I first learned to appreciate a good campfire when I was a young Cub Scout. On weekend and week-long camps, we learned to make and cook on different types of campfires and, at night, gathered around a communal blaze to sing camp songs and listen to ghost stories.
Campfires were a source of warmth and light. And though cooking on one was a little hit-or-miss, it meant my food was always hot, if sometimes a little burnt on the outside and raw on the inside!
Nowadays, I don’t do a lot of cooking on a campfire, instead preferring the reliability and convenience of my lightweight Trangia spirit stove. No more burnt sausages for me! However, for warmth and comfort, a campfire is hard to beat and a high point of most camping trips.
There is something almost spiritual about gazing into a campfire after a day of hiking or paddle boarding. It’s the perfect end to a perfect day.
That said, campfires are not always appropriate or safe. Even the best campfire can get out of hand and cause a bushfire. Plus, if you live by the tenants of leave no trace, a portable stove may be a better choice than a campfire.
But, on private land, or sites where they’re permitted, campfires are a great way to end your day. They can also be a source of warmth in an emergency.
There are lots of different campfires, each one with pros and cons. Sure, you CAN just toss some sticks in a pile and set them alight, but your fire will probably burn longer if you use one of the campfire styles outlined below.
Types of campfire
Don’t just pile up a load of twigs and sticks and set them on fire! There are many ways to build a fire that will ensure your campfire burns longer and provides more warmth with less fuel.
A-frame campfires are also known as triangle fires. They’re straightforward and a good campfire for beginners. They’re also ideal for small campfires as you don’t need a lot of combustible materials to get one going.
Simply lay three sticks on the ground to form an A-shape or triangle. Put your tinder and kindling in the centre and light them. The flames will gradually spread to the larger sticks, and then you can feed the fire with more fuel as it starts to catch. Build up the sides of the A-frame as your fire gets going.
- An easy way to start a campfire.
- Great for small fires.
- Low profile campfire lay so good for when it’s windy.
- Not the hottest fire.
- It will soon burn out if you don’t add more fuel.
Lean-tos are one of the easiest types of campfire structures to make. Providing you take the direction of the wind into consideration, they’re very easy to light and are suitable for warmth and cooking. Lean-to campfires are flat, so they are great for grilling or cooking with a pan.
To build a lean-to campfire, place a large log on its side and put some tinder and kindling next to it. Use the log as a windshield and start your fire on the sheltered side. Once lit, lay some small sticks on the log with the other end resting on the ground. Add more sticks as the fire takes hold, increasing the thickness as required.
- Very easy to build.
- The large log acts as a handy windbreak.
- Provides a lot of heat.
- It tends to burn quickly and requires a lot of wood to keep it going.
03Log cabin fire
The great thing about a log cabin fire lay is that once it’s lit, you can leave it to burn and won’t need to add more fuel for some time. This means you can get on with other important camp duties, like preparing your evening meal.
To make a log cabin fire, lay four sticks in an overlapping square, just like you are constructing a log cabin. Place your tinder and kindling in the centre. Build up the sides of your log cabin and add small sticks to the centre.
Light the centre of the fire, and as the tinder and kindling burn, the flames will spread to the outer structure without needing to add more fuel.
Most campfires tend to be built vertically. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that flames usually go upward. However, the long fire, also known as a parallel fire, is somewhat different in that you build your fire lengthways. This is a good option if you have no way of cutting your fuel into shorter lengths.
To build a long fire, place two logs a few feet apart, so they are parallel. Put your tinder and kindling between these two logs and then lay sticks lengthways across the space. Light the tinder and add more sticks of increasing size as the flames take hold.
- A good campfire for groups.
- A handy fire lay when you only have long sticks and logs to burn.
- Provides a lot of heat and areas for cooking.
- Harder to light than some other fires.
- It burns quite quickly and tries to give off a lot of smoke.
05Long burning campfire
While most people tend to let their campfire burn out before going to sleep, it may be necessary to keep a fire burning all night, such as for warmth or as a signal fire. A long burning campfire should burn for many hours, so it’s ideal for survival situations.
Firstly, build two ramps a couple of feet apart and stack logs against them. Then, build your preferred type of campfire between the two ramps of logs. Make sure your central fire just reaches the lowermost logs. Light your fire, and as it takes hold, the logs on the ramp will burn and then the next one should drop down into the fire to keep it burning.
If using this type of fire as a survival campfire, make sure your fire-feeding system is working before turning in for the night.
The platform fire is a long-lasting campfire that is good for when you have an abundance of fuel to burn. You can also use this fire to dry damp wood as you can put those layers near the top and bottom of your fire, so they catch later.
Place a layer of logs on the ground, so they’re close together. Place tinder and kindling in the gaps. Place another layer on top with the logs lying in the opposite direction. Again, put some kindling between the logs.
Build the fire up a couple more levels and then light it in the middle. The fire will spread up and down through the stacked logs to produce a big blaze.
- Easy to build.
- Produces a lot of heat quite quickly.
- Burns for a long time.
- It can be quite a smoky fire.
- Requires a lot of fuel.
Of all the different types of campfires, the pyramid or tepee fire lay is one of the most popular. It’s easy to build and light, and most people instinctively make campfires this way. This fire lay is a good choice if you have never built a campfire before.
Place your tinder on the ground and then stack some kindling around it. Next, build an inverted cone over your kindling out of small sticks. Make sure you leave a gap so you can still get to your tinder. Then, add another layer or two of slightly larger sticks to form a more substantial pyramid/teepee.
Light the middle of the fire, and the flames should soon spread to the kindling and sticks. Build the fire up more with larger sticks as the flames take hold.
- Very straightforward to build.
- Starts small but can be built up into a big campfire if needed.
- A very hot fire.
- It may need to be taken apart if it proves hard to light.
- Uses a lot of fuel.
- It will probably need to be flattened for cooking.
Campfires give off a lot of heat, but some of that heat radiates away from you. A reflector ensures that less of the heat escapes and directs it back toward you. You can use this method with any type of campfire to make it more effective and also as a windbreak.
Drive two sticks into the ground, so they are close together. Repeat this process a couple of feet away. Put lengths of wood in the gaps and build up a wall to reflect the heat of the fire toward you.
Build your preferred campfire in front of the reflector.
- An excellent option for keeping warm in very cold weather.
- The reflector also protects your fire from wind.
- Reflector fires are labour-intensive and require a lot of wood.
- There is a danger of the reflector catching fire if your campfire is too close or the wind direction changes.
Star campfires are easy to make but only really work when you have very dry logs to burn. However, they’re great for cooking and are usually pretty fuel-efficient. They look cool, too!
Place your tinder and kindling on the ground, and then place several logs in a star shape around them. The ends of the logs should be close to the tinder/kindling. Place a few smaller sticks in the middle of your fire to use as starting fuel. Light the centre of your fire and gradually feed the logs inward to keep it burning.
- A good campfire if you mostly have large logs to burn.
- Very fuel efficient.
- A good cooking campfire.
- Requires constant attention.
10Swedish fire torch
The Swedish fire torch or Swedish fire is probably the campfire most people are least likely to make. You need a chainsaw or a felling axe, not to mention a dead tree stump! Still, if you happen to be a lumberjack, you may want to try your hand at making a Swedish fire torch.
To build a Swedish fire, find a dead tree stump and split it partway down in quarters. Fill your cuts with tinder and kindling, and then light it. You can then feed the fire with more kindling until the stump starts to burn on its own.
You can also make this campfire with a freestanding log providing it’s dry. Dig a small hole to stand the log in to so it won’t fall over.
- A long-lasting fire.
- Very fuel-efficient.
- Good for cooking – you can stand a pot or pan on the flat top.
- It can be hard to light initially.
- Not a very hot fire.
- Requires tools and skill to quarter a log.
Most fires are built on the ground. A trench fire is built below ground, which provides protection from the wind and also means you get a nice bed of embers for cooking and prolonged heat. Trench fires are also less likely to accidentally spread or get out of control than fires built on the ground.
Using a shovel, dig a shallow pit or trench for your fire to sit in. Ideally, the trench should be slightly bigger than your intended fire. Place rocks around the edges of your trench for a cooking grill to rest on, and to protect any surrounding plant life.
Once you’ve dug your trench, you can lay most types of fire in. Flat fires, such as star, platform, and log-cabin fires, generally work best.
- A good set-up for cooking.
- Less likely to spread than fires made on the ground.
- The trench provides protection from the wind.
- The fire can be filled in to reduce ground signs.
- You’ll need a shovel to dig your trench.
A keyhole fire is a multi-purpose fire to rival even the best kitchen range! It requires some preparation, but it’s one of the best campfire shapes if you plan to stay in the same spot for a couple of nights in a row.
To make a keyhole fire, dig a shallow pit that’s circular at one end and has a sort-of tail at the other, so it looks like a keyhole. Line the edges of your put with rocks if you wish.
Set your main fire in the circle, but then drag hot embers down into the tail for cooking. Refresh the embers as needed.
- An excellent cooking fire.
- It provides variable heat for cooking different things at the same time.
- Quite fuel-efficient.
- It takes time to build.
- Tend to be quite large.
- Probably overkill for solo campers.
13Dakota hole fire
Native American Indians used Dakota fire holes to provide smokeless fires that were also incredibly fuel-efficient. They’re great for cooking but take a fair bit of work to build. Still, if you plan on camping in the same spot for a few days and don’t want to announce your presence with lots of smoke, this is a very stealthy campfire lay.
To build a Dakota hole fire, first dig a hole that’s about one foot deep but wider at the bottom than the top. Next, dig an air hole down to the first hole at about a 45-degree angle. Set your fire at the bottom of the first hole.
- An excellent fire for stealth camping.
- Very fuel efficient.
- Easy to fill in and leave no trace.
- It takes time to construct, and you’ll need a shovel to build this campfire.
- Most of the heat is trapped underground.
- It may not be practical for very rocky terrains or when the ground is frozen.
Types of campfires and their uses – closing thoughts
There are many different ways to construct a campfire and almost as many ways to light them. Personally, I rely almost entirely on a fire steel because it’s 100% reliable and works in all weathers. Matches get wet, lighters run out of gas, and rubbing two sticks together hardly ever works!
Combined with some readymade tinder, such as cotton wool soaked in Vaseline or wood shavings, a fire steel will ensure you can always light your campfire.
Keep one in your pocket or backpack, so you are never without a means of lighting a fire.