photo by Sagar Pradhan

The discovery of how to start a fire some 40,000 years ago allowed early humans to cook, stay warm, conquer darkness at night and provide safety by keeping animals and insects away.

Fast forward to the present day, the use of fire by most people is limited to cooking and heating such as BBQ and wood burning fireplace. Plus occasional uses such as beach bonfires and campfires. This article will outline some simple tips to start a campfire because huddling around a campfire is a classic and fun camping pastime.

Basic Rules

  • Observe your local campfire regulations/bans before starting a campfire to avoid fines and endangering others.
  • Always have buckets of water handy to put out the fire.
  • Campfire is safer when contained within a firepit especially during windy conditions.
  • Stake your ten at least 15 feet away from the firepit.
  • Keep a 4-feet clearing between and you and the campfire.
  • Children and pets should be supervised at all times.

Prepare to Burn

To build a campfire, you need five things:

  • Tinder
  • Kindling/Firewood
  • BBQ lighter
  • Hatchet
  • Bucket(s) and water

Aside from BBQ lighter, hatchet and buckets, we often bring newspaper and to-be-recycled printer paper as tinder. Unless you are backcountry camping, many campgrounds prohibit collecting fallen tree branches to start a campfire. Therefore, you must make kindling from the firewood with a hatchet.

You can purchase firewood at the campground or a store prior to arriving. We prefer buying firewood at the campground because we would have more room in the vehicle for everything else. Sometimes, firewood may be sold out at the campground. A good tip is to stop at a gas station, store, residence (closest to the campground) which sells firewood. Then call the campground operator to confirm if they have firewood for sale or not for the day. This will save you time from backtracking.

To prepare your kindling, use a hatchet to break the firewood into smaller pieces. Make as many kindling as possible. Size tip: width smaller than both your index and middle finger are good. Once prepared, make sure the tinder, kindling and firewood are kept dry.

photo by Steve Buissinne

Start Your Campfire

There are three basic methods to start a campfire: Teepee; Lean-to; and Log-cabin.
While Log-cabin lasts the longest, personally we find the Lean-to method is the easiest for beginners. Also, the Lean-to method needs more monitoring thus a good exercise to learn about how to sustain the fire. Here’s how:

  1. Lay one of the largest firewood you bought lengthwise inside the firepit.
  2. Tear newspaper/used paper in smaller pieces and crumble them into balls as tinder.
  3. Pile the paper balls against the base of the firewood near the centre.
  4. Stake kindling into the ground and lean enough of them over the tinder against the firewood at an angle. 
  5. Use your BBQ lighter to light the tinder. The goal is for the fire from the tinder to spread to the kindling then the firewood.
  6. Don’t worry if your first attempt does not work. Make the kindling smaller with your hatchet and try again with more tinder.
  7. Add more kindling when the first ones start to burn. The key is not to smother the fire so add kindling gradually.
  8. Smoke is an indication the fire may go out. Reasons could be the kindling or firewood are wet or kindling are too crowded thus the fire is lacking air/oxygen. Try blowing air at the base and make space for better airflow to fuel the fire.
  9. Once the large firewood starts to burn and the fire is strong, lean more firewood against it (again, gradually).
  10. Time to relax and enjoy the warmth, mesmerizing glow, crackling sound and maybe even roasted marshmallows from your accomplishment.

End Your Campfire

You must end what you started. The campfire must be extinguished COMPLETELY before you go to sleep. Pour buckets of water slowly on the firewood until all embers go out and any hissing sound stops. If the firewood did not burn to ashes completely, we would use the hatchet to scrape off the embers to make sure they are all out. Spread out the sand/ashes already in the firepit to make sure there are no hidden hot coals (don’t use your bare hand to do so). Many burn injuries are caused by still-hot coals buried in the sand the following day so they must be doused by water completely. Download our complete camping gear checklist to help you prepare for your next camping trip. Have fun and stay safe!

How many camping trips do you take per year?