Stories & Features

How to build a better, safer, campfire

Father and son start a teepee-style campfire near a tent - too close in fact to be safe.
What's wrong with this campfire? While the dad and son have a lot of things right - building it on bare earth and using the effective teepee style - it's too close to their tent to be safe.

Consider using dryer lint as a firestarter, and choose your method wisely

Rob Klovance

It was once considered a manly skill reserved for those outdoorsy types who could wield an axe and who, crazily, weren't averse to using gas to rekindle a dying fire. Those days are gone (hopefully), and we should all be capable of building a great campfire that doesn't endanger anyone or start a wildfire.

The truth is that a lot of us, even those who have built hundreds of campfires through the years, have a few things to learn. That includes the guy I witnessed – through a cabin window a few years back – walk toward a difficult-to-start winter campfire with a partially-filled plastic gas can, intending to sprinkle the gas on a stubborn fire. The can burst into flame, and he – a seasoned camper who should have known better but was lucky to be wearing gloves and a thick jacket – escaped with singed hair and eyebrows and an embarrassing story to tell.

Before you do anything, check whether there's a fire ban in effect. No ban? Find a spot on bare earth, preferably inside a metal ring but otherwise inside a circle of rocks. And use the tips below to ensure your fire is effective and safe.

Campfire in a metal container arranged lean-to style
Here's a nice campfire in a metal enclosure that uses one log to prop up other pieces of wood.

Fuel for thought: starter, tinder and firewood

When it's wet, you're on a beach, or there's just not much firewood around, it can be really tough to start and maintain a fire. So have a plan for where you'll get firewood, buy some en route if you must, and – at least if you're car camping – bring along a hatchet or axe... and some homemade firestarter.

A co-worker raves about (and the Internet confirms) that a little trick with dryer lint is a great natural replacement for store-bought firestarter cubes. There are plenty of detailed instructions online, but two popular options are:

  • Fill the cups of an empty egg carton with dryer lint, fashion a wick with string or dental floss if you wish (optional), and pour melted wax onto each batch of dryer lint. Once the wax hardens, cut out the individual firestarters, which can be lit via the wick or via the surrounding carton cardboard.
  • Save time and effort by putting dryer lint into a small mason jar and mixing in used cooking oil. Seal it and take it with out, then grab a bit of the oil-soaked lint each time you need a firestarter. It's easier, but the wax method is more reliable because it's largely waterproof.

For tinder, try to find small dried wood shavings, dry bark, leaves or needles. If there's nothing around but you have firewood and a hatchet, make kindling and then chop slivers to act as your tinder.

Next up, prepare kindling. This can be small twigs and branches gathered pieces from the area, or it can be slender pieces chopped from your larger firewood, starting with sizes no wider than a pencil. Chop a variety of sizes, and keep some larger kindling around in case your fire starts to die later on and needs a reboot.

And then there's firewood. If you buy it, it's likely to be dry and your main challenge will be making it last (tips on that later). If you're in the back country, where scavenging for firewood is allowed, don't make the mistake of harvesting from a living tree or even a dead bush birds and wildlife might call home. You may need to be selective and patient. Look for pieces that snap when you bend and break them from a longer branch, and stick to stuff that’s no bigger than the circumference of your wrist or arm.

Note that scavenging for firewood in the bushes at provincial campgrounds is generally prohibited, and some B.C. campgrounds have bundles of firewood for sale on a seasonal basis.

Go with really small pieces early on, and work your way up to the larger pieces. Once a fire really gets going, it's amazing how pieces that aren't fully dried will surrender to the heat.

Log-cabin style stacking of wood in a fireplace or as a campfire is a highly-effective way of getting a fire going.
While this fire is built in a fireplace, the method used here – a careful "log cabin" style stack – is a great way to get a fire going without having to add any fuel for quite awhile. The upside-down method of starting such a fire puts kindling and the tinder at the top so that coals fall into the middle of the stack.

Pick a spot and a method: teepee, lean-to, star or upside-down log cabin

Get a bunch of seasoned campers together and a subtle, unspoken competition often emerges. Who has the best method? Who's king (or queen) of the fire?

First things first. If you plan on having a beer or two around your campfire, do all your chopping before you start your fire, and in the daylight clear of everyone else. Alcohol, axes and fires are a dangerous combination.

Choose a spot several metres away from any tents, tables or vehicles, away from low-hanging trees and bushes (at least three metres from the base of a tree, and six metres away from any branches). Make your fire inside an existing fire ring, if possible, but definitely free of grasses. Bare dirt or sand is what you want for a new spot.

Plan your strategy. Choose one of the following methods (or maybe you've invented something even better):

  • Teepee: Put your firestarter and tinder bundle in the middle of your fire site, and use your kindling to build a teepee structure around it, with a bit of a gap opening to the side the wind is blowing against, as the oxygen will fuel your tinder. Add more kindling to your teepee, then create a larger outer teepee with larger pieces. Light the tinder and watch as the layers catch and eventually fall, at which point you can add more wood if needed.
  • Star: Slight variation of the teepee, in which you place your tinder over your firestarter, and then your kindling, in a crossed star-shape that progresses to larger pieces. As the fire grows, unburned ends of larger pieces may fall off to the perimeter. Carefully pick them up (it's safest to use two other pieces of kindling as two-handed tongs), and place them in the middle of the fire.
  • Log-cabin: The "upside down" version of this is popular because it requires little maintenance. That doesn't mean you can abandon your fire – always stay close enough to keep an eye on it. Start with two larger pieces, placed parallel up to a foot a part as your base. Then stack two slightly smaller pieces perpendicularly. Alternate to build your "log cabin" four to six layers high, with kindling at the top and a little nesting place for your firestarter and tinder at the top. As the pieces burn, they'll drop to the interior, where they’re shielded from the wind and gradually set smaller, then larger pieces, aflame.
  • Lean-to: Really helpful for starting a fire in a windy setting, build a lean-to by sticking a long piece of kindling – a nice light, but flat piece guards best against the wind – into the ground at about a 30-degree angle, with the end of the stick pointing into the wind. Position your tinder bundle underneath the support stick, then put small pieces of kindling around the tinder. Lay small kindling against the piece in the ground.

You can try this with larger pieces by leaning kindling against a large piece of wood that acts as a wall against the wind, and creating your tinder bundle beneath the leaning pieces.

Embers of a dying campfire are still burning and could be dangerous.
It's not out until it's really out. Sprinkle water on a fire when you're done with it, but check back in a few minutes to ensure there are no glowing embers remaining.

Keep it small (it's the law) and your fire will use less fuel and be a lot safer

A good fire that provides wonderful ambience and warms everyone on a chilly night doesn't have to be big. After awhile, one or two larger pieces added will last a long time and offer lots of warmth, plus a platform for the stick you use to toast your marshmallow, wieners or smore, over coals.

Your fire will be safer, easier to put out and your fuel will last longer if you keep it small. Your fire ring of metal or rocks will also radiate heat (and create insulation to help get those larger pieces burning) later on.

How big should your fire be? The BC Wildfire Service limits campfires to a pile of material no higher, and no wider, than .5 metres. Large bonfires may be spectacular, but they're a waste of fuel and can be dangerous.

Never leave your camp or go to bed without putting the fire out

Always keep a bucket of water near your fire and use it to put out your fire by sprinkling water on the coals until you don't see any embers or feel any heat coming from them. Don't just dump the bucket onto the fire, as it may flood the pit and make it hard to re-ignite the next night. Check after a few minutes to ensure there's no smoke or embers.

All uncontrolled campfires, even those that have been put out but may still have glowing embers or smoke, need to be reporter. If you see a fire or an abandoned campfire that isn't fully extinguished, call 1 800 663 5555 or *5555 on a mobile phone.

Rob Klovance is a writer-editor at BC Hydro.