Nothing takes the chill out of the air like a good campfire. As the days get shorter and the temperature starts to dip, it’ll be even more tempting to throw a few logs into the firepit to warm up, roast a few marshmallows, or simply enjoy the comforting glow with friends. But building a good fire isn’t as simple as dropping an armload of logs on the ground and setting them ablaze. That kind of haphazard fire-starting isn’t exactly safe, either—particularly these days, when wildfires are becoming all too common.
So, what are the keys to a good campfire? We consulted the experts to find out. Here’s how to be the hero at your next night under the stars.
1. Safety First
Over the past few years especially, large swaths of land across the globe have been consumed by wildfires. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 90 percent of U.S. wildfires are started by people—so it’s essential to practice proper fire safety. Before you strike your first match, there are a few things to consider. First and foremost, consult the latest local mandates on campfires.
“There are certain days or periods throughout the year when campfires are restricted due to dry, windy conditions or prolonged drought, which increase the risk for extreme fire behavior,” Babete Anderson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service, tells Men’s Journal. “When planning to have a fire, assess local conditions for the area you’re visiting and follow the guidelines that have been put in place.”
When visiting a National Forest or National Park, for example, check the nearest ranger station for current fire restrictions. Also be mindful that these restrictions can change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.
Even if local authorities give campfires the green light, it’s worth taking a hard look at your surroundings. Common sense is paramount here: If there’s lots of dry brush and debris nearby, forgo the fire.
2. Build A Good Firepit
A good campfire starts with a good firepit. If you have one, or if there’s a fire ring at your campsite, use it. If not, you’ll need to make your own, and proper site selection is key. As Thomas Coyne, an expert from Coyne Survival Schools, explains, you want to avoid building your firepit in heavily wooded areas or areas that are exposed to high winds.
“Keep the area around your fire very clear from all debris or vegetation,” he says. “Build it in a place out of the wind or create a good barrier with rocks or logs.”
That way, you can reduce the likelihood that your fire will get out of control.
“The three keys to an escaped campfire are ember cast [hot embers from your fire being carried away in the wind], uncleared areas around the pit, and excessive flame lengths,” says Coyne.
Once you’ve selected a site, start by clearing away any loose brush and debris. Next, create a shallow divot in the ground and surround it with rocks. This will give your fire some protection from the wind and keep the flames from blowing around wildly.
3. Gather Your Fuel
Every great campfire starts off as a scavenger hunt. You need to gather three types of fuel: tinder, kindling, and logs.
Tinder is the small, highly combustible stuff. Coyne recommends birch bark or dried pine needles—though many other materials can work well, too.
“Birch trees have an outer, non-living layer of bark that peels away easily,” he says. “It’s rich in a volatile oil that makes it virtually waterproof and causes it to burn very hot. You can basically dip this stuff in the lake and still light it with a Bic.”
Similarly, dead pine needles contain volatile oils and resin that make them water-resistant and help them burn very hot.
“They don’t have the density of a thick piece of birch, so they burn more quickly,” says Coyne, “but they burn hotter and with greater flame length.”
Kindling has more heft than tinder but is still small enough that it catches easily. Coyne recommends pieces of dead wood ranging from the size of a pen to the handle of a hammer. Last but not least is the full-blown firewood, which can range in size from the handle of a hammer up to large logs. In this case, hardwoods are generally your best bet.
“Hardwoods like oak burn hot for a long time and leave large coals,” he says. “Large coals are responsible for much of the heat from a good campfire and a good bed of coals alone can keep you warm for hours.”
4. Build Your Fire
Once you’ve gathered your supplies, it’s time to build a structure you’ll immediately burn down (at least, that’s the goal). In Coyne’s experience, the classic “teepee” construction works best. Basically, this means placing the tinder in the center, then arranging the kindling around the tinder, and then the logs around the kindling, all in a conical shape.
That shape encourages convection, which will help your fire burn hotter and more consistently. Once you light the tinder, the flame heats the air and it rises quickly, drawing in surrounding air and supplying the fire with oxygen.
“This forms a convective current, which some woodsmen call a self-feeding fire,” says Coyne. “You know how you blow on the fire and it burns hotter? Now it’s blowing on itself, so to speak.”
In addition, as the flame grows, it’s ideally situated to catch and burn the kindling and logs placed above it in the teepee structure.
5. Keep Your Fire Burning
Getting a fire started can be difficult. Keeping it burning can be even more difficult—particularly in damp weather. To keep your fire alive, Coyne recommends switching to a “log-cabin” arrangement once your fire has developed hot coals.
“Once you have a nice bed of red-hot coals built up in your pit, you can begin to lay your wood on the fire more horizontally, in a log cabin fashion, so it burns slower,” he explains.
Keep an eye on your logs once you add them, however. If they build up a thick layer of char on the outside, they’ll smolder instead of burning and create lots of smoke. If that happens, adjust the logs so they’re more exposed to the air, says Coyne.
“You only need to prop one end up a bit to let air flow around it and help the log reignite.”
6. Stop the Smoke
Everyone loves a good campfire, but is there anything more annoying than constantly changing positions to avoid a lungful of woodsmoke? While there’s no way to completely prevent smoke, there are a few things you can do to reduce it.
“Smoke is a sign of incomplete combustion, which means you need to get the fire burning hotter,” Coyne says. “If your fire is too smoky, either the wood is too wet, you didn’t use enough tinder, the wood pieces are too big for the current flames and coals, or your pieces are laying flat on the coals and need air circulation.”
Try adjusting the logs. If that doesn’t work, add more tinder, and ensure that all the wood you add is dry.
7. Put it Out Properly
If you’re going to have a bonfire, it’s your responsibility to make sure it’s properly extinguished when you’re done. Putting out a fire seems like a simple task, and in essence, it is: You need to drown it. (Burying your fire won’t completely extinguish hot coals.)
What surprises many people, however, is how thorough you need to be. A single bucket of water won’t cut it—you need to keep adding water onto the fire to smother the logs and all the burnt material in your firepit.
“Put out a campfire by slowly pouring water onto the fire and stirring with a shovel,” says Anderson. “Continue adding and stirring until all the material is cool to touch.”
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