Subtle art of building the perfect campfire | KOA Camping Blog
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Subtle art of building the perfect campfire

Instead of just being one of those campers who crumples up some newspapers and uses one of those stick lighters to start your campfire, impress your friends and fellow campers with your ability to build the perfect campfire with a single match. Follow these tips and you will look and feel like a campfire-starting pro in no time!

First and foremost, be aware of the fire danger level in your area. Updates are released daily by the service tasked with protecting the forestland you’re camping in, and signs with the day’s fire level are usually posted throughout national forests, especially fire danger-prone areas like the Black Hills National Forest or Yosemite National Park. As Smokey the Bear says, only you can prevent forest fires.


Once you’ve confirmed the area is safe for a fire, the first thing you need to do is choose your fire location. Always use a designated fire area when they are available. These areas are meant to hold fires and are a safer option than the bare ground. However, if no designated area is available for your perfect campfire, you will have to prepare the ground first. The name of the game here is bare ground. Get rid of every stray leaf, branch, twig and any other combustible item you can find. Do this in a location that’s also as far from overhanging branches and other plant material as possible.

Once your location is cleared, it’s time to build your base. You want a base made of dirt that’s about three to four inches thick on which to construct your fire. This dirt base offers insulation from the ground and any flammable bits that you may have overlooked. (Good neighbor tip: Make sure you’re in a location that this type of digging is allowed in. Don’t start digging up nature preserves or anything of the like!)

The next thing you need to do is gather your fire-building materials. You’ll need three different types of materials: tinder, kindling, and fuel. Tinder (and I don’t mean the dating app) is small and dry material that’s used to initially ignite your perfect campfire. Things like pine needles, fluffed cotton, birch bark, and dry grass work great. (If rain is in the forecast or recently fell, bring your own tinder from home. You need dry tinder to start a fire and it can be hard to find when the woods are damp.)

Kindling is the next type of wood used in the fire building process. It’s the bridge between the ignited tinder and the larger fuel wood that’s going to sustain your blaze. Small twigs and branches are the most common types of kindling to get this puppy started!

You’ll want to gather your fuel wood next. A mix of larger branches and logs will contribute towards a long and lasting campfire. Collect more of each type of wood than you think you’ll need–fuel wood can run out fast, and you don’t want to have to scramble for fuel to keep your fire going!

Now it’s time to lay your fire. There are several different methods for laying a fire, but the most common (and easiest to master) is the teepee fire. Build a small teepee (like in the photo below) from the kindling you collected in your fire area. You’ll then pile the tinder up near the base of the teepee. Don’t be hasty when you lay your fire, because this is the most important step. A properly laid fire will make the lighting process a piece of cake. (Only using that one match like we talked about!)

Once everything is in place, strike your match and place it to your tinder bundle. If everything is dry, the tinder bundle will burst into flames. Some gentle blowing can help encourage things along, but don’t put your face too close or blow so hard you blow out the fire!

Continue to add your extra kindling to the tinder bundle. This will help the flames to grow and your teepee to catch fire. As the blaze grows, start to add your fuel. Once the fire is burning strong, you can slowly add your biggest logs to the fire. Just don’t be too hasty–if you add them too soon, you’ll risk smothering the fire.

After a night of marshmallow roasting and campfire stories, putting out your perfect campfire is just as important as getting it started. Some sort of container to hold a decent amount of water is the ideal way to douse your fire for good. If you’re car camping or have some extra room in your pack, a small fire extinguisher is a great back-up plan to have.

While it may seem like a good option, smothering the fire in dirt is not a good idea. Embers can stay hot for a long time if you smother a fire, and that’s just asking for trouble.

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Once you have your container of water, use a sprinkling method to put out the fire and cool the embers. Don’t just flood the fire with the entire container. That just makes a mess and usually isn’t enough to put the fire out. As you sprinkle water, stir the ashes to accelerate the cooling process. Repeat the process until a hand held close to the ashes (but not in them) feels no heat.

Spread the ashes out and return your fire area (if you made your own) to as natural a state as you possibly can. This is a great courtesy to nature and the next campers who use your campsite.

Always remember safety and use common sense, and you’ll be building the perfect campfire in no time at all! Looking to test out your campfire building? Stay at one of KOA’s great locations!

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