A crackling campfire is one of the most nostalgic activities of any camping trip. It creates a warm ambiance for a singalong, cookout or ghost story, and knowing how to start one is an important safety tool for anyone travelling in the backcountry. If you’ve never built a campfire before, let’s start with the basics. The two most common styles are the tripod (also called the teepee) and the log cabin.
Before you begin:
Confirm if fires are allowed at your campground, park or municipality. Respect and follow any local restrictions or fire bans. Most importantly, practice common sense—only build fires in designated fire pits and keep a bucket of water nearby.
Collect or buy firewood from within the area you're staying. Don't transport firewood across different regions, as it can carry pests that could cause environmental harm. Never damage live trees for firewood.
Things you’ll need:
- Matches or a lighter (bring along extras and store them in a waterproof case)
- A hatchet or axe
- Tinder (such as dried leaves or pine needles, wood chips and cardboard) and kindling (small twigs and branches)
- Logs of increasing sizes
- Eco-friendly fire starter products for added fuel
- Colour additives for some extra fun
- A campfire grill for cooking
- Marshmallows and other s'mores ingredients for some tasty treats
How to build a tripod campfire:
- Collect your tinder, kindling and logs into easily accessible piles. If the ground of your firepit is wet, try laying a flat stone in its centre to use as your fire's base.
- Gather a handful of tinder and place it at the centre of your fire pit.
- Use a few pieces of kindling (up to roughly the diameter of a pencil) to build a small tripod over your pile of tinder, sticking the bottoms of the twigs into the ground and leaning the tops against each other for support. This should be in the shape of a pyramid.
- Use a few larger sticks (up to roughly the diameter of a garden hose) to build an outer tripod over top of your smaller one.
- Using your matches or lighter, light the tinder beneath your small inner tripod. Be at the ready to add more pieces of kindling to help your outer tripod catch, if needed.
- Once your outer tripod is burning well, stoke the flames with larger logs to keep a nice roaring blaze.
How to build a log cabin campfire:
- Follow the first two steps for building a tripod campfire, as above.
- Lay two large pieces of firewood (up to roughly the diameter of your forearm) on either side of your bundle of tinder. Lay two slightly smaller pieces perpendicularly across the top of them, like the walls of a log cabin.
- Add another row or two of gradually smaller pieces of kindling, building in towards the centre so that the smallest pieces are above the tinder, where they’ll most easily catch.
- Light the tinder in the centre of your log cabin and be ready to adjust the pieces of kindling as needed to help your fire catch.
- Add larger logs as desired once your campfire begins to burn down.
At the end of your campfire:
Always ensure your fire is completely out before you turn in for the night or leave your campsite. Let the flames dwindle and use a stick to spread the embers apart from each other. Sprinkle with water but be careful not to flood your firepit. Be cautious—if the embers are still warm to the touch, they have the potential to ignite and spread a windblown piece of tinder.
If your fire is too smoky, make sure the firewood you’re using is dry enough. Wet or “green” wood will smoke as it burns.
If your fire starts but keeps going out, you might be smothering it. Leave enough open space for the flow of oxygen to feed the flames. Take off the largest pieces of firewood and try again, blowing or fanning the flames if needed.
On the other hand, if there is too much wind for your tinder to catch, build up additional stones around the windward side of your firepit. Put your body between the wind and your small flame until your blaze is large enough to stand on its own.
Only collect fallen tinder, kindling and firewood. Don’t take leaves, needles, bark or branches from living trees; it will damage the surrounding forest and make for a smoky campfire.
Always keep other flammable or explosive camping supplies (such as stove fuel) away from your campfire. Never leave a campfire unattended.
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