A campfire is a tool, but a bonfire is an event. By design, they are short-lived fires; typically, you don’t feed it after it starts, so it burns splendidly for a short time, shooting great tongues of flame toward the sky, and then collapses upon itself and dies.
Making one requires a different set of skills and preparation than making a campfire. Here’s how to do it right.
1. Find an Appropriate Spot
Check with the local fire department to see if bonfires are allowed in the area in which you plan to build it.
2. Get Your Supplies in Order
Towering bonfires will ultimately collapse—probably at random angles. It’s critical your bonfire be carefully sited in a large, circular fire space of non-combustible dirt or sand, at least three times as wide as the fire structure is high. Place stones or bricks around the perimeter of the fire space.
Sparks and embers can be an issue, especially if you use softer woods like pine or poplar in your mix of fuel. Don’t make your bonfire when winds are high, and choose an area where an airborne cinder won’t ignite nearby vegetation or other flammable stuff. Keep a fire extinguisher and a good supply of water at hand.
3. Gather your Tinder
Tinder pieces are easily ignitable bits of tree bark (birch bark works well) or dry leaves and grass. Bonfires aren’t survival fires, so there’s nothing wrong or unmanly about using crumpled newspaper or commercial fire-starters to get things going. Place your tinder in the center of the fire space.
4. Follow the Wind
Determine which way the wind is blowing and scratch an arrow in the sand or dirt that shows the wind direction.
5. Build a Tipi
Use thin, dry (when it comes to fire-starting, the drier, the better) sticks, ranging from 12 to 24 inches long around the tinder, leaving an opening or “door” in the structure where the arrow is, to allow air into the fire’s interior.
6. Build a Second Tipi
This time get thicker and longer sticks around the first tipi, again leaving a door for air to enter the fire’s interior. Fuel such as birch or pine burn fast and provide a lot of light. Harder, denser woods like oak burn longer and hotter but don’t provide as much light.
7. Gather and Shape Your Fire Structure Logs
Square off parts of the top and bottom of each log with a saw or ax (or just use scrapped two-by-fours) so the logs will rest solidly upon one another as you layer them up.
8. Build the Fire Structure
The main purpose of the fire structure is to provide draft, or a chimney effect, that will significantly increase the intensity of the burn and power the big licks of flame.
To begin, lay your two largest logs on the ground next to the tipi, parallel to the wind line. Place the next two largest logs perpendicular to the first set of logs, flat side to flat side, making sure the structure is stable. Continue building your fire structure up by laying log upon log so it looks something like a stepped pyramid when you’re done.
9. Insert a Long-handled Match or Lighter
Go in through the door in your kindling and ignite the tinder in the fire structure’s interior. The tinder will ignite the kindling, which in turn will ignite the fuel wood in the outer tipi, and ultimately, the fire structure itself. Some bonfire builders use kerosene as an accelerant, particularly if your wood is wet. That’s your choice, but take note and never use gasoline — there’s just no need.
10. Enjoy Your Fire
Always stay outside the stone circle perimeter. Once your fire burns out, douse the ashes with water, stir, and douse again making certain no live embers or burning cinders remain. Check the bonfire area at intervals for the next few hours to make certain the fire is completely out. When you are done, restore your bonfire area to the condition it was before the fire.