For other uses, see Campfire (disambiguation).
A campfire made using twigs and pine cones.

A campfire is a fire at a campsite that provides light and warmth, and heat for cooking. It can also serve as a beacon, and an insect and predator deterrent. Established campgrounds often provide a stone or steel fire ring for safety. Campfires are a popular feature of camping.


First Campfire

A new analysis of burned antelope bones from caves in Swartkrans, South Africa, confirms that Australopithecus robustus and Homo erectus built campfires roughly 1.6 million years ago.[1] Nearby evidence within Wonderwerk Cave, at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, has been called the oldest known controlled fire.[2] Microscopic analysis of plant ash and charred bone fragments suggests that materials in the cave were not heated above about 1,300 °F (704 °C). This is consistent with preliminary findings that the fires burned grasses, brush, and leaves. Such fuel would not produce hotter flames. The data suggests humans were cooking prey by campfire as far back as the first appearance of Homo erectus. 1.9 million years ago.[3]


Finding a site

A small fire in a backyard fire pit.

Ideally, campfires should be made in a fire ring. If a fire ring is not available, a temporary fire site may be constructed. Bare rock or unvegetated ground is ideal for a fire site. Alternatively, turf may be cut away to form a bare area and carefully replaced after the fire has cooled to minimize damage. Another way is to cover the ground with sand, or other soil mostly free of flammable organic material, to a depth of a few inches. A ring of rocks is sometimes constructed around a fire. Fire rings, however, do not fully protect material on the ground from catching fire. Flying embers are still a threat, and the fire ring may become hot enough to ignite material in contact with it.

Safety measures

Types of fuel

There are, by conventional classification, three types of material involved in building a fire without manufactured fuels.

Pitchwood from a fir stump
  1. Tinder lights easily and is used to start an enduring campfire. It is anything that can be lit with a match and is usually classified as being thinner than your little finger. A few decent natural tinders are birch bark, cedar bark, and fatwood, where available; followed by dead, dry pine needles or grass; a more comprehensive list is given in the article on tinder. Though not natural, steel wool makes excellent tinder and can be started with steel and flint, or a 9 volt battery without difficulty.
  2. Kindling is an arbitrary classification including anything bigger than tinder but smaller than fuel wood. In fact, there are gradations of kindling, from sticks thinner than a finger to those as thick as a wrist. A quantity of kindling sufficient to fill a hat may be enough, but more is better.
  3. Fuel can be different types of timber. Timber ranges from small logs two or three inches (76 mm) across to larger logs that can burn for hours. It is typically difficult to gather without a hatchet or other cutting tool. In heavily used campsites, fuel wood can be hard to find, so it may have to be brought from home or purchased at a nearby store.

In the United States, areas that allow camping, like State Parks and National Parks, often let campers collect firewood lying on the ground. Some parks don't do this for various reasons, e.g. if they have erosion problems from campgrounds near dunes). Parks almost always forbid cutting living trees, and may also prohibit collecting dead parts of standing trees.

In most realistic cases nowadays, non-natural additions to the fuels mentioned above will be used. Often, charcoal lighters like hexamine fuel tablets or ethyl alcohol will be used to start the fire, as well as various types of scrap paper. With the proliferation of packaged food, it is quite likely that plastics will be incinerated as well, a practice that not only produces toxic fumes but will also leave polluted ashes behind because of incomplete combustion at too-low open fire temperatures.

Construction styles

Kindling to start a campfire
Close-up of kindling used to form a Tipi-style fire
Campfire at base camp Susunia Hill,Bankura,WB,India
Campfire at Basecamp

There are a variety of designs to choose from in building a campfire. A functional design is very important in the early stages of a fire. Most of them make no mention of fuel wood—in most designs, fuel wood is never placed on a fire until the kindling is burning strongly.

A hybrid style fire
A traditional Finnish rakovalkea
Schwedenfackel construction

Light the tinder with a match or other source

As the fuel slowly burns, push in the logs by the ends to keep the fire burning. When the fuel runs short, add more fuel wood. This fire is ideal for calm conditions and can be kept burning all night with little maintenance. The fire can be controlled easily, and is a great cooking fire because it is so predictable.

A campfire in a "fire ring", an old car tire rim
Photo of the same campfire as immediately above, taken using the flash on the camera


A campfire

Once the fire is built, the next step is to light the tinder, using either an ignition device such as a match or a lighter. A reasonably skillful fire-builder using reasonably good material only needs one match. The tinder burns brightly, but be reduced to glowing embers within half a minute. If the kindling does not catch fire, the fire-builder must gather more tinder, determine what went wrong and try to fix it.

Fire starting with a torch. Wood and cardboard are used as tinder.

One of five problems can prevent a fire from lighting properly: wet wood, wet weather, too little tinder, too much wind, or a lack of oxygen. Rain will douse a fire, but a combination of wind and fog also has a stifling effect. Metal fire rings generally do a good job of keeping out wind, but some of them are so high as to impede the circulation of oxygen in a small fire. To make matters worse, these tall fire rings also make it very difficult to blow on the fire properly.

A small, enclosed fire that has slowed down may require vigorous blowing to get it going again, but excess blowing can extinguish a fire. Most large fires easily create their own circulation, even in unfavorable conditions, but the variant log-cabin fire-build suffers from a chronic lack of air so long as the initial structure is maintained.

Once large kindling is burning, all kindling should be put on the fire, save for one piece at least a foot long. This piece is useful later to push pieces of fuel wood where needed. Once all of the kindling is burning, the fuel wood should be placed on top of it (unless, as in the rakovalkea fire-build, it is already there). For best results, two or more pieces of fuel wood should be leaned against each other, as in the tipi fire-build.


Australian "snags" (English style sausages) cooking on a campfire.
Cooking small wieners at Ruthin School

Campfires have been used for cooking since time immemorial. Possibly the simplest method of cooking over a campfire and one of the most common is to roast food on long skewers that can be held above the flames. This is a popular technique for cooking hot dogs or toasting marshmallows for making s'mores. This type of cooking over the fire typically consists of comfort foods that are easy to prepare. There is also no clean up involved unlike an actual kitchen.[9] Another technique is to use pie irons—small iron molds with long handles. Campers put slices of bread with some kind of filling into the molds and put them over hot coals to cook. Campers sometimes use elaborate grills, cast iron pots, and fire irons to cook. Often, however, they use portable stoves for cooking instead of campfires. :For more information, see Campfire cooking.

Other practical, though not commonly needed, applications for campfires include drying wet clothing, alleviating hypothermia, and distress signaling. Most campfires, though, are exclusively for recreation, often as a venue for conversation, storytelling, or song. Another traditional campfire activity involves impaling marshmallows on sticks or uncoiled wire coat hangers, and roasting them over the fire. Roasted marshmallows may also be used for s'mores. On the safety point of view, fire always gives you a sense of safety by its warmth and friendliness. Imagine you and your friend are lost in wood while hiking on weekend and afraid of the nocturnal animals, lighting up a small campfire will surely make you feel safe. Its one of the best uses of campfire BBQ as the concept of campfire or bonfire has come from the safety requirement for mankind.[10]

Members of the United States Army 16th Infantry Regiment gathered around a campfire in 1916 during the Pancho Villa Expedition.


Closeup of campfire.
A campfire that seems to produce sparks, due to a long exposure when photographed.
Sparks from Campfire

Beside the danger of people receiving burns from the fire or embers, campfires may spread into a larger fire. A campfire may burn out of control in two basic ways: on the ground or in the trees. Dead leaves or pine needles on the ground may ignite from direct contact with burning wood, or from thermal radiation. If a root, particularly a dead one, is exposed to fire, it may smoulder underground and ignite the parent tree long after the original fire is doused and the campers have left the area. Alternatively, airborne embers (or their smaller kin, sparks) may ignite dead material in overhanging branches. This latter threat is less likely, but a fire in a branch is extremely difficult to put out without firefighting equipment, and may spread more quickly than a ground fire.

Embers may simply fall off logs and float away in the air, or exploding pockets of sap may eject them at high speed. With these dangers in mind, some places prohibit all open fires, particularly at times prone to wildfires.

Many public camping areas prohibit campfires. Public areas with large tracts of woodland usually have signs that indicate the fire danger level, which usually depends on recent rain and the amount of deadfall or dry debris. Even in safer times, it is common to require registration and permits to build a campfire. Such areas are often kept under observation by rangers, who will dispatch someone to investigate any unidentified plume of smoke.

Extinguishing the fire

The first Mughal Emperor Babur and his servicemen warming themselves before a campfire.

Leaving a fire unattended can be dangerous. Any number of accidents might occur in the absence of people, leading to property damage, personal injury or possibly a wildfire. Ash is a good insulator, so embers left overnight only lose a fraction of their heat. It is often possible to restart the new day's fire using the embers.

To properly cool a fire, splash water on all embers, including places that are not glowing red. Splashing the water is both more effective and efficient in extinguishing the fire. The water boils violently and carries ash in the air with it, dirtying anything nearby but not posing a safety hazard. Pour the water until the hissing stops. Then stir the ashes with a stick to make sure that the water penetrates all the layers. If the hissing continues, add more water. When the fire is fully extinguished, the ashes are cool to the touch.

If water is scarce, use sand to deprive the fire of oxygen. Sand works well, but is less effective than water at absorbing heat. Once the fire is covered thoroughly with sand, pour any water that can be spared over the sand and stir it into the ash.

When winter or "ice" camping with an inch or more of snow on the ground, neither of the above protocols are necessary—simply douse visible flames before leaving.

Finally, in lightly used wilderness areas, it is best to replace anything that was moved while preparing the fire site, and scatter anything that was gathered, so that it looks as natural as possible. Make certain that anything that was in or near the fire is cool first.

See also


  1. "44: First Campfire Discovered in South Africa". Discover Magazine.
  2. "From the ashes, the oldest controlled fire". Science News.
  3. Charles Choi, LiveScience Contributor "History Of Fire Milestone, One Million Years Old, Discovered In Homo Erectus' Wonderwerk Cave" Posted: 04/ 2/2012 3:29 pm Updated: 04/ 2/2012 4:08 pm
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 "Campfire Safety." USDA Forest Service. Accessed August 2011.
  5. Schatz, John (2001). "Summer Outdoor Safety". Mobility Forum. 10 (2): 23.
  6. "The Good Kind of Hot Spot". Backpacker. 42 (8): 74.
  7. Bauanweisung (German) (PDF; 101 kB)
  8. "Schweden-Feuer".
  9. Rittman, Allison (2012). "Campfire-Inspired Cooking". Prepared Foods. 181 (1): 79–84.
  10. "How Campfire BBQ Can Save You & Your Partner's Life While Camping". Grills Forever. 2016-10-16. Retrieved 2016-10-16.
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