S’more, Please! The Ultimate Guide to Campfires

Key Points

  • Learn the basic rules of campfires to make a fire in the wild.

  • There are different styles of campfires, each with its own purpose.

  • Invest in a good fire starter to make igniting a campfire easier.

  • Know the difference between a fire grill, stove, and pit.

Darkness settles on the land. Coyotes yap, owls hoot, and sparkling stars illuminate the infinite canvas of space. The Big Dipper looks down, sharing its brilliance indiscriminately. Nature at night is both ineffably wondrous and a tad spooky. In these moments, a cackling camping fire is an absolute necessity.

The proof is in the pudding: Camping fires bring out people's humanity. No surprise to anyone who's sat shoulder to shoulder with others, making s'mores and sharing tales next to a fire. Flames bring out the best by putting people at ease, making conversation flow easier, and even lowering arterial blood pressure.

Fire symbolizes the best of camping and nature. In a stubbornly hostile world, campfires make magic and unite people. To harness this tremendous force, take the time to get to know it.

The Many Faces of Flames

Fire was one of the earliest natural forces humans experimented with. Roughly 2.7 million to 200,000 years ago, Homo Erectus used fire for various reasons: cooking, warmth, and as a defense against predators. Fire was a necessity.

Such a need for fire continued from prehistory into ancient history.

A hearth is a brick, stone, or concrete fireplace where people gather to stay warm, socialize, and eat. Ancient Greeks revered the idea of a hearth so much that they immortalized it by worshiping Hestia, the goddess of the hearth.

Campsite with campfire

Humans in modern society are capable of living without fire. With indoor heating, ovens, and social media, the warmth of flames has moved from a necessity to a fun activity.

In more modern times, fire is largely associated with camping, thus the name “campfire.” It's only when you're deep in the woods that the thought of a cozy fire pops up in your mind.

Be prepared if you want to spark up a campfire on your next outing to the woods. Fire brings out the best in everyone but may also burn down the forest if you're not careful.

Learn the basics of campfires, and watch yourself evolve into the Master of Flames who uses campfires to unite people.

The Basic Rules of Campfires

To know if you're able to have a campfire, research the rules and regulations at your camping location.

Each national forest, park, nature preserve, and camping ground has its own guidelines. Contact the area's authorities, or stop by the visitor center to learn current campfire rules.

Some areas don't allow fires due to wildfire potential. It's not because they don't like you. It's because an army of numbskulls before you have started fires from the gender reveal party for their baby, which got out of control and burned 37,000 acres of pristine forest. Oh, and if you start the fire, you foot the bill. 

Unless you're a billionaire, wildfires aren't cheap.

You are responsible for knowing the fire conditions. If it's August, triple digits, and windier than Chicago, don't start a campfire.

The National Weather Service releases Red Flag Warnings when certain areas have increased chances of fire. These warnings indicate warm temperatures, low humidities, and strong winds. All that's needed to start a fire then is a lightning strike or a nimrod who flicks a cigarette butt out the window.

Stopping lightning strikes is most likely out of your league, but it's more than possible not to be a nimrod.

Do this by knowing the local rules and fire conditions and learning Campfires 101.

Use Only a Designated Fireplace in a Campground

If you're in a KOA or an RV resort, there are specific places to have your fires. People call these fire rings or fire pits. They are easy to spot and perfect for grilling food and making s'mores.

Don't go all Paul Bunyan and start fires where you're not supposed to. That's called arson.

Roasting marshmallows over campfire

Keep It Small

A well-controlled campfire brings roasting marshmallows and laughter. Keep in mind though, that sometimes too much of a good thing is bad. Keep your campfires to a manageable size or they may spread. Don't add too much wood at once. Never, under any circumstances, use gasoline to light a fire — unless, of course, you want your eyebrows seared off your face.

Only Burn Wood

Select wood that’s clean, dry, and dead. That's the best and preferably only wood to use in campfires. Trash, plastic, paper, and anything that isn't clean, dry, dead wood releases harmful, carcinogenic chemicals. Lungs don't like that.

Avoid live wood if possible. Every forest has plenty of dead and downed trees, so don't kill a living tree in the prime of its life. Plus, live wood takes forever to burn and releases serious smoke.

Always Keep an Eye on Your Fire

Campfires are like camping with babies: Don't leave them unattended for long stretches of time. Keep a close eye on it. All it takes is a single ember to burn down a forest.

Be Ready if the Fire Gets Out of Hand

Fire’s rhythmic popping and snapping may cause you to doze off for a few minutes. If this happens, you may wake to an out-of-control fire, ignited by an ember carried by the wind.

Have a plan for situations like this. Keep a bucket of water at hand. Before lighting the campfire, clear out all flammable material 10 feet from the fire ring.

When You're Done, Extinguish the Fire Completely

The fire needs to be 100% dead out. That means every bit of burned material must be cold to the touch. Use water and stir the ashes. Feel the larger materials to make sure they're not warm.

These rules apply to every type of campfire. Though if you're in a campground, getting the fire started is much easier as the pit is already made for you.

If you're out in the boonies, miles from cell service and a warm shower, setting up a fire pit takes a little more effort.

Make a Campfire Pit When You're Out in the Wild

Mother Nature doesn't create neat, little camping spots that you pull your RV into. If you're doing some hardcore camping, all you have is your knowledge and tools you bring.

Roasting hot dogs over campfire

Choose a Safe Location

Look for a clear spot away from trees, bushes, grass, or anything flammable. Keep the campfire a safe distance from your tent and camping equipment.

Gather Materials To Burn

You use three materials to make a campfire: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

Tinder is a lightweight material that catches fire quickly and burns fast. Dried grass and leaves, dried animal dung, and human-made fire starters are excellent sources of tinder.

Kindling helps rev up an already burning fire. Kindling material is slightly larger than tinder, doesn't catch fire as quickly, and burns longer. Small sticks and twigs are excellent sources of kindling.

Fuel is the big, beefy logs that take hours to burn. You need an established base of heat to get fuel burning. It's a pain to get fuel to burn without tinder and kindling. Go hold a match to a cord of firewood and find out for yourself.

Prepare the Fire Pit

Dig a fire pit that’s at least one foot deep. Get down to mineral soil and clear out burnable material. Outline the dugout pit with big rocks; these help stop the fire from spreading. Use dry, hard, and reasonably large rocks – roughly bigger than a closed fist. Small stones might explode from the heat of the flames. Exploding rocks is a great way to completely ruin any camping trip.

Start the Fire

Place a small amount of tinder in the middle of the fire pit. Arrange the kindling in a teepee or cone shape around the tinder. Make sure it doesn't fall over when you let go. Light the tinder. As the flames pick up, gently blow on it. A little goes a long way. Don't Big-Bad-Wolf it and knock it over with a mighty gust of air.

Once the fire starts to eat up the kindling, put some fuel on top. Don't just throw it on there. Add it slowly, strategically placing the fuel over the areas that are producing the most heat. Arrange the fuel in whatever style suits you.

Keep It Going

Don't put all your fuel on the fire. Once the flames start to die down, add another log. Eventually, maybe add a few more if you want to keep the fire going strong for a while.

The Styles of Campfires

Not all campfires are equal. Some styles are better for specific situations.

Teepee Fire

With teepee fires, arrange the kindling and fuel in a teepee shape and light them. The upright structure makes it easy for you to place more fuel on the fire, and the wide base helps oxygen flow effortlessly, leading to a scorching fire — perfect if you're looking to warm up or boil water quickly.

Campfire at sunset

Lean-To Fire

With lean-to fires, lean larger logs against an immovable structure like a boulder or a downed tree trunk. Put the tinder, kindling, and fuel in between the structure and the larger logs you placed. This creates a little hidey-hole for your fire, protecting it from rain or wind.

Star Fire

With star fires, begin by building a teepee fire with kindling. Arrange a few logs around the small teepee fire. One end of each log must be in the fire, and the other sticking out. As the burning end of the log gets consumed, push the unburned parts into the fire.

This is a great style if fuel is scarce.

Platform Fire

With platform fires, start with three logs lying closely together. Put three more logs on top, perpendicular to the first three. Rinse and repeat until you have as much wood as you desire.

Light the fire at the top and let it burn down into the rest of the fuel.

It takes longer for this style to start burning, but it gives you a cooking surface for any sort of pots or pans you brought along.

Log Cabin Fire

To create log cabin fires, place the tinder and kindling in your fire pit. Start to build a log-cabin-like structure around them. Place two logs parallel to each other on both sides of the fire. Stack two more logs on top, perpendicular to the first ones. Light the tinder and kindling when the stacked fuel is where you want it to be.

This style makes for a slow burn that requires little effort and attention. It's perfect if you're doing a lot of cooking.

Campfire Starters

You need a spark to get a fire going. Tragically, you probably aren't born with the ability to shoot flames from your fingertips. If you are, best keep it on the hush-hush.

For normal folks, plenty of quality camping fire starters make the process a breeze.

Pyro Putty

Pyro Putty comes as a bag with individually wrapped bits of putty. It's lightweight and easy to store with the rest of your gear.

Pyro Putty is perfect if you're venturing into turbulent weather, as it burns even in windy, wet conditions. When soaking wet, it doesn't burn as quickly but it still burns. It's pretty miraculous.

It burns for up to 15 minutes, making it an excellent source of tinder.

Campfire with friends

Light a Fire

Superior Trading Company sells dried wood chips soaked in wax in quantities of four, 30, or 50. It's the perfect campfire starter for people staying put in one campsite. It burns for 14 minutes and produces some serious heat, making it easy for you to start making s'mores in no time.

It's all-natural and great for those wanting to make zero impact on the environment.

The way it's packaged makes Light A Fire a bad choice for campers on the move, living out of their backpack. It's bulky, and the wood chips might spill into your pack.


FireFlame is a totally waterproof paraffin wax fire starter. Go swimming with this product and you’re still able to use it to start a fire.

It burns for five minutes and is lightweight. It's all-natural, so you don't need to worry about inhaling toxic chemicals.

Now you're prepared to start the fire. Time to start cooking!

Camping Fire Grills

Camping fire grills give you the power to cook up some delicious grub: bratwursts and burgers or mushroom and vegan hotdogs. With a fire grill, you're able to cook almost anything!

Fire grills allow heat to circulate evenly in your food on a grate that sits over the fire. There are many types, from wire grates to hardcore setups with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos.

Using one is straightforward, get your fire going and place the grill over it. Let the grill heat up, and put your food on it.

Bring tongs! You don't want to use your fingers to flip your food.

In a kitchen, it's easy to set your oven and stove top at a specific temperature. It's not so easy with a campfire. It's going to burn at whatever temperature it pleases. Keep a close eye on your food to ensure it doesn't burn.

Nothing beats the smokey flavor, outdoor scenery, and authentic living that comes with cooking on a fire grill. Just remember to always practice fire safety.

Weber Go-Anywhere Charcoal Grill

The Go-Anywhere Charcoal Grill is your perfect camping companion. It's compact, lightweight, and easy to whip out at a moment's notice.

The grill top is spacious and capable of holding six burgers.

Due to its porcelain lid and base, this grill does not rust or peel. The grate is easy to clean, just dip it in a water source and run a sponge across it.

The dampers give you complete control of the temperature while cooking.

Whip this fine specimen out at a barbecue or in the woods, and you're sure to be the life of the party. Everybody loves good food made with love.

Camping Fire Stoves

If you want to say sayonara to tinder, kindling, and fuel, get yourself a stove.

A camping fire stove is a portable stove top ignited by propane or butane gas, which heats the burners.

There are all sorts of camping stoves, from small ones that fit in a backpack to ones large enough to cook a feast in the forest.

There's no smoke or ash and no concern about a runaway ember blowing up the forest.

With a stove, you can adjust the heat output of the burners, giving you more control over the cooking process.

Camping stove

The Camp Chef Everest Two-Burner Camping Stove

The Camp Chef Everest Two-Burner Camping Stove is a beast when it comes to camping and cooking.

This stove lasts for a long time. It's made from high-quality materials that are easy to clean — exemplified by the stainless steel drip tray that catches any grease.

If you're cooking in a windstorm, have no fear. Its built-in windscreen protects the flame and keeps your food evenly cooked.

The burners get up to 20,000 BTUs, making it a breeze to boil water and cook a quick meal.

Gas-Powered Fire Pits

Staying in the realm of gas-powered fires, a fire pit fueled by propane or other sources is a quick way to get a lovely little fire going.

Often, gas-powered fire pits are exempt from fire restrictions. When a campfire is out of the picture for most campers, you are able to whip out your fire pit and enjoy.

It's convenient and way less labor-intensive than a traditional campfire.

Many models have nifty features like ceramic logs that glow like real flames.

Heiner Portable Propane Outdoor Fire Pit

Forget the hassle of gathering wood. With the Heiner Portable Outdoor Fire Pit, plug in a standard propane tank, and you're off to the races.

Steel is the main component of this fire pit and withstands up to 58,000 BTUs. That's plenty of heat to keep you warm, even on the chilliest of nights.

Given its compact size, it's perfect for your backyard or a trip to the woods. If you're concerned about safety, it comes with a shut-off valve in case of emergency.

It's an excellent way to avoid the headache of starting a fire without sacrificing the ambiance that a fire brings.

The Power of a Campfire

Prolific author Ernest Hemingway said it best: "The echoes of beauty you've seen transpire resound in the dying coals of a campfire."

Ole Papa Hemingway hit the nail on the head but he didn't drive it home.

Campfires display beauty not just in the dying coals but in the flicker of the flames and the warmth these flames bring. Throughout human history, the ability to cultivate fire separated people from other animals. It was the first time humans controlled something in the world. It was the first time they had power over something other than themselves.

As much power as humans have over fire, fire has triple that over humans. The magic of a campfire is not gone. You only need to get lost in a fire's snaps, crackles, and pops to realize this.

Bringing people together is more challenging today, given the endless distractions of technology. People are so fragmented. Everyone finds themself distracted by more distractions.

To refocus, reconnect, and reignite the way humans communicate, lighting up a campfire is the perfect conversation kindling. Through this, you may find the wholeness and peace many crave.

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