Camp Blog

How to Make a Campfire

21st June 2023

There’s no denying that an evening campfire is one of the most popular (yet simple) activities we offer here at Camp Suisse. As the day comes to a close, the sun sets over the mountains and evening folds in over the trees, nothing beats relaxing around the flames after a long day of bushcraft, sports and hiking. From songs and storytelling to melting a marshmallow or three with friends and catching up on the day’s learnings, it’s no wonder the kids (and us adults) love it.

To help you spark your own, we’re here with answers to your (burning) questions and step-by-step instructions on how to make a campfire, plus tips on fire lighting, safety, equipment and more. So without further ado, let’s get into it – we hope you’re as stoked as we are.

Pick a location

  • Ensure it’s not on private land (and if it is, get permission from the landowner before planning your campfire).
  • Choose a pre-used fire spot if you can – the chances are it’ll tick many of the boxes already if a successful fire has been previously hosted there. Plus, it means you’re not creating more mess in your local woodland than necessary. 
  • Avoid dry flora – make sure your fire is a safe distance away from any materials that’ll catch fire quickly.
  • Clear any overhead dead branches – they’re simply dangerous and might make for good firewood.
  • Avoid building your fire on healthy soil – a campfire is pretty damaging to the earth it sits on, so build your campfire on gravel or sand (or a pre-existing fire ring).

Gather your equipment

Whether you’re learning how to make a campfire at home or you’re here to find out how to build a simple campfire for a group of children, it’s best to make sure you’ve got all the equipment you’ll need to hand before setting off (and that it’s all in working order, of course). Below are a few items you’re likely to need to check off your shopping list before planning your campfire.

  • Fire strikers or a lighter
  • Bucket for water
  • Cotton wool
  • Petroleum jelly (this can help with starting your fire)
  • Fire-safe cooking equipment (if you’re planning to cook over your fire)

Recap safety

Whether you’re hosting a campfire for a group of children, your friends or family, safety always comes first. So, when learning how to make a campfire, consider the aspects of safety below.

  • Establish safe zones – if you’re making a campfire with children, it’s no exaggeration to say that things can get pretty dangerous pretty quickly if safety rules aren’t outlined clearly at the start. One of the most important aspects of campside fire safety is to rule out certain areas to ensure people are kept at a safe distance from the heat and flames. One simple way to do this is to mark your danger zone with rocks or pebbles, making sure that only a responsible adult is allowed to cross.
  • Hair tied back at all times – hair goes up in flames quicker than you can say Camp Suisse, so make sure everyone’s is up – even those not tending to the fire.
  • No running – we can all agree that campfires are an exciting activity for children and adults alike, but it’s worth banning running to avoid any slips, trips or falls near the flames.
  • Never use flammable liquids – it can be extremely dangerous, causing explosions and flames far larger than you’ll need for a camp fire.
  • Keep your fire small – making sure your fire stays at a size that you can control and extinguish quickly is vital for a safe, fireside time.
  • Never leave it unattended – make sure there’s always a responsible adult tending to the fire at all times.
  • Plan your method of extinguishing – bring along a bucket of water or sand that’ll quickly and efficiently put out your fire when the time comes.  
  • Don’t bury your coals – when putting out your fire, leave your coals exposed, otherwise they may continue to smoulder and reignite later on.

Gather your combustibles

Maybe the most key aspect to learning how to make a campfire is picking the right natural materials to burn and ensuring they’re in the right state (i.e. dry and snappable). And before gathering your wood (and the rest of the materials we’ll list below), be sure to double check you’ve got permission from the landowner to forage. Otherwise, you might need to prepare your combustibles ahead of time. 

  • Tinder. The first materials you’ll light will be small, thin and extremely dry to the touch. These can include cardboard, wadded paper, pine needles, dry grass, dry leaves or wood chips. You can also add petroleum jelly, candle wax or tree sap at this stage to help the initial flames spread.
  • Kindling. Next, you’ll add your kindling – think small, thin, dry pieces of wood, around the size of a small matchstick. Ensuring the kindling you use is thin will allow your fire to catch – anything too thick will extinguish your flames.
  • Firewood. The key to a successful fire is dry firewood – make sure your logs are completely dry to the touch and snap (as opposed to bending). Use what you have to hand, but some of the most common include oak, beech, maple, ash, birch and cherry.

Pick your flame source

When learning how to make a campfire, you’ll need to choose how you’d like to light it. There are various ways – some more difficult than others – with many requiring equipment that makes lighting your fire a whole lot easier. Below are a few of the common methods to lighting a fire that you can choose from.

  • Matches.
  • Lighter.
  • Flint and steel (this produces sparks which will catch onto your tinder).
  • Bow drill (this is rather advanced, so opt for an easier method if you’re new to learning how to make a campfire).

Pick your campfire format

The next thing you’ll need to decide on when learning how to start a campfire and keep it going is the campfire format. This refers to the shape of your fire which is determined by how your firewood is positioned. We’ll explore a few common ways to arrange your logs below so that you can spark a fire that’ll last the whole evening (and impress your guests with consistent, luscious flames).

  • Teepee – Otherwise known as a cone, the teepee is formed by leaning longer kindling sticks into a triangular shape. Underneath is a bundle of tinder (which will be lit), and kindling around the outside allows space for ample oxygen to make its way in. As the fire catches, more kindling (and eventually firewood) can be leant onto the frame to keep the fire going. This is a great shape for a shorter campfire – it burns pretty quicky, so more firewood needs to be added as others burn away.
  • Log cabin – This shape gets its name from the square-shaped stack of wood – simply place two pieces of firewood parallel on the ground, then stack two on top (perpendicular) – this should create the square shape. Be sure to start with your larger pieces of firewood and add smaller pieces as you continue until it reaches your desired height. Add your tinder and kindling in the centre of the square and light. This shape allows the logs to burn slowly, with burning logs falling on one another which continues to feed the fire.
  • Platform – This shape burns from the top down which creates a great base for cooking from. To build your campfire in the platform formation, place three sticks parallel to one another on the ground, then place three more on top, perpendicular to those beneath. Repeat this stacking process until it’s at your desired height, then add your kindling and tinder to the top to ignite your fire.
  • Star. Start by building yourself a teepee-shaped fire, then add larger logs around the outside, sticking out in a star shape (one of these should lead away from the teepee’s entrance). The fire from the teepee will ignite the surrounding logs, slowly burning them away, making it a great option if you’re low on firewood and need a slow-smouldering fire.
  • Lean-to – Find a log that’ll protect your fire from the direction of the wind and lean your kindling up against it, creating an additional windbreak from the tinder beneath. Once you’ve lit the tinder, the kindling will catch alongside the larger log itself. After a while, your fire should be stable and smouldering, which will be a good time to add more firewood.

How to build a campfire: step by step instructions

Assuming you’ve picked a safe spot, gathered all the equipment you need and picked your method of ignition and campfire format, follow the steps below on how to make a campfire at home or for children at a summer camp.

  1. Assemble a safe seating area. Corden off safe zones to sit if you’re working with children and establish rules before letting them anywhere near the fire.
  2. Lay down your tinder. Be sure to start with a good amount of tinder before attempting to start your fire or add anything larger. Too little and your fire will extinguish itself before it has a chance to catch onto the kindling and any larger pieces of firewood.
  3. Assemble your kindling and firewood. Following the campfire formation you’ve chosen (teepee, log cabin, platform, star or lean to), add your kindling and a little firewood. When putting your firewood together, bear in mind that your tinder needs to be able to catch first, then your kindling, then your firewood (which you’ll continue to feed your fire with as it smoulders).
  4. Ignite your fire. The easiest way to light your fire is by using matches or a lighter. Aim for the tinder, as the smaller pieces will catch first and spread across the rest of your combustibles. At this stage, you can add candle wax, a little petroleum jelly or tree sap to the tinder to ensure it lights (head to our section on lighting a fire in damp or wet conditions for extra tips). 
  5. Extinguish your fire. It goes without saying that you’ll need to make sure you put out your fire successfully. Simply pour over as many buckets of water as it takes, stirring the liquid around the coals until there are no longer any smouldering embers.
  6. Clean up. Be sure to remove any leftover coals from your area, clear up any sticks laying around and move any rocks you used for cordening or sitting into more natural-looking positions. 

How to build a campfire with kids

As we’ve mentioned, our campfires here at our summer camp are incredibly popular. Alongside that, our campers also love our bushcraft sessions where they learn how to make a campfire themselves. The sessions vary greatly depending on our learners’ abilities and ages, so below find a few tips and ideas that’ll help you teach children how to build a campfire.

  • Create a hook. It’s no secret that children love the fictional world, so start your session by setting the scene with a story on why you need to build campfires. Maybe the heating has gone down back at camp, or maybe there’s a group of well-meaning elves moving into the area who could really do with a heat source to dry out their shoes, and warm up before bed.
  • Safety first. Establish clear rules around the fire before letting children anywhere near it – once they’re gathered around the flames, it’s too late. The rules you go with are up to you, but we’d recommend setting safe zones, allocating seats, banning running and clearly stating that only adults are to stoke the fire.
  • Practice makes perfect. Expecting a young group of campers to get a campfire smouldering might be a bit of a stretch, especially if this is their first time. So, boost their confidence by getting them to spark a flint and steel, and challenging them to burn a piece of cotton wool.
  • Stick collection. Create a storyline around collecting the sticks for your campfire – even if the children don’t light it themselves, they’ll be satisfied knowing they’ve contibuted to the fire in some way.
  • Songs, stories and games. Come equipped with a few campfire songs, stories and games up your belt – while the flames and marshmallows speak for themselves, nothing quite beats a singsong around the fire or a spooky story.

How to start a campfire after rain

Now you’re clued-up on how to make a campfire, it’s certainly worth knowing what to do in damp or wet conditions. It would be a real shame to completely cancel your campfire plans altogether due to the weather, so check out our tips below on getting a fire lit and blazing in not so ideal conditions.

  • Add flammable materials. Petroleum jelly, tree sap or candle wax work really well when spread onto your tinder – they’re all incredibly flammable and will help your combustibles catch.
  • Use wood from needle-bearing trees. Spruce, fir, or pine are great for burning as their sap is sticky and flammable – perfect for helping initial flames spread.
  • Dry out your wood beforehand. If you know it’s due to rain, bring your tinder, kindling and firewood indoors for a few days to dry it out before using it.
  • Break and split your combustibles. They’ll burn more easily at a smaller size, and splitting them open will expose any dry interiors which will of course burn with more success than damp wood.
  • Peel the bark. This will help to expose a drier interior, plus it’ll give your logs a better chance of burning as bark tends to protect trees from flames, and so doesn’t burn nearly as well.
  • Opt for a taller formation. Flames can spread more easily with a taller setup, so avoid a flat formation (like a log cabin) and instead opt for a teepee if it’s damp or wet outside.

How to make a campfire change colour

Marshmallows certainly have their charm, but you’re guaranteed the wow factor if you’re able to make your flames change colour, and it’s not as complicated as you might think. Follow the step-by-step process below, adding your choice of chemicals for the colours you’re aiming for (just don’t inhale the smoke!).

Chemicals that make a campfire change colour:

  • Copper chloride – makes a blue flame
  • Copper sulphate – makes a green flame
  • Lithium chloride – makes a pink flame
  • Potassium chloride – makes a purple flame
  • Magnesium sulphate – makes a white flame
  • Strontium chloride – makes a red flame
  • Sodium chloride – makes an orange flame

Process for making your campfire change colour:

  1. Melt a small block of candle wax in an old pot.
  2. Fill any number of paper cups with a ¼ inch of your chosen chemical.
  3. Pour the molten wax into your cup, making sure it completely covers the chemical solution, stirring until fully combined.
  4. Cool the wax-chemical mixture for at least two hours.
  5. Once you’re ready to make your campfire change colour, peel your paper cup away from the wax and add it to your flames or place the wax (paper cup and all) onto your fire.

Safety tips for making your campfire change colour:

  • Do not attempt to make your campfire change colour while you’re cooking on your flames.
  • Do not inhale the smoke.
  • Stay at a safe distance from your campfire as you will be using chemicals to make it change colour.

How to make a campfire: FAQs

What is a campfire format?

The campfire format can refer to a couple of things – those being the physical structure of your woodpile (whether that’s log cabin, platform or teepee etc.), or the format of your campfire session that involves storytelling, songs, chants and cooking.

What is the difference between a campfire and a bonfire?

A bonfire is essentially a very large campfire that requires a large open space (much more than a campfire), as the flames and therefore extreme heat reaches much further up into the air. Interestingly, the term ‘bonfire’ comes from ‘bone fire’ when bones were burnt as part of a large cultural celebration, although many argue that the ‘bon’ in ‘bonfire’ comes from the French word for ‘good’.

How do you organise a campfire?

Gather the dry wood you’ll need (tinder, kindling and firewood), choose your campfire format (i.e. how you’re going to place your wood), and choose a few activities to entertain your guests (such as storytelling and singing).

What is the best homemade campfire starter?

Make a homemade campfire starter using:

  • Dryer lint (microfibres) covered in candle wax
  • Cotton wool covered in petroleum jelly or tree sap
  • Hand sanitizer on your tinder (just make sure it contains alcohol)
  • Waxed paper with your tinder
  • Charcoal in an egg carton