Updated: Feb 28
The campfire is the ubiquitous sign of camping in the outdoors. Go ahead and do a web image search of the word “camping” and you will see loads of pictures of, you guessed it, tents and campfires. It is the centerpiece of any campsite and where people congregate for cooking, warmth, and spending the evening hours.
In the morning time, fire is what breaks the dawn’s drowsiness. When planning on backpacking out into the wilderness, knowing the basics of fire starting and tending will make your trip safe, comfortable, and memorable.
"Fire can be potentially dangerous, and when you surround yourself with thousands of acres of kindling and fuel, you must be extremely cautious in how you handle it."
#1 Don't play!
The most important information about fire is also a heavy handed disclaimer. Fire can be potentially dangerous, and when you surround yourself with thousands of acres of kindling and fuel, you must be extremely cautious in how you handle it.
Before you begin your trek, look online or call a park ranger to inquire about fire conditions and restrictions. As unfortunate as it is, there will inevitably be times when the destination you have planned for your backpacking trip is under a fire restriction or ban.
If this is the case, you have two options, choose another time or place, or go through with the trip and use approved cooking methods, such as propane, and spend your evenings fire free. This point cannot be stressed enough, if there is a fire ban in affect, respect and follow it as professionals have deemed it necessary.
A night or two of camping comfort is not worth the potential hundreds of dollars of fines, possible jail time, or worse, a forest fire. Plan ahead and play it safe.
#2 Have a reason
When considering making a fire, first decide what purpose it will serve. This will determine the fuel you need and the preparations you need to make. Some backpackers choose to save weight by leaving behind a stove and do their cooking over a campfire. Others will opt to use a campfire when possible to save their gas or propane stoves for emergencies. You may be building a fire just for comfort or warmth, and not necessarily for cooking.
If you are planning on needing a fire for cooking, then check ahead of time the weather history. It would be unfortunate to be unable to start a fire because heavy rains the week prior had soaked your fuel.
The purpose your fire serves also will determine what kind of fire you will be making. If it is for cooking or boiling water, then a log cabin or “criss-cross” shape is optimal. If you want to cook with coals, then construct your fire ring in an oblong manner so that you can rake the coals from the main fire into a “cooking” are on the other end of the pit.
For the classic warmth providing and smores cooking fire, place the kindling and wood in a pyramidal shape. Preparation and consideration of your needs play a part in your fire making plans.
#3 A place for fire
Choosing a place for your campfire when backpacking is important. You will want your fire to be in a fire ring or pit to keep the embers and ashes from spreading. If there is a preexisting fire ring in place, use it.
If you need to make a ring, then try to do so in a bare spot, disturbing as little vegetation as possible. Make sure that there are no plants or trees above or next to your proposed spot, then use rocks to build a circular pit.
#4 Fuel your fire
A fire needs three things to start and to exist; fuel, oxygen, and heat. Typically oxygen is not a concern for campers starting a fire, and as for heat, we will get to that later. The big factor you need to concern yourself with is fuel.
With few exceptions, your fuel will be wood collected from the area you choose to camp in. When collecting this fuel, consider three things:
The first is the amount you will need. It is better to have more than you need, so make sure to collect more than enough wood beforehand. The last thing you want is to have to go searching in the dark for more wood to finish cooking your dinner.
Secondly, consider the condition of the wood you collect. Wet or still living wood fresh from a tree will be more difficult to burn, and when it does, it will give off quite a bit of smoke. Handy for signal fires in an emergency, but annoying when trying to kick back and relax.
Lastly, consider the size of wood pieces that you are collecting.
When starting a fire, you will want to have three different sizes of fuel. The smallest will be your “tinder”, pine needles, dry grass, or small shavings of wood, all of which facilitate easy fire starting. You do not need a large supply, just enough to get the blaze a-burnin’.
The next fuel size is called “kindling” which also is used in starting the fire. These pieces are typically sticks or long strips cut from a log or stump. The fire starter will burn and light the kindling on fire, which will help ignite larger logs, which are the last size of fuel you will be collecting. Make sure to gather the most of the large wood as it will be what sustains your fire for its duration.
Tip: When collecting wood for the evening fire, create a separate pile of starter material, kindling, and larger pieces that will be used for your next morning’s fire. The next day when you wake up, you will not have to go hunting for more fuel.
FYI: It is advised to use fuel only from the area you are in. This means that you will only burn wood from the place you are camping in, which prevents the spread of insects and disease. Although this is usually not a big deal for backpackers, as most do not carry logs in their backpacks, it is something to keep in mind.
#5 Sparks will fly
Now that you have your fuel and oxygen, (unless you are camping underwater or on the moon) the final ingredient for fire is heat. A spark is all you need to get going, and there are a myriad of ways to create it. The Navy Seals fashioned the saying “Two is one, and one is none” referring to their preparedness in equipment and plans. In a nutshell, it means that if you are relying on one method of something, it could fail, and you will be left with no options.
Always having a backup or three is a good idea. When backpacking, you battle against the elements, and this mantra is applicable as you pack your gear. Following this line of thinking specific to fire starting, always have at least two different methods to start a fire with you.
Easy options such as matches and lighters create a flame for you, but are finite sources. If you bring one of these along, throw it in a waterproof container like a drybag or even a Ziploc baggie.
Spark starters such as flint or magnesium and steel combinations are cheap, reliable, and will not run out like a lighter would. You can buy these kits or make your own using a knife and certain kinds of rock. The only downside is that they can take a little longer to get a fire started because you are creating tiny sparks. When using this method, make sure to have a good pile of tinder created and ready to catch the sparks. You can aid the tinder in catching fire by adding alcohol based hand sanitizer on top.
In emergencies, or if you want to take it back to the days before zippo, you can start a fire in more rudimentary ways. Friction between two pieces of wood can create enough heat to start a fire, just prepare for quite a workout.
You also can start a fire by magnifying the sun’s rays. Using glasses or a clear bottle with clear liquid, focus light onto paper, ideally with a black or dark spot on it (the color black absorbs light best). After time enough heat should be created to catch the paper on fire, but it is advised to practice this method ahead of time, instead of relying on it cold turkey!
#6 Extinguish your flame
Well, you can’t sing Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the Fire” anymore, but you do need to responsibly put it out. Smokey the Bear says it best that “only you can prevent fires” and this means making sure that your fire is put out completely. The best practices for safely putting out your campfire is provided here below, taken from the U.S. Forest Service website:
First, drown the campfire with water!
Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil.
Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure that everything is wet.
Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure no embers underneath.
When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.
Now that you know the basics of fires while backpacking, you are ready to venture into the woods safely, warmly, and equipped to make many meals… or s’mores. Happy hiking!