How to build a great campfire

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Building a lasting campfire is easy with these simple steps!

Ah, the glorious, timeless campfire. It is nature’s heater, stove, light, protection from wild animals, and a comfortable gathering place to connect with friends and family. Its magnetic power brings us together and uncovers inspiring and hilarious stories, tales of ghosts, treachery, and other danger, and creates camaraderie of those gathered around its golden circle. It evokes ageless phrases like “gather round the campfire,” “campfire ghost stories,” and, “Who’s up for roasting marshmallows?”

Campfires are essential when camping or staying in a wooded cabin setting. They’re so important up here at Union Creek Resort, nestled in the old growth Douglas Firs of the Rogue River National Forest, that we’ve built an armada of safe, quality campfire pits at most of our rustic cabins as well as communal fire pit areas.

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So how do you build a perfect campfire? What kinds of wood and fire-starting materials do you need? How do you layer your materials? We’ve assembled a comprehensive how-to list for making great campfires below, but before diving into the how, we wanted to explore why a campfire is so important to an excellent outdoors experience.

“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another.  It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.” – Henry David Thoreau

First of all, the campfire serves a fundamental purpose of providing warmth for our bodies, and heat for cooking. A warm campfire can make us cozy on the coldest nights and chilliest mornings. It’s also the perfect setting to cook chili, fish, hot dogs and hamburgers, eggs and pancakes, and, of course, marshmallows and s’mores.

Click here for our S’more How-To Guide.

Campfires are also the ideal place group up with close ones at the end of the day or first thing in the morning. Rest, relax, and enjoy the campfire. It’s an outdoor staple shared by generations from around the world. People of all ages love the warm ambiance, complete with familiar smoky smells mixed with clean, crisp forest air, and the crackle and hiss of burning wood and coals. Relive the day’s adventure, filled with fishing, hiking, waterfalls, or a trip to Crater Lake National Park!

Why it’s important to build a quality campfire

Building a great campfire requires practice and the right preparation. When it’s done right, you’ll experience all the magic and warmth the campfire can bestow, as well as kudos like “Nice fire!” from your fellow campfire gatherers. But even the most seasoned outdoorsmen and women may have struggled from time to time creating a lasting, hot campfire. Whether it’s bad wood or poor planning, it can happen to the best of us. And the result is a lot of time wasted, frustration, a lack of warmth, and condolences from your friends and family in place of those kudos.

At Union Creek Resort, we have some extensive experience making great outdoor campfires, and we’ve also gained insight and advice from our travelers over the years. To help you create your best campfire, we’ve gathered this essential information into the following step-by-step guide to building a quality campfire.

“How is it that one match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box of matches to start a campfire?” – Christy Whitehead

Safety first

  • You need a safe place to start your fire – such as a firepit away from trees, bushes, other vegetation, and anything else that can burn.
  • Make sure your firepit is surrounded by large stones to keep burning wood contained in the “pit.”
  • Plan for fire control. Have a bucket of water ready in case sparks ignite anything flammable, and also for when you’re ready to put the fire out.
  • Keep your fire small and always under control. Bigger isn’t necessarily better with a campfire, and you need to burn responsibly, especially in a forest setting.
  • Never, ever use lighter fluid at any point in starting or maintaining your outdoor campfire.

 Essentials to gather before gathering ’round the fire

  • Unless you have the skill and endurance to rub sticks together, or prefer flint and a stone, you’ll need basic matches to ignite the fire.
  • This is what you will light first, and includes dry newspaper, small sticks and twigs, leaves, pine needles or grass.
  • Small, dry wood less than an inch thick that will light from the tinder flames. These are usually split pieces of larger wood, or small sticks and branches. Once kindling burns, it forms a bed of coals under the next layer of wood.
  • Logs, larger branches, or cut wood. This is your fire’s fuel, providing lasting heat.

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Types of Fire Builds

Everyone has their preferred method of building the fire. All of the following are Union Creek Resort-approved methods, and it mostly depends on the style you are most comfortable with. Whichever you choose, doing it correctly is a key step in the process. If you are haphazard in your build, you will pay for it in constant maintenance or a complete rebuild.

Teepee, or Pyramid. Starting with the tinder on the bottom, lay kindling on top in the form of a teepee or tent. If the wind is blowing, leave an opening on the side the wind is coming from. Start with the smallest kindling pieces and layer on bigger ones. Next comes the smallest of your fuel wood, and again, layer it around the outside of your teepee form. This type of fire is good for cooking, and also creates a bonfire-style structure.

Lean-To. With tinder on the bottom of the firepit, stick a long piece of kindling into the ground at a 30-degree angle so that it leans just above the tinder. Next, lean smaller kindling pieces against the bigger piece so there is air space beneath. Lay the smallest kindling you have on top of the tinder beneath the larger pieces. This is another good type of fire for cooking.

Log Cabin. This build requires a bit more of your architectural skills and harkens back to your days of building with Lincoln Logs. Create a small teepee of kindling on top of the tinder. Then place large pieces of firewood on each side of the teepee, and on top of that place smaller pieces of firewood. Repeat to form a “log cabin.” This is the best base for long lasting campfires.

Maintaining a fire for a lasting burn

Once you’ve built the infrastructure for the type of fire of your choice, go ahead and light it. Using matches, light the tinder from underneath in a few different places to help get it burning faster. But be careful and aware of where you’ve already lit it so you don’t burn yourself.

As the fire begins to grow and ignite the tinder, kindling, and finally the larger logs, you can add to it to make it bigger and hotter. Make sure to leave enough space between the wood for the fire to breathe – criss cross larger pieces so the fire can get air while also creating stability. For teepee-style fires, wait until the entire structure collapses before adding larger pieces.

Once the fire is lit and burning nicely, sit back, relax, rehash old stories and memories with friends, and roast a marshmallow!

Extinguishing a Campfire

Once you are done enjoying your campfire, make sure every last ember is completely extinguished before leaving the area.

  1. Quit adding wood at least 20 minutes before you plan on going to bed or leaving.
  2. When the flames are out, but embers are still present, carefully sprinkle water over the coals. It’s important not to pour water on the fire because you may flood the fire pit and make it unusable the next morning for yourselves or the next people.
  3. Stir the embers with a stick or shovel to make sure all of the ashes get wet. Be aware of any steam or hissing noises still present, which indicate you still have hot coals.
  4. Feel for heat. Place the back of your hand near the ashes; if it still feels hot, there’s more work to do, including more water and stirring.
  5. Once it feels cool, the fire is officially out.
  6. If you built your own fire pit, dispose of your ashes.

And that’s it. Building a great campfire is actually pretty easy, fulfilling, and the perfect start to a comforting evening with loved ones!