The Safest Way to Build a Campfire, According to an Outdoor Guide

Starting a campfire with a fire striker
Brendt A Petersen / Shutterstock

Building a good campfire is not only a bankable camping skill, it could also save a life. But you can also start a wildfire. Our forests are more vulnerable than ever with warmer, dry summers and fewer prescribed burns that help make a forest more resilient. With camping season in full swing, we caught up with 20-year outdoor guide Josh Butson, owner of San Juan Outdoor Adventures in Telluride, CO, to get tips on how to build a safe and prosperous campfire.

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Most Important: Know the Wildfire Danger in Your Area

Each summer, huge wildfires ignite across the U.S. causing devastation to forests, wildlife, and surrounding communities. “The big thing is to know what the fire danger level is where you are, and whether there is a fire ban or not,” says Butson. This is mission critical. “How bad the danger level is will determine how restricted your campfire must be.” Contact your local Forest Service, BLM, county, or town to get the latest fire ban information. Huge fines and even jail time could result for ban breakers, not to mention potential devastation from a wildfire.

Select Your Spot

“First of all, I look for a campfire location where I am not going to start a forest fire,” Butson says. “I try to use a good established site with a campfire ring.” A prime spot for campfire generally is not too close to the trail and not too close to water. “If summer, I don’t want to build under low-hanging trees or I could catch the canopy on fire. In winter, I don’t want to build a campfire under the trees either because typically the snow in the tree will melt and put out the fire.”

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Find Your Fuel

Tinder was a thing before it was a dating app. There are three types of fuel that are used for campfires: tinder, kindling, and fuel. Tinder is small pieces of hard, dry wood that are used to start the fire because they ignite easily. Dried grass and dried leaves can work well, too. Kindling is larger and used once the fire is underway. Fuel is the arm-size logs that keep the fire going. “You don’t want to damage any trees, so you want to find fuel that is already on the ground and is dry,” Butson says. Stock pile your fuel types before you make your fire—especially if your wood is wet and needs time to dry out.

A log cabin campfire
A log cabin campfire MAD.vertise / Shutterstock

Build Your Fire

There are several common strategies for building your fire structure, including the platform or log cabin method. “You don’t want your fire to fall over or outside of your fire ring, so keep the wood size in check,” notes Butson. Also a fire can’t burn without oxygen, so don’t stack your logs too closely together. “Extra airflow can mean blowing on fire or fanning the fire. A common mistake is people blow down on fire from too high, then they get ash and flames in their hair. Avoid that by getting low to stoke the fire.”

Light It Up

Cheap and easy to find, lighters are the most popular way to light a fire, with matches a good back-up. The time-honored tradition of using flint and steel to make a spark is a good skill, too. “Having backup tools in your tool box is a good idea for when something goes wrong.”

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Put It Out

“When you make a fire, it should be a common practice to have means to put it out at any time,” Butson says. It might sound obvious, but water is your best option here. “Even if your campfire is all burned out, you should still saturate your fire site with lots of water,” he explains. “People always think that fires escape the ring through sparks or flames coming from the top, but it will actually burn underground, which is how a lot of forest fires start.”

Know When You Really Need One

With hotter, drier summers across the country, remember: You don’t need a campfire to have fun while camping. “A lot of times, we just don’t have a campfire,” Butson says. “It’s not a lot of work, you don’t have to worry about burning yourself, and your stuff doesn’t stink like campfire afterwards.”

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