! In order to build your campfire, these are the 5 things you’ll need to get right:

  1. Ignition
  2. Tinder
  3. Kindling
  4. Fuel
  5. Air

We’ll cover each of these components in detail next…

1. Ignition

You’ll need a way to start the fire. This could be a lighter, waterproof match, or a Ferro rod.

  • Ferro rods can be tricky to use, but they’re great to have on hand, especially for emergencies. Knowing how to use one is a great wilderness skill to have.
  • If you want to use matches, I recommend buying waterproof matches. If a flimsy paper matchbook gets wet, it won’t do you any good, even if you dry it out again.
  • If you’re using a lighter, keep in mind that it doesn’t work great in cold weather. You can keep it in your pocket to prevent any issues.

Now when it comes to building a campfire, you’ll need a few different types of wood to make it happen. You can’t place a huge log on a little fire starter and expect it to burn. You want to think ‘small to big’ when building your fire.

You’ll need 3 types of wood to start the fire: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

examples of tinder, kindling, and fuel

2. Tinder

Tinder should be small. It should ignite right away when it comes in contact with sparks or a lighter.

If you can’t get your fire going and all you have is smoke, it’s typically because you went too large with your tinder.

Natural Tinder:

For natural tinder, you can use dry grasses, dry moss, dry pine needles, sticky pine sap, and dry leaves or bark that you can find on the ground.

Tinder will light easily, but burn out pretty fast. If it’s recently rained, it’ll be harder to find dry tinder. Also, some campgrounds prohibit the collection of tinder, so be aware of that and plan to pack your own.

example of tinder for making a campfire

How much tinder do you need?

  • You’ll need enough tinder to get the kindling started. You want at least a large handful that resembles a bird’s nest.

commercial or homemade Tinder:

  • Instead of throwing away dryer lint the next time you do laundry, save it and use it as tinder on your next camping trip!
  • If you want a fun DIY project, you can even use that dryer lint with wax and an old egg carton to make homemade fire starters.
  • Another homemade option for tinder is cotton balls with Vaseline.
  • Newspaper and paper grocery bags can also work as tinder.
homemade fire starters

3. Kindling

Kinding is smaller twigs and sticks of dry wood that burn easily. This will create a nice base that eventually lights the larger fuel.

As with tinder, most people start with kindling that’s too big. If you’re having trouble, it could be that your kindling is too big. Look for twigs and sticks that are about the diameter of a toothpick up to the diameter of your thumb.

If needed, I will use my hatchet to spit some of my larger firewood pieces into kindling. This is a good option if collection is prohibited or limited. 

examples of kindling for building a fire
making kindling with the hatchet

You’ll need a lot of kindling in order to build up enough heat to light the bigger pieces of wood, aka the fuel. You want at least a large armful of kindling ready before you begin.

4. Fuel

The fuel for your fire is the larger pieces of firewood that you can buy in bundles. You never want to start cutting down trees and branches for your wood. Live trees won’t burn.

If gathering firewood is allowed, choose trees that have been dead for a while and make sure that you gather the firewood locally to where you’ll burn it. In other words, don’t travel long distances with firewood because it can spread invasive species.

5. Air

Your fire needs air. A common mistake is to pile too many logs on the fire before it’s had a chance to get going. This will cut off the airflow to your fire.

Make sure there’s enough space between pieces of wood for the fire to breathe. Sometimes, you need to blow on the fire to get it going. If your tinder is smoldering, you can use your pocket bellows to blow air on it and watch it flame up to ignite the kindling.

roasting a marshmallow over the campfire

How to Build a Campfire Step-by-Step

Now that you’re ready to build a fire, this is a condensed step-by-step way to build a basic teepee fire. Remember, there are 5 components to building a fire that you need to get right – ignition, tinder, kindling, fuel, and airflow.

  1. Check local fire restrictions and consider the weather conditions. Never make a fire in dry windy conditions.
  2. Pick a safe location. If you’re at a campground, there will likely be designated fire pits for you to use.
  3. Prepare and clear the surrounding area. Make sure there are no flammable objects nearby and nothing that you can easily trip over. Clear away all dry leaves and grasses.
  4. Make sure you have water and a shovel nearby.
  5. Gather your tinder, kindling, and fuel. Stack them neatly in three piles.
  6. Loosely stack some of your smaller kindling in a teepee shape. Leave an open space in the center of the teepee for your tinder.
  7. Gather your tinder bundle and place it inside your teepee. Light the tinder with a match, lighter, or Ferro rod. Pay close attention here because this is where things tend to go out.
  8. As the tinder catches, it will light the kindling. Start feeding the fire with more and more kindling slowly building up in size. Remember, don’t add too much too quickly or you’ll suffocate the flame. You can use your pocket bellows to add more air and get things going if the flame starts to go out and smolder. Gradually add the larger pieces of fuel.
  9. After a while, you’ll have a nice bed of coals and you can continue to add logs to the fire as needed. Always keep the fire under control and never leave the fire unattended.
  10. When you’re winding down for the night, let the fire burn down until it’s just coals, and then douse it in water. You want to drown all of the embers and remaining pieces of wood in water. A general guide is to pour water until the hissing completely stops, mixing in between until the fire pit is cold to the touch.

3 Common Ways to Build a Campfire

There are many types of fire structures that you can build. Other fire structures such as the platform fire, star fire, and Swedish fire log are fun to try, but I think the ones I mention below are the most common and useful for the average camper.

1. Teepee

The teepee fire is a classic fire build and it’s a good place to start. It’s easy to set up and maintain.

basic teepee campfire build example

2. Log Cabin

The log cabin fire is another structure that I use a lot. It’s built by crisscrossing logs. If you played with Lincon Logs as a kid (I did!) then it’s very similar to that.

There’s naturally good airflow with this method of fire building and I find that I don’t go through wood as fast when compared to the teepee fire. This is also a great fire build for cooking.

log cabin campfire example

3. Lean-to

This is a good fire structure to know for wet or breezy conditions because the wood helps to shelter the fire. It’s a simple fire to build, but it still might require some practice to get right.

The most common problem that you might run into with this fire is that you can easily smother it by adding too much wood, too fast.

lean-to campfire example

How to Maintain and Extinguish the Fire

Always keep your fire to a manageable size and make sure you don’t leave it unattended.

You don’t want to put things like plastic, pressurized containers, glass, or aluminum cans into the fire. They can shatter, explode, or create harmful fumes. Not to mention, they usually don’t burn well and leave trash behind in the fire pit.

When it comes time to extinguish the fire, let the wood burn down to ash if possible.

When you’re ready, start by pouring water on the fire. The fire might hiss and puff up with ash, so add a little at a time to start.

Add more and more water. You want to drown all of the embers and remaining pieces of wood in water. A general guide is to pour water until the hissing completely stops, mixing in between.

Make sure you get the entire fire pit, including the edges, not just the red embers. Mix with a shovel until everything in the fire pit is completely cool.

You have to make sure that the fire is completely out before you leave or hit the tent.

As Smokey Bear says “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave”.

Side Note: Did you know that the Smokey Bear campaign is the longest-running public service advertising campaign in U.S. history? It was created all the way back in 1944!

cooking over the campfire with a dutch oven

Different Types of Wood and How it Effects Burning

In general, there are two types of wood – softwoods and hardwoods.

Softwoods like pine are very common in the firewood bundles that you can buy at grocery stores and gas stations. Softwoods will burn faster than hardwoods, so you’ll likely go through more wood when maintaining your fire.

Hardwoods like maple and oak burn slower and the fire tends to last longer. Hardwoods make wonderful coals that are great for cooking.

Lastly, it’s not a good idea to travel long distances with firewood. Firewood can potentially transport invasive species. “Buy it where you burn it” is a catchy saying to remember. You can also buy certified heat-treated firewood or gather firewood locally on-site if permitted.

How to Build a Basic Campfire

Step-by-step instructions to make a basic teepee campfire on your next camping trip!

Equipment

  • way to ignite the fire (lighter, matches, or ferro rod)
  • water bucket
  • shovel
  • heat-resistant gloves

Materials

  • tinder
  • kindling
  • firewood (aka fuel)
  • fire starters (optional) homemade or commercial

Instructions

  • Check local fire restrictions and consider the weather conditions. Never make a fire in dry windy conditions.
  • Pick a safe location. If you’re at a campground, there will likely be designated fire pits for you to use.
  • Prepare and clear the surrounding area. Make sure there are no flammable objects nearby and nothing that you can easily trip over. Clear away all dry leaves and grasses.
  • Make sure you have water and a shovel nearby.
  • Gather your tinder, kindling, and fuel. Stack them neatly in three piles.
  • Loosely stack some of your smaller kindling in a teepee shape. Leave an open space in the center of the teepee for your tinder.
  • Gather your tinder bundle and place it inside your teepee. Light the tinder with a match, lighter, or ferro rod. Pay close attention here because this is where things tend to go out.
  • As the tinder catches, it will light the kindling. Start feeding the fire with more and more kindling slowly building up in size. Remember, don’t add too much too quickly or you’ll suffocate the flame. You can use your pocket bellows to add more air and get things going if the flame starts to go out and smolder. Gradually add the larger pieces of fuel.
  • After a while, you’ll have a nice bed of coals and you can continue to add logs to the fire as needed. Always keep the fire under control and never leave the fire unattended.
  • When you’re winding down for the night, let the fire burn down until it’s just coals, and then douse it in water. You want to drown all of the embers and remaining pieces of wood in water. A general guide is to pour water until the hissing completely stops, mixing in between until the fire pit is cold to the touch.

Notes

**These are condensed on-the-go instructions. For more details about materials, different types of wood, and troubleshooting tips, please read the entire blog post.
grilled chicken camping dinner cooked over the fire

What to Cook Over the Campfire

Now’s the moment you’ve been waiting for – some delicious meals to cook over a campfire!

There are tons of easy camping meals on this blog. To get you started, below are some reader favorites for cooking over a fire!

Easy Camping Dinners Over the Grill:

Fun S’mores Combos to Try:

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