What are the most important things about a campfire?
After RVing for 9+ months, trying to light fires after rain, in the cold, or in spite of beach winds, we’ve learned ways to make you look smart when lighting a campfire.
Preparing a safe location
Before you start your fire, pick a safe location. Ideally, you’ll be camping and using a fire pit or grill area. More rarely, they provide a cleared space surrounded by rocks. Prepare your fire in an area that blocks the fire from moving beyond where you want it to go.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the ground should be clear around your fire ring by 10 feet. Here’s how they suggest building a fire pit if there isn’t one.
We’ve been to state and national parks and forests. Often, they have restrictions about if you can have a fire, where you might have it, and if you can collect firewood. You need to know if you can collect firewood in the area before you camp, because if they don’t allow firewood collection, you have to bring some.
First, there are three parts to a fire. Tender, kindling, and firewood, or fuel wood. Think of them as tiny, small, and medium to large.
If the tinder doesn’t stay lit, the fire won’t take. If you have a good amount of quality tinder, you’ll have a stronger fire. Yes, paper towels and other paper does work in a pinch sometimes, but not very well.
My favorite tinder, or fire starter, is often available at campsites now. Homemade sawdust and paraffin wax balls. You could also make paraffin wax and dryer lint balls too.
Here’s an Instructable about how to make fire starters.
One of the worst fire starters is pine needles. They smoke a lot, which can irritate your neighbors.
Wood should be dry and that’s sometimes hard to tell. If it’s not lighting easily, it might be freshly cut wood, or might have gotten rained on recently. In that case, you need extra tinder and kindling. Don’t use green wood (freshly cut wood from live trees or shrubs)–it has too much moisture.
If we can collect wood, we usually bring our fire starter, as well as the firewood, since it’s cheaper and easier away from the campground. If we’re allowed, we collect more tinder and kindling.
Positioning the firewood
Generally, you light the tinder or fire starter, and then place the kindling, or next sized wood around it like a teepee (or tipi), leaving precious oxygen underneath the kindling. Fires must have oxygen. See illustrations of different ways you can position the wood.
Sometimes, you have to blow on the wood to give it more oxygen and keep it burning until it gets nice and red (creates an ember). Close your eyes and be careful.
If it’s been raining, the wet ground can put out your fire. After much trial and error, we determined that placing wood on top of the wet ground in a cross hatch pattern lets us get the tinder and kindling started. That is, you’re adding a dry bottom of firewood on top of the wet ground to give yourself a dry start. See how in this great cartoon.
Good lighter needed
There are many ways to add heat to your fire. If you watch survival shows, none of them are particularly easy.
We travel with a butane lighter that has a wind shield. A regular lighter doesn’t work well for us because there’s almost always wind.
Battling the elements to light a campfire
Wind is one of the greatest challenges. I remember walking down a Florida beach this past winter and the wind was blowing hard. Almost no one had a fire except two girls who had dug a deep pit in the sand to block the wind. They had a great fire!
As far as rain, preparing a dry base is what you can do after a rain.
While you can use or build shelters for survival fires, I don’t recommend it because the fire can’t air out and you may be breathing in some unhealthy fumes, while running the risk of catching your fire shelter on fire.
Tools you may need
Besides a hatchet for cutting dead wood if you’re allowed, you need a long stick or tool to move the wood around when it starts to die down a bit. You could also use a fire poker from home. In a pinch, we use long, extendable marshmallow/hotdog skewers to move the wood around so it gets more oxygen and reignites.
We use a bucket and add water to it when we’re ready to put the fire out later.
There are some pretty effects you can buy and add to your fire and they sell them at camp stores. If you read the warnings though, they recommend not using them when you’ll cook with your fire–including roasting marshmallows for s’mores! Plan ahead so that you don’t add bad chemicals to a fire you need free from harmful chemicals that can get in your food.
Keeping a safe distance
Anything plastic (or polyester) next to a fire can burn, including sleeping bags, the bottoms of shoes, and chairs. Keep far enough away that you’re not feeling to hot. If your skin begins to feel really warm, check to see if you’re getting a burn. Make sure that nothing flammable is near, such as propane, or your lighter. Flammable materials can be unpredictable, so don’t chance it.
I keep Lavender essential oil on hand for burns and insect bites. If I get a burn, which oddly I received from an outdoor propane fire instead of a real one, I apply a few drops of Lavender undiluted to the burn once or twice. We also keep an aloe vera plant in the RV for burns. Slicing open an aloe leaf and applying the gel to burns or sunburns is an old remedy. Any burns that hurt a lot or blister may need a doctor’s attention, so give your doctor or the emergency room a call if you’re unsure.
Putting fire out safely
The safest ways to put out a fire is by dousing it by water or potentially cover it with dirt or sand until you see no smoke or embers.
We see people leaving smoldering fires in pits all the time and it’s not safe. Forest fires happen everywhere and at virtually any time.