Everything You Need to Know About Campfires

There’s nothing like kicking back around a campfire after a long day of adventuring. Many lasting memories take place around the fire’s warmth and crackle: sharing drinks with friends, toasting s’mores with the kids, or cooking delicious meals.

However, an open flame can be hazardous to both you and your surroundings. An irresponsible campfire can cause serious injuries, irreparably damage the environment, or start a devastating wildfire. These tips will show you how to safely make and enjoy a campfire and better understand environmental concerns before you strike a match.

Campfire Safety

Before picking up firewood and matches, let’s review some basic campfire safety to protect your family, campground, and community.

Fire in fire pit with large logs
Check Local Campfire Rules

Follow all local fire ordinances at the campground, park, forest, county, and city level. If you’re traveling during wildfire season in a fire-prone area, have an evacuation plan.

Check the Weather

Weather significantly impacts the risk of starting a wildfire. Dry conditions and windy weather increase the risk of fire spreading quickly. Be aware of the current and forecasted weather conditions. Research your local fire danger level online through the U.S. Forest Service, Wildfire Assessment System, or a local fire department.

Clear Your Surroundings

Make sure you build your fire in a clear area located at least 15 feet away from tents, tarps, tall grass, low tree branches, leaves, and debris that can catch fire.

Only Build a Fire in a Designated Fire Pit or Ring

Don’t build a campfire without a surrounding ring to contain it. Always use the existing fire pit at your campsite. If campfires are allowed in your camping area, but there’s no provided fire ring, utilize a portable fire pit. You may also build your fire pit by digging into the dirt and surrounding the hole with large rocks. Every campground and park has specific rules about the types of fire pits that can be utilized, so be sure to research or ask ahead of time.

Know What’s Safe to Light and Burn

For the most part, you should only be burning firewood. Igniting a fire can be frustrating, but you should never use lighter fluid, gasoline, propane, kerosene, or other flammable liquids to light or maintain a fire. The use of these materials can cause severe burns and explosions. It’s safe to use fire starters designed explicitly for outdoor campfires, but do your research to choose a product safe for you and the environment.

Burning paper and cardboard is okay, but otherwise, you should not burn trash, cans, or plastic. These materials release harmful toxins into the air and leave litter in the fire pit.

Be Prepared to Extinguish the Fire

If your fire begins to spread despite your precautions, you need to be ready to quickly put it out. Keep a bucket of water, fire extinguisher, or shovel nearby to extinguish errant flames.

Never Leave a Fire Unattended

It only takes a few seconds for an ember to escape and start a fire elsewhere. Even if you need to walk away for a minute, make sure someone else keeps an eye on your campfire. Don’t fall asleep next to a campfire.

Put Your Fire Out

One of the most critical wildfire preventative measures is putting your fire all the way out when you’re ready to turn in for the night. Regardless of how extinguished your fire is, you need to pour water over the fire pit until wood, embers, and ashes are completely soaked. There should not be a single spark, and wood and ashes should be cool to the touch.

How to Make a Campfire

Making a campfire is part art and part science—and everyone does it a little differently. Here are a few tips to start and maintain a roaring campfire that will keep your friends and family warm for an evening of fun.

Set Up Your Fire Pit

Before you start, make sure your fire pit is clean and dry. Remove any debris from the fire pit. If the sand and dirt in the fire pit are damp, it may be more challenging to start a fire. Layering the bottom with firewood or stone can help mitigate wet ground.

Choose Your Wood

You will want to use three types of wood in your campfire: tinder, kindling, and logs.

Tinder is easily flammable and helps ignite your campfire. Examples of tinder include twigs, dry leaves, and paper.

Kindling is small wood that’s larger than tinder. The kindling will spread the fire from the tinder to the logs. Small dead branches, dry bark, and small pieces of wood that are cut from logs won’t burn through immediately like tinder, which allows it to fuel the ignition of the wood.

Finally, you need logs to sustain the fire. Make sure the wood you use is dry and the correct size. Small logs will burn too quickly, and larger logs will take too long to catch fire. Your wood should be about the width of an adult’s forearm. Don’t use green or young wood, as it’s not as flammable.

Building Your Campfire

  1. Make a small pile of tinder in the center of the fire pit.
  2. Build a cone around the tinder with your kindling.
  3. Put two logs parallel on each side of your kindling cone, and balance additional logs over the kindling. Ensure the flame has enough oxygen to burn but also has protection from the wind.
  4. Use a match or lighter to light the tinder. The flames should ignite the kindling and then spread to your logs.
  5. If the fire goes out before the logs start burning, add more tinder and kindling and try again.

To keep your campfire going, periodically add one new log at a time. Wait until the fire dies down but still has flickering flames to quickly ignite the new logs.

Row of RVs with person enjoying a campfire in a fire ring at dusk

Prevent Wildfires

According to the National Park Service, nearly 85 percent of wildland fires in the U.S. are caused by humans, with improper campfires being a leading cause. With climate change, dry seasons are longer, and rain and snowmelt are more scarce, so the risk of wildfires is higher than ever. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, almost 7 million acres in the lower 49 states burned in wildfires in 2021, 8 percent higher than the 10-year average. Some of the destruction occurred inside of national parks.

This is why it’s critical to pay attention to fire bans and forgo campfires in dry regions and seasons.

Use Local Firewood

Only use campfire wood that you purchased or collected locally. Transporting wood from other regions plays a role in spreading invasive species. Some states have specific firewood regulations.

When collecting firewood, only use dead, fallen branches. Don’t cut trees or plant life. Pay attention to the firewood collection rules for your specific park or campground.

Don’t Leave Debris

No matter where you’re camping, don’t leave trash in fire pits. Practice Leave No Trace principles, and collect any garbage or coals before departing. When possible, only leave ashes in fire pits.

Common Questions About Campfires

Can you make a fire at a campsite?

Making a fire at a campsite varies by campground, park, forest, county, city, and season. Read any provided rules and lookup regulations before you start a campfire.

How do you build a campfire at a campsite? 

Use dry tinder, kindling, and logs to create a campfire in the provided fire pit.

How do you get firewood for camping? 

Purchase firewood at a local camp store, roadside stand, shop, or collect dead, fallen branches. Only use locally-obtained firewood.

How do you build a fire pit in a campfire?

Dig a depression in the dirt or sand and surround the hole with large rocks.

What do you do if you don’t have a campfire? 

If a fire pit isn’t provided, use a portable off-ground fire pit or propane fire pit.

What does “no open fires” mean? 

“No open fires” means you can’t have an open flame from a campfire, portable fire pit, propane fire, open candles, or cookstoves.

How can you get rid of the campfire smell on clothes and in your RV? 

To prevent campfire smell, avoid sitting in smoke, sit further back from the campfire, change your clothes when you come inside, and shower.

Related: 5 Health Benefits of Camping