Whether you grew up making backyard blazes or you're about to build your first fire ever, this overview of campfires will help you have a great time. You'll find recommendations for how to safely build, feed and extinguish a campfire.
You can find even more info and videos from the U.S. Forest Service and Smokey Bear.
Having an open fire is often a key and enjoyable part of camping. The smell of woodsmoke and the pop and hiss of burning wood in a campfire brightens any night out in the woods, mountains, or beach.
However, you want to make sure you control your fire, and not the other way around!
Before starting your fire, follow these steps:
Know the local rules Each park has their own rules on where and when you can have a campfire. Ask at the visitor center or contact the park before you visit so you know any relevant rules.
Know the fire conditions Has it been windy and dry lately? That might mean campfires are banned, or that other special rules or restrictions are in effect. Again, contact the park when you arrive or shortly before you visit to find out if there is a burn ban or other weather-related rules you need to know.
Kinds of Fires
Not all campfires are the same! For some people, the idea of a campfire is two logs quietly burning in a fire ring, while for others, the same word means a four-foot tall blazing pile of wood and brush.
Different parks allow different sizes and types of fires. Don’t assume a bonfire is going to be ok in a busy campground full of kids, RVs and trees. Ask at the visitor center or find the campground host to see if specific areas are set aside for fires, and if there are rules on the size of your blaze.
Making a Fire
Before starting your campfire, take a look around your campsite to make sure your tent, gear, and any other flammable objects are at least 15 feet away and upwind of the firepit.
Buying or using local kindling/wood Kindling and wood should be bought near the campground (or collected from the area, if the rules permit doing that - keep in mind, this is not allowed in many national parks). Bringing wood from far away might also bring along pests that will flee your burning wood and potentially invade and cause problems in their new environment.
Constructing your fire There are many ways to arrange your firewood before you start burning.
Fire needs air to grow, so don’t just stack your wood in a dense pile. One way to start is by laying larger pieces of wood in a cross-hatch pattern, making a small tower. Then, place plenty of kindling (e.g. dried leaves, small twigs, etc.) and firestarter (e.g., paraffin-soaked cotton balls, shredded paper, etc) in the gaps between the wood.
Also remember that bark doesn’t burn as well as the rest of the wood, so chopping your wood into thinner pieces, to expose more of the interior, will get your fire going faster.
Use matches or a lighter on your firestarter to ignite it; it should then catch your kindling on fire, which should eventually catch your larger pieces of wood on fire.
Using accelerants An accelerant is an extremely flammable liquid or mixture, like lighter fluid, that is used to speed up starting a fire. Use only lighter fluid to start a campfire. Never use any other accelerants, like gasoline, as this can be super dangerous to you and others around you! Also, do not squirt lighter fluid onto embers or open flames, as this may lead to a quick flare up and cause skin burns. When you stop at the visitor center, check to make sure it’s ok to use chemical accelerants, like lighter fluid.
Keeping the fire burning Your fire might burn quite quickly if your firewood is extremely dry. Wetter wood will burn slower, but you don’t want it too wet or it won’t catch fire. Wet wood will smoke way more than dry wood. If you have extra firewood, keep it stacked upwind of your fire, so that a sudden breeze won’t light all the rest of your wood on fire. Keep the fire small so it stays under control.
Safety Second: Once You Have the Fire Burning
You want to think about safety before starting a fire and you should keep it in mind while the fire is going, too.
Close enough to toast marshmallows, not hands Depending on the size of your fire and how windy it is, you might be able to sit right by it - or you might have to stand several feet away. Remember that synthetic clothing melts when it gets hot - don’t ruin your nice new fleece jacket by letting sparks blow on it from your campfire! If you plan on cooking on the fire, make sure you have cooking tools that are long enough so you have a safe distance between you and the fire. Look for cooking tools with insulated handles to avoid burns.
Watch children and pets around campfires It almost goes without saying, but if you’re camping with kids or pets, keep an eye on them. Young children who haven’t been around a campfire before might not be cautious about running near it.
Drinking and burning If the campground where you’re staying allows alcoholic beverages, do not throw bottles or cans into the fire! Broken glass and half-melted aluminum will probably make the next camper pretty unhappy. Burning anything but wood (especially plastics) can also lead to toxic gases.
Also keep in mind that your campground is a public space, and public intoxication is generally illegal, in addition to being pretty unsafe when you’re tending to an open fire.
Safety Third: Preparing for Emergencies
Never leave a campfire unattended. Always keep water nearby when you have a campfire. You might have a sudden need to put it out or the weather might change dramatically (such as the wind might grow really breezy and threaten to push your fire out of your fire ring). Know what steps to take if someone is burned by sparks, hot cooking tools, or coals. Don’t forget to “stop, drop, and roll” if any of your clothes catch on fire.
If your fire gets out of control, note your location and call 911 for assistance. If there is no cell service, contact the nearest park ranger or campground host to report the fire.
Putting Out Your Fire
All good things come to an end but if your campfire is too hot to touch, don’t leave or go to sleep. Whitish or gray coals can retain heat for hours and hours - and can flare up if the wind starts gusting. So, even if you have no more open flames, spread out your coals as best you can.
If you have water available Be sure to douse your fire and coals with plenty of water when you’re ready to call it a night.
If you have no water In a pinch, use sand and dirt. However, don’t simply kick sand or dirt on your fire - sometimes that can insulate or “bank” the coals, keeping them hot even longer than if they remained exposed. Spread the coals out with a poker or other device, and then continually stir dirt and sand among the coals until they extinguish.