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How to build a campfire

Marshmallow roasting over campfireThe staple ingredient in any camping trip is a good campfire. A place to gather with friends and family to discuss anything at all, or nothing in particular. Romantic lighting to bring a unique ambiance to the outdoors. Comforting warmth to enjoy after a long day of hiking. And what better way to top off a day on the mountain than by roasting marshmallows over a campfire. Yep! Everything tastes better outside, even if it´s burned to a crisp.

If you are planning to have a campfire as an essential part of your camping trip, make sure you have the right tools and know-how for the task of building a safe fire. If you are tent camping within site of your vehicle (car camping) then the only real dangers you are likely to face are those associated with, and attributed to campfires. It takes a bit of skill to build a campfire but you must also know how to maintain it, control it and extinguish it safely.

Placing your Campfire.

The first lesson in how to build a campfire is: Location, Location, Location! While you are scouting out your camping spot, look for one that has a pre-existing campfire ring. This could be made of rocks, brick or metal tubing, depending on the campground you have chosen. If your desired camping spot does not have a fire ring, it would be best to keep looking. Help keep our Rocky Mountains as wild and natural as you found them by not marring the landscape with new campfire rings.

Your campfire should be located at least 10 feet from overhanging trees and any tents within your campsite. Be sure to build your fire at least 200 feet from any body of water. This will prevent any contaminants from your fire or food from seeping into the water through runoff.

Prepare your fire ring.

Make sure the walls of your fire ring are sturdily placed. The large rocks will get very hot and you do not want them rolling into your campsite. Line the bottom of your fire ring with a few inches of sand or any soil that is not made up of mulch or other organic material. If the soil is predominantly broken-down leaves and pine needles, your fire could very quickly burn through the soil and out of control.

Keep an ample amount of water and sand close by to extinguish the fire later. As a responsible camper, you should have a fire extinguisher on hand as well. Do not place this too near the fire.

Ideas for camp cooks:

  • Include a large, flat-topped rock within the wall of your fire ring. This will allow for any cooking that requires low, indirect heat.
  • Extend one side of your fire ring into a kind of alcove. This is a smaller fire ring adjacent to the main campfire. Later, use a camp shovel to move hot coals from the main fire to your cooking fire. With a grilling grate, this can make camp cooking much more efficient and enjoyable.
Find more camp cooking ideas

Gather your campfire tools.

Here is what you will need:
  • Matches.
  • Tinder. Cedar bark makes ideal tinder. You can also use dry grass, pine needles or even pocket lint. Any dry, fibrous material that can catch a spark will do. Many ready-made fire starters are available or you can make your own.
  • Kindling. Separate 3 stacks of kindling. The first should contain twigs about as wide as a pencil, another with sticks as wide as your thumb. Make a third stack of branches a little smaller than your wrist.
  • Fuel wood. Dry logs, stumps and branches about the width of your arm will do. Wider logs are fine but should be kept no longer than 12 inches. Do not cut live trees or use green wood for your campfire. Not only is this usually prohibited, but it does not burn well and the sap in fresh wood can cause unsafe popping when heated in a fire.
Only gather firewood in areas where it has been deemed appropriate to do so. Some campgrounds prohibit the burning of fallen timber, so check the regulations of the park you visit before you leave home. You may need to bring along some form of fire starter and store bought firewood. Eco-conscious campers might bring along their own firewood either way.
Find out more about camping etiquette

Build your campfire.

  • Start by positioning a handful of your tinder or fire starter in the center of your fire ring. Be sure to keep the tinder well compacted.
  • Fashion together a few thin pieces of kindling in the shape of a teepee directly over the tinder.
  • Build a larger teepee over and around the first using larger kindling. Keep the teepee just short enough that, if it tips over, it will still be contained within the fire ring.
  • Continue building up the teepee with the smaller kindling by leaning it against the larger sticks. Leave an opening through which you can light the tinder using a match. Do not stack the kindling to densely. Leave some space for ample oxygen supply.
  • Light the tinder with a match. If you have difficulty getting the tinder to hold a flame, place small amounts of tinder over the burn while blowing on it very gently. Continue doing this until the kindling in your teepee begins to take the flame.
  • As the kindling burns, carefully add more of the larger sticks, a few at a time.
  • Once the kindling has been burning thoroughly for about 20 minutes you should see hot red coals at its center. At this point you can start adding fuel logs one at a time. Do not place fuel logs directly atop the campfire. As they burn they can shift and roll dangerously off the fire. Lean the fuel logs against the fire with one end firmly on the base or in the coals.

Maintain and control your campfire.

  • Build up your campfire only as large as is necessary for light and warmth.
  • Never leave a fire unattended.
  • Avoid the need to hunt for firewood at night. Gather enough during daylight hours to sustain your fire until you retire for the evening.
  • Keep plenty of water nearby. When packing for your trip, unless their will be a supply of water, set aside a large container of water specifically for your fire.
  • Use a camp shovel to stir and move hot coals.

Extinguishing your campfire.

If you are in an area with a low wildfire risk, it is ok to partially extinguish your fire for the sake of maintaining hot coals for re-lighting a morning fire. The difference between fully and partially extinguished fires is simply weather or not water is used. If you plan to wake early for breakfast by the fire, just allow the flames to burn out completely and spread out the coals a bit before you turn in. the ash should thoroughly insulate the coals to provide for easier fire starting the next morning. If you leave hot coals overnight, be sure that all fuel wood has burned completely and no flames remain.

When you are ready to leave your campfire, it is necessary to douse the fire completely. The best way to do this is by pouring plenty of water over the coals. You will here a lot of popping and cracking, which is nothing to worry about. You will also notice a lot of ash flying up and about. This is also perfectly safe, albeit a bit messy. Continue pouring water over the coals and ash until the hissing sound stops. Before you leave the coals should be cool to the touch. If you use sand to extinguish your fire, add some water to absorb the heat. Cover the ash and coals completely with wet sand, and then stir the sand in.

Forrestry service plane fighting wildfireSince the start of the decade, wildfires have destroyed nearly half a million acres of Colorado´s national forests. In 2002 Colorado residents witnessed the most destructive fire season in recorded history. Spurred by high temperatures, record drought and high winds, wild fires burned over 300,000 acres. The most notable of these fires, receiving international media coverage, was the Hayman fire, which continued to burn through most of June. The Hayman fire destroyed 137,000 acres in the Pike-San Isabel National Forrest, just 30 miles from southwest Denver. 133 homes and hundreds more outbuildings were lost. This devastating fire began in a campfire ring that had been left to burn unattended.
It is the responsibility of every camper to prevent future occurrences of destructive fires such as this.

Follow these steps on your next camping trip and you will have one less thing to worry about. Just sit back, have some s´mores and break out your guitar or a book of ghost stories. Invite some folks from a neighboring campsite to sit for a cup of camp coffee; conversation is always better around a campfire.

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