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How To Start A Fire While Backpacking


Modified: December 28, 2023

by Renie Adamski



When embarking on a backpacking adventure, one of the essential skills every traveler should possess is the ability to start a fire. A campfire not only provides warmth and light but also creates a cozy and inviting atmosphere in the wilderness. However, starting a fire while backpacking requires careful consideration and preparation to ensure safety and minimize environmental impact.


Before delving into the details of building a fire, it is important to note that fire regulations and restrictions vary by location and season. Always check local guidelines and obtain any necessary permits before attempting to start a fire. Additionally, practice fire safety and follow the “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize your impact on the environment.


In this article, we will guide you through the process of safely starting a fire while backpacking. From choosing the right location to extinguishing the fire, we will provide you with all the information you need to enjoy the warmth and comfort of a campfire during your outdoor adventures.


Choose the Right Location for Building a Fire

Selecting an appropriate location for your campfire is crucial for both safety and preserving the natural environment. Follow these guidelines to choose the right spot:

  1. Look for established fire rings or designated fire pits: Many camping areas have designated spots for building fires. These areas are typically designed to minimize the risk of fire spreading and protect the surrounding vegetation. If there is a designated fire pit, use it.
  2. Choose a level and cleared area: Ensure the ground is level and free from any flammable debris like dry grass, leaves, or overhanging branches. Clear an area at least 10 feet in diameter around the fire pit to create a safe buffer zone.
  3. Avoid building fires near tents or overhanging structures: Keep a safe distance between the fire and any nearby tents, trees, or other structures. This will reduce the risk of accidental fires and prevent sparks from igniting flammable materials.
  4. Consider wind direction: Evaluate the wind direction and choose a location that minimizes the chances of embers and smoke blowing towards your campsite. This will help keep your camping area comfortable and smoke-free.
  5. Check local regulations and restrictions: Always be aware of any fire regulations and restrictions in the area you are camping. Some places may have specific rules regarding where and when you can build a fire, especially during times of high fire danger.

By following these guidelines, you ensure the safety of yourself and others, as well as protect the natural surroundings from potential damage.


Gather the Necessary Materials

Once you have chosen an appropriate location for your campfire, it’s time to gather the necessary materials to build and sustain your fire. Here are the essential items you’ll need:

  1. Tinder: Start by collecting a handful of small, dry materials that ignite easily. This can include dry leaves, twigs, or dry grass. Tinder helps kickstart the fire by providing a quick source of ignition.
  2. Kindling: Next, gather small sticks and branches that are slightly thicker than your tinder. These pieces of kindling will catch fire from the tinder and help establish a small flame. Look for dry, dead branches and twigs that are no thicker than your pinky finger.
  3. Firewood: Lastly, gather your firewood. This consists of larger logs and pieces of wood that will sustain the fire once it is established. Look for dry, seasoned wood that is not green or damp. Hardwoods like oak or maple burn longer and produce more heat compared to softwoods like pine or fir.
  4. Fire starters: In damp or challenging conditions, it may be helpful to carry fire starters such as waterproof matches, a lighter, or commercial fire starters. These can provide a reliable and quick source of flame to start your fire.

Once you have gathered all of these materials, place them in separate piles near your fire pit. This will make it easier to access and add them to the fire as needed. Remember to collect only dead and dry wood, as taking live wood can harm the natural ecosystem.


Gathering the necessary materials beforehand ensures that you have everything you need to successfully start and maintain your campfire. It also prevents the need to leave your fire unattended while searching for additional supplies.


Prepare the Fire Pit

Before you start building your fire, it’s important to prepare the fire pit properly. Follow these steps to ensure a safe and controlled environment:

  1. Clear the area: Use a rake or shovel to remove any flammable materials, such as leaves, twigs, and debris, within a 10-foot radius around the fire pit. Clearing the area helps prevent accidental fires and keeps the fire contained.
  2. Create a fire ring: If there is no designated fire ring or pit in your camping area, you can create one. Use rocks or stones to form a circle that will contain your fire. This helps to maintain the fire within a specific area and prevents it from spreading.
  3. Line the bottom of the fire pit: Place a layer of non-flammable materials at the bottom of the fire pit. This helps to create a barrier between the fire and the ground, reducing the risk of ground scorching. You can use sand, gravel, or a layer of rock.
  4. Consider heat reflection: If you’re camping in a sensitive environment, such as a dry or grassy area, consider lining the sides of the fire pit with rocks. This acts as a heat reflector, preventing excessive heat from reaching the surrounding vegetation and minimizing the potential for accidental fires.
  5. Keep a source of water nearby: Always have a bucket of water or a hose nearby when building a fire. This serves as a safety measure and allows you to quickly extinguish the fire if needed.

Preparing the fire pit ensures that you have a safe and controlled area for your fire. By taking these steps, you can minimize the risk of accidents and maintain a more controlled environment for your campfire. 

Establish a Base Layer

Before you start building the actual fire, it’s important to establish a base layer to ensure proper airflow and promote successful ignition. Follow these steps to create a solid foundation for your fire:

  1. Lay down a layer of tinder: Begin by placing a generous amount of tinder at the center of your fire pit. This can include dry leaves, small twigs, or crumpled balls of newspaper. Make sure the tinder is loosely arranged to allow for air circulation.
  2. Add a layer of kindling: On top of the tinder, add a layer of small sticks and branches. Arrange the kindling in a crisscross pattern, creating a stable structure that allows for airflow. This layer of kindling will catch fire from the tinder and form the base of the flame.
  3. Leave room for oxygen: It’s important to leave enough space between the kindling to allow oxygen to flow through the fire. Oxygen is crucial for combustion, so avoid packing the kindling too tightly.
  4. Create a pyramid shape: To improve the efficiency of your fire, consider constructing a small pyramid using larger pieces of kindling on top of the initial layer. This pyramid shape helps to concentrate the heat and flames, leading to more consistent burning.
  5. Keep space for adding firewood: Make sure to leave space within the base layer for adding firewood later. Plan ahead and envision how the fire will grow and progress when adding larger logs.

Taking the time to establish a proper base layer ensures that your fire has a solid foundation to ignite and burn efficiently. It allows for better airflow, improves the chances of successful ignition, and sets the stage for a cozy campfire experience.


Arrange the Firewood

Once you have established a base layer of tinder and kindling, it’s time to arrange the firewood. Properly arranging the firewood allows for a steady and controlled burn. Follow these steps to ensure an effective arrangement:

  1. Start with smaller logs: Begin by placing smaller logs on top of the kindling. These logs should be slightly larger than the kindling but still relatively small. Stack them in a crisscross pattern, leaving gaps between the logs to allow for air circulation.
  2. Add larger logs gradually: As the fire begins to grow and the smaller logs catch fire, gradually add larger logs to the fire. These logs should be thicker and longer, but still manageable. Stack them perpendicular to the smaller logs, creating a stable structure that promotes airflow.
  3. Leave space between the logs: It’s important to leave gaps between the logs to allow oxygen to flow through the fire. Proper oxygen circulation ensures a more efficient and sustained burn. Avoid stacking the logs too tightly together.
  4. Consider using a log cabin structure: An alternative arrangement method is to create a log cabin structure. This involves stacking two larger logs parallel to each other, then placing two more logs perpendicular on top, creating a square or rectangular “cabin” shape. Continue building up the structure with alternating layers of logs, leaving space for airflow.
  5. Start with a modest-sized fire: Avoid building a fire that is too large to manage. Start with a modest-sized fire and gradually add more firewood as needed. This allows you to maintain control and prevents the fire from becoming too intense or spreading uncontrollably.

Taking the time to properly arrange the firewood ensures a steady and sustained burn, providing warmth and ambiance throughout your camping experience. A well-arranged firewood setup also makes it easier to add additional logs when needed without disrupting the burn or causing unnecessary smoke.


Ignite the Fire

With your fire pit, tinder, kindling, and firewood all in place, it’s time to ignite the fire and bring warmth to your campsite. Follow these steps to safely ignite the fire:

  1. Create a safe ignition zone: Clear a small area within the fire pit where you will ignite the fire. This area should be free from any excessive tinder or other flammable materials.
  2. Use fire starters or matches: Use waterproof matches, a lighter, or fire starters to ignite the tinder. If using matches, strike them on the matchbox or a designated striking surface. Hold the match to the tinder and gently blow on it to encourage the flame.
  3. Focus on the base layer: Direct the flame towards the base layer of tinder and kindling. Allow the flame to catch and spread. If necessary, gently blow on the flame to provide additional oxygen for combustion.
  4. Monitor the fire’s progress: As the flames start to grow, carefully observe the fire’s progress. Ensure that it is spreading evenly and allowing for proper airflow. Make adjustments to the firewood arrangement if needed to maintain a well-balanced burn.
  5. Add more tinder and kindling if necessary: If the fire is struggling to grow or maintain a steady burn, add more small pieces of tinder and kindling to provide additional fuel for the flame. Gradually build up the fire by adding more materials as needed.
  6. Exercise caution: Always exercise caution when dealing with an open fire. Never leave the fire unattended and keep a watchful eye on its progress. Avoid leaning too closely or reaching over the fire to prevent accidental burns.

By following these steps and staying vigilant, you can safely ignite the fire and enjoy the warmth and ambiance it provides for your camping experience. Remember to always prioritize safety and be mindful of your surroundings when dealing with fire.


Maintain and Control the Fire

Once your fire is ignited, it’s important to properly maintain and control it throughout its duration. Consistent attention and proper fire management will ensure a safe and enjoyable campfire experience. Here are some guidelines to follow:

  1. Add firewood gradually: As the fire burns down, carefully add more firewood to maintain a steady burn. Gradually add larger logs, ensuring there is enough space for airflow between them. Avoid smothering the fire by adding too much firewood at once.
  2. Keep a safe distance: Maintain a safe distance from the fire to prevent accidental burns. Use fire-resistant gloves or long-handled tools, such as tongs or a poker, to add or adjust firewood. Avoid reaching over the flames and be cautious of loose clothing that may catch fire.
  3. Control the fire’s size: Depending on your needs and circumstances, you may need to adjust the size of the fire. If you want a smaller, more controlled flame, reduce the amount of firewood and limit the airflow. To increase the size and heat output, add more firewood and provide additional airflow.
  4. Never leave the fire unattended: It’s essential to have constant supervision over the fire. Never leave it unattended, even for a short period. Assign someone in your group to be responsible for fire management at all times.
  5. Keep a water source nearby: Always have a bucket of water, a hose, or a fire extinguisher readily available near the fire. This allows for immediate action in case of emergencies or to extinguish the fire at the end of its use.
  6. Monitor wind conditions: Be mindful of wind conditions as they can impact the behavior of the fire. Strong winds can cause embers to spread, increasing the risk of accidental fires. Adjust your fire management accordingly and consider extinguishing the fire if the wind becomes too strong.

By maintaining and controlling the fire responsibly, you can ensure the safety of yourself, your companions, and the surrounding environment. It’s important to strike a balance between enjoying the warmth and ambiance of the fire while keeping it under control and minimizing the risk of accidents.


Extinguishing the Fire

Properly extinguishing your campfire is crucial to prevent accidental wildfires and leave no trace of your presence. Follow these steps to ensure the fire is fully extinguished:

  1. Allow the fire to burn down: Before attempting to extinguish the fire, let it burn down to a manageable size. This reduces the amount of burning embers and makes it easier to control.
  2. Separate burning embers: Using a long-handled tool, gently separate the burning embers and logs within the fire pit. This helps expose any hidden hot spots and allows for more efficient cooling.
  3. Pour water slowly and evenly: Begin by pouring water onto the fire, starting from the edges and working your way towards the center. Use a bucket or hose to pour water slowly and evenly over the entire fire, ensuring all embers are thoroughly soaked.
  4. Mix and stir the ashes: After pouring water, use a shovel or stick to mix and stir the ashes thoroughly. This facilitates the cooling process and ensures all remaining embers are exposed to water, preventing any chance of reignition.
  5. Continue adding water and stirring: Repeat the process of adding water and stirring the ashes until the fire pit is cool to the touch. The ashes should be thoroughly saturated, and there should be no visible signs of smoke or heat.
  6. Feel for residual heat: Gently run the back of your hand over the ashes and fire pit area to check for any residual heat. If you feel any warmth, continue adding water and stirring until the area is completely cold.

Remember to exercise caution when dealing with hot ashes and embers. Let the fire pit cool for a sufficient amount of time before handling or disposing of the ashes.


By following proper extinguishing techniques, you can ensure that your campfire is completely extinguished, preventing any potential risks and leaving the area in a safe and pristine condition.


Leave No Trace Principles

While enjoying the beauty of the outdoors and utilizing campfires, it’s essential to follow the principles of Leave No Trace. These principles are designed to minimize our impact on the environment and preserve the natural beauty for future generations. Here are some key principles to keep in mind:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare: Take the time to research and understand the regulations, restrictions, and guidelines of the area you are visiting. This includes fire regulations, camping permits, and any specific rules related to firewood collection.
  2. Minimize campfire impacts: Use established fire rings or fire pits whenever possible. If there isn’t one available, consider using a lightweight camp stove as an alternative to open fires. Practice proper firewood collection techniques, ensuring you only gather dead and downed wood.
  3. Respect wildlife: Keep a safe distance from wildlife and do not feed or disturb them. Store your food securely to prevent attracting animals to your campsite. This helps maintain the natural behaviors and habitats of the wildlife.
  4. Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all your trash, including food scraps, and dispose of them in designated trash receptacles. Strive to leave your campsite cleaner than you found it, picking up any litter you come across.
  5. Leave nature as you found it: Do not alter the natural landscape by carving or marking trees, rocks, or any other natural features. Avoid spreading rocks or creating new fire rings or pits. Leave plants and artifacts where you find them.
  6. Be considerate of other visitors: Respect the peace and quiet of others by keeping noise levels to a minimum, especially during quiet hours. Be mindful of the privacy of others and maintain a respectful distance from neighboring campsites.
  7. Educate others: Share your knowledge and commitment to Leave No Trace principles with others. Encourage fellow campers and outdoor enthusiasts to follow these practices to help preserve our natural resources.

By adhering to these principles, we can minimize our impact on the environment and ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. Leave No Trace is a collective effort that fosters sustainability and preserves the wilderness for all to appreciate.



Starting a fire while backpacking can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience, providing warmth, light, and a comforting ambiance in the wilderness. However, it is crucial to approach fire-building with caution, responsibility, and respect for the environment. By following the guidelines outlined in this article, you can safely build and maintain a campfire while minimizing your impact on the natural surroundings.


Choosing the right location, gathering the necessary materials, and properly preparing the fire pit are essential steps in achieving a safe and controlled fire. Establishing a base layer, arranging the firewood, and igniting the fire using proper techniques ensure successful ignition and sustained burning.


Throughout the process, it is vital to maintain and control the fire responsibly, adjusting its size and adding firewood gradually. Constant supervision and the availability of a water source are key to ensuring a safe and enjoyable campfire experience.


When it’s time to extinguish the fire, using water to thoroughly soak the fire, stirring the ashes, and checking for residual heat are critical steps to prevent any chance of reignition. Lastly, adhering to the Leave No Trace principles contributes to the preservation of the natural environment for future generations.


Remember, as outdoor enthusiasts, it is our responsibility to leave the wilderness as we found it and to minimize our impact on the environment. By practicing responsible fire-building techniques and following Leave No Trace principles, we can enjoy the beauty of the outdoors while protecting and preserving it for years to come.