How to build the best campfire

Scout-Build-CampfireA cheery fire warms both body and heart; for many, it defines the camping spirit. If you can make a one-match campfire in any weather, you’ll be revered as an expert. Anyone can make fire on a sun-scorched day, but add wind and rain, and where there is smoke, there might not be fire!

The Fieldbook notes that Scouts and leaders should be prepared to not make a fire when camping, so they can make a wise choice when a fire is appropriate. Check with land managers for campfire regulations in the area where you plan to camp. Every fire should follow Leave No Trace guidelines, provided in the sidebar.

If packing light, a sturdy knife and matches are enough. When weight is of less concern, add a folding saw and hatchet. With these, you can saw and split small logs to get at the dry heartwood inside, which is essential if the wood is wet from rain. Leather gloves or pliers are useful for moving grills and stirring burning wood.

Tinder: Thin, dry material that ignites instantly with a match. It’s the basis of every fire. Examples include dead, dry grasses; the shredded inner bark of cedar trees; thin shavings cut from a stick; or birch bark (collected from the ground, not the living trees). Tinder that is available in one region might be unavailable in another. But all will work if you follow this rule: Tinder must be bone-dry and no thicker than a wooden match. Gather a handful of tinder for each fire you make.

Kindling: Burns fast and creates a bright, smoke-free flame. These bone-dry sticks should range from pencil-thin to no larger than your thumb. Bark (with some exceptions) does not burn well. Split kindling burns best. You’ll need an armload
of kindling for each fire you build.

Fuel: Wood needed to keep your fire going. Split logs burn best. Some wood burns better than others, but few campers can tell species apart. Gather dead, dry wood from a wide area of land away from camp.

Fire starters: Handy but not essential. You can buy them or make your own. Examples: cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, cigar-sized logs rolled from newspaper and dipped in melted paraffin, or clothes-dryer lint. (You should never use gasoline to start a fire!) Review the Guide to Safe Scouting’s policies on chemical fuels before creating your own fire starters.

Consider these rules:

  1. The thinner the wood, the faster and more smoke-free it will burn. Piling on wood that’s too thick too soon is one of the major reasons fires fail.
  2. Smoke tells you that the fire needs more oxygen. You should see “light” between every stick/log you place on the fire. If you see smoke between two sticks, move them farther apart.
  3. Wood burns better when organized in roughly parallel layers. This creates a “chimney effect,” which produces a better draw and hotter flame.
  4. Don’t overload the fire base with kindling or fuel. Instead, insert a few sticks at a time into the developing flame. Every stick/log you add draws heat from the young blaze. Add too much wood at the start, and your fire might cool and go out.

There are dozens of fire lays. The teepee, lean-to and log-cabin are most popular. Each has its advantages.

Teepee: Ball up a handful of tinder and set it on the ground. Arrange pencil-thin kindling sticks around the tinder, teepee style. Do not add fuel until the fire is burning brightly. The teepee and the lean-to work well in areas where thin, dry branches are readily available.

Lean-to: On soft ground, poke a dry stick into the soil at a 45-degree angle. Set a handful of tinder beneath the stick. On hard ground, lean the master stick against a rock or log, with tinder below. Set dry kindling sticks teepee-fashion (roughly parallel) on each side of the master stick. Point the high end toward the wind.

Log-cabin: Set two wrist-thick sticks parallel on the ground, about 3 inches apart. Place a few pencil-thin kindling sticks across the wrist-thick sticks. Stack long, thin shavings or other tinder on top. Keep the tinderbox small — about the size of a tin-can lid. Bridge the kindling over tinder in a log-cabin style. Build up several layers of kindling. Light from below. The raised platform that supports the tinder will produce a smoke-free, bright flame — ideal if the wood is damp or the ground is wet.



Every fire should abide by these Leave No Trace practices:

  • Build a fire only in areas where wood is abundant. The fire should cause no further negative impact on land.
  • The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring. The use of a fire pan is also a good alternative.
  • Keep the fire small and burning only for the amount of time you are using it.
  • The fire should not degrade the surrounding area as a result of the concentrated trampling of people who are cooking and socializing.
  • After fully extinguishing a campfire with water (not dirt), grind small coals to ash between your gloved hands. Thoroughly soak the ashes with water and scatter the cold ashes over a wide area of plant-covered ground away from camp. Leave the fire site in the same condition in which you found it.

You can read more about minimizing campfire impacts on land at



  1. Nice write up, even better is the link to the LNT page. I’ll hang a printout of both in the scout room. There’s one thing that I would add: The very first thing you need before building a fire is something to put the fire out. We teach the scouts to start with a jug of water, then build the fire.

  2. In school, students are taught a fire needs THREE things: , air (oxygen), fuel and an ignition source (sufficient heat). In our IOLS, we teach the FIVE things a Scout Camp Fire Needs:
    1) !!!! The Means To Extinguish The Fire. Water bucket, shovels, sand/dirt, etc. FIRST THING!!!
    2) A Safe Area In Which To Build It. Established fire ring, 10′ diameter cleared area, fire holder or down to mineral earth!!
    3) “Clear Air” , overhead not blocked (no tree branches for sparks to catch in), and “PERMISSION” from the property owner and authorities (No “fire ban”, drought status, etc.)
    4) Fuel collected before you attempt to light the fire (tinder, kindling, sticks, big fuel). One doesn’t want to have to chop more wood while dinner is cooking!
    5) Means to ignite: Flint & Steel, matches, fire piston, fire drill, all prepared BEFORE you start!
    Often not codified or mentioned in our Scouter training or even emphasized in “Fireman Chit” is the need to have your extinguishing means ready FIRST, not as an afterthought. Good Scouting to you! See you on the trail!

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