If you've ever wondered how to build a fire while camping, we've got you covered.

By Caroline McKenzie
Updated July 26, 2018

Use these easy-to-follow instructions to build a (controlled!) fire that will make your crew happy campers.

Illustrations by Amy van Luijk


Not all days are good fire days. “Dry vegetation, heat, wind, and thunderstorms increase the chances of a fire getting out of control,” explains Deborah Macres, a Girl Scout troop leader and High Adventure Girl Scout leader in Granite Bay, California. “Review conditions beforehand to help you assess dangers and alert you to any current burn bans.” Campgrounds will post information on such bans, but if you’re planning a fire in a less regulated area—or even your own backyard—you can consult the National Weather Service as well as a local ranger station or land management office. If there’s a warning, skip the fire.

Illustrations by Amy van Luijk


You will need tinder, kin­dling, and logs, says Brenda Lo­Griffin, a Raleigh, North Carolina-based Outdoor School Instructor for REI. Tinder is any thin, dry material that ignites instantly with a match, such as leaves or pine needles. Dryer lint also works well, says Lo­Griffin. Kindling is small sticks (about the size of a pencil) that help a fire expand beyond the initial spark. Finally, logs (which will keep your fire burning over time) should be wood that is no thicker than your wrist and is dead and found on the ground. Never cut live branches—they won’t burn well—or use wood that’s been pressure treated or painted, says Macres.

Illustrations by Amy van Luijk


If your campsite doesn’t have a designated fire pit, seek out a level area away from overhanging branches. The fire base should be three to four inches of sand or non­-fertile dirt. Encircle the spot with rocks to help concentrate the flames. Arrange tinder, kindling, and logs in one of two patterns: tepee or log cabin. Tepees begin with kindling in lean­-to forma­tion around a ball of tin­der. As the flames grow, add larger logs the same way. Log cabins, which many prefer, start with logs arranged in an inter­ locking perpendicular and parallel design. Place tinder on the first layer and kindling on the next, continuing to build fuel layers with larger logs on the outside of the structure. Return rocks to their original location if at a campsite.

Illustrations by Amy van Luijk


Campfires should never be started with gaso­line, lighter fluids, or other accelerants, as these can be harmful to the environment and result in flames that quickly escalate to unmanageable. Instead, Lo­Griffin suggests a long­-handled lighter wand or, better yet, matches. “Ignite tinder and then blow on it to help the fire spread to the kindling,” she sug­gests. “Oxygen is key to a fire’s success.” Also, be patient. “It may require 20 to 30 min­utes for it to catch, especially if there’s been rain in the past few days,” says Lo­ Griffin. “You need to add kindling and logs slowly—don’t rush.”

Illustrations by Amy van Luijk


Putting out a fire can take just as long as starting one. Macres says to expect at least 20 minutes. To extin­guish your handiwork, sprinkle water—not dirt or sand—on the fire pit. As you do so, stir the embers with a stick or shovel until the fire is completely extin­guished. “Avoid the temptation to flood the fire,” says Macres. “It creates instant steam, which can burn people in the vicinity.” When is it safe to leave? When you no longer feel heat permeating from the area. Until then, you should continue to sprinkle with water and stir intermittently.

For more campfire recommendations, visit realsimple.com/campfire.