How to build the ultimate campfire

This is the closest you’ll be to mastering fire bending.
A man building a fire in the wilderness.

A man building a fire in the wilderness. Chris Crisman

This story originally featured on Field & Stream.

When it’s raining, when it’s howling, when you’re freezing, or when you and your buddies just want a roaring inferno on the last night at camp, these are the blazes to build. The fires in this guide each serve a specific purpose, but they all share one thing—they are deeply satisfying to watch go up in flames

1. When you need an all-night burn, build a long-log fire

long-log fire
Mother Nature’s version of a man-size quartz heater. Robert Prince

Sure, you can craft your log-cabin blaze and feed the fire all night long, but there is a better—and much bigger—way. The Finnish rakovalkea fire is from a Scandinavian long-log fire tradition, and its slow-burning blaze produces a low wall of flaming warmth. Think of it as Mother Nature’s version of a man-size quartz heater. And this fire is as much fun to build as to burn. Setup requires some prep work with an ax, a couple of large logs, and a passel of good friends. So sharpen your ax, get swinging, then make like Logi—the Norse god of fire.

You’ll Need:

  • 2 dry logs, 6 to 7 feet long and about 8 to 10 inches in diameter, shorn of bark and branches
  • 2 platform logs, 2 feet long
  • 2 green branches, 2 feet long, about wrist-thick
  • Lots of tinder, such as birchbark and fatwood, and kindling
  • 4 green stakes, 4 feet long and sharpened on one end
  • 2 green branches, 6 feet long, about wrist-thick
  • 2 nails
  • 1 “threshold log,” 6 to 7 feet long and about 10 inches in diameter (not shown)

Flat Line: Chop out a flat surface along the entire length of both of the long logs (A). This isn’t finish carpentry. The rougher the surface, the better the fire.

Center Stage: Notch the center of each platform log (B), and spread them out almost the length of the long logs. Place one long log into the notches of these platform logs with the flat surface of the long log facing up. You want to position the long log parallel to the wind.

Layer Up: Lay the two shorter green branches across the first log about 5 feet apart (C). Cover the flat surface with a thick layer of tinder and kindling. Place the second large log on this layer, flat side down, like a giant hoagie bun.

Place Holders: Stabilize the fire by driving the 4 long green stakes into place (D). For added security, nail one end of each 6-foot-long branch to the top of the top log, then anchor the free end into the ground (E).

Add a Backstop: Lay down the threshold log a few feet in front of the fire as a backup in case one of the burning logs rolls off the fire.

2. When you need rescuing, build a tripod signal fire

You don’t build a signal fire to provide heat, comfort, or a cooking platform for s’mores, so don’t build it like you would a typical blaze. A signal fire should be prepared in advance, be quick to light, and be designed to pump out towering plumes of black or white smoke. You need a hot fire on an elevated pyre, and here’s how to get it.

Step 1: Cut three stout poles of green wood 8 to 9 feet long. When cutting off twigs and branches, leave 6-inch stubs. Lash together a tripod to create a freestanding structure. Next, lash three more green sticks horizontally around the tripod, about waist high. Place a row of more sticks on these support beams to create a platform in the middle of the tripod.

Step 2: Build—but do not light—a tepee fire with a large tinder bundle on the platform. Stack plenty of extra dry tinder and kindling of various sizes near the pyre. When potential rescue is near, there might be very little time to act.

Step 3: Gather smoke-­producing additives. Green, leafy foliage will produce dense white smoke, so hang conifer boughs and chunks of bark from the branch stubs on the tripod poles. Pile up wet leaves and grass to toss on the fire. But your best bet is to pump out black smoke, which can’t be mistaken for a campfire. Petroleum-based products from engine oil to truck floor mats produce copious black smoke. Scavenge old camps, abandoned vehicles, or trash dumps for potential smoke fuels. At any sign of rescue—shouting, an airplane—light the platform fire.

3. When your kids want to help, construct a lean-to fire

survival fire
Bright Idea: Toss a small metal pencil sharpener in your pack. The shavings from sharpened twigs make great tinder. Chris Crisman

A lean-to fire appeals to kids because of its simplicity—there’s no elaborate structure, and there’s little hidden from view behind intricate layers of tinder and kindling. And with a lean-to fire lay, young fire-enthusiasts are less likely to burn themselves since they don’t have to reach across flames and coals to add fuel. Lean-to fires do require a bit of maintenance, but that’s another bonus from a kid’s perspective: All that poking and messing and adding sticks to the fire actually helps. One trick—it’s common practice to lay a lean-to fire so the large log acts as a windbreak. But that can starve the fuel of life-giving oxygen. Instead, lay the fire so the breeze runs straight at the support log.

Step 1: Cut a support log 2 feet long. Lay it on the ground at a right angle to the wind. Have a second log similar in size to the support log ready to go.

Step 2: Pile tinder beside the midpoint of the support log, and lean thin planks of kindling against the log and directly above the tinder. Leave enough space between these sticks for air to circulate.

Step 3: Light the tinder, and feed the fire with progressively larger sticks of fuel. Once the kids have gotten bored with the fire, place the second log parallel to the first, and the lean-to fire is converted into a skillet-ready fire with the two larger logs serving as a cooking platform.

4. When it’s Howling, build a trench fire

Trench Fire
A fire to keep the coals below ground level. Robert Prince

Wind blows. It blows your match out; it blows the campfire heat away; it fans flames so they consume wood like crazy; it blows embers and ash into the surrounding woods. There’s one solution to all of this—make like a mole. It may be best to skip a fire altogether in dry conditions, but this trench fire puts most of the coals safely below ground level, and since you’re basically burning wood in a hole in the ground, fuel burns efficiently. That means less work—once you’re finished with the trenching tool.

Site Work: Avoid areas upwind of highly flammable trees such as pines and firs, and move to another site if you run into roots while digging the trench. Roots can smolder for a long time and eventually ignite a ground fire. Use topography to help tame high winds; look for low spots such as creek banks and gullies.

Be the Backhoe: Dig a sloping trench approximately 4 feet long and 1 foot wide, with the shallow end facing the wind. The deep end should be about a foot or so deep—the larger the fire you need, the deeper the hole should be. Line the bottom of the fire hole with dry rocks (wet rocks can ­explode or shatter) or green logs (A). If possible, stack a large flat rock on end at the deep end of the trench (B). This will reflect heat and help create a chimney effect to draw air up through the fire.

Dirt Duty: Boost the fire’s safety factor by mounding up the excavated soil in a C-shaped firebreak (C) along the deep edge of the trench. This will help prevent sparks from blowing outside the fire, and keep the dirt handy for when it’s time to extinguish the fire and fill in the trench.

Side Business: One major advantage to a trench fire is that it serves so well as a cooking fire. Use green sticks to create a grate over the coals, or extend the deep end of the trench at a 90-degree angle, digging it a few inches narrower than your cooking pot. And take special care to put out a trench fire completely before using the excavated soil to fill in the hole.

5. When you need survival heat fast, make a duct-tape fire

Out of dried bird’s nests, tinder fungus, and cattail fluff? Join the club. But surely there’s a roll of duct tape nearby, and where there is duct tape, there is life. While you can’t build an all-night blaze with nothing more than the sticky stuff, you can get enough of a fire cranking to dry and burn even wet wood. Start stripping.

Step 1: Make a tinder bundle by stripping a 10-inch length of duct tape into thin 1⁄16-inch strips, and wad these very loosely into a ­softball-​size nest. A hot spark-thrower will ignite this bundle, but don’t fire it up yet.

Step 2: Twist strips of duct tape into tinder sticks 6 to 8 inches long. The adhesive side catches fire more quickly, so be sure to have as much gummy surface exposed as possible. You can make tinder sticks as large as time and your tape roll allow. But a better idea for larger fuel is to wrap a few real sticks with tape. Rough it all up with a knife to increase flammability.

Step 3: Light the duct-tape tinder bundle, and feed the unnatural flame. Cheating? Heck, yeah. But doesn’t it feel great to be alive?

6. When it’s pouring, build a tarp fire

Tarp Fire
Remember: Tarp high, fire small. Robert Prince

It’s a sticky wicket: Maintaining a fire in a downpour is no easy feat, but that’s when you want fire the most. Rigged poorly, a tarped fire will smoke campers like jerky or turn a campsite into a deadly fireball. But there are safe ways to shelter a blaze. I once weathered a days-long Southern Appalachian soaking in classy style thanks to backcountry guide Burt Kornegay’s mash-up of an old-school cooking fire protected by a tarp. One big advantage to this method is that you can set everything up except for the tarp, and then add it to the mix when the rain starts. That’s a good safety feature, as rain helps cool the tarp fabric. Just remember the mantra: Tarp high, fire small.

High-Wire Act: Run a taut ridgeline of parachute cord between two trees (A) as high as you can reach, leaving an 8-foot tag end of p-cord from the knot around one tree. Drape the tarp over this ridgeline to form an A-shape (B), leaving about 7 feet of ridgeline between the tarp and the tree with the long tag end. Tie off the corners of the tarp (C).

Pole Position: Cut a 10-foot-long “push-up pole” (D) at least as thick as your wrist. Using the long tag end of the p-cord, lash the top of the push-up pole to the ridgeline 5 feet from the tree (E). Tie the end of the remaining cord to the middle grommet of the tarp over the ridgeline (F). Now stand the push-up pole vertically. This creates a raised peak in the tarp, which keeps chimney smoke away from campers.

Cooking Utensil: You could stop right there and build a warming fire just under the apex of the tarp, but take 10 more minutes to build a cooking fire. A “dingle stick” is a simple crane device used to suspend cooking pots over the fire. Cut another 10-foot pole and lash this dingle stick to the push-up pole so enough of the stick extends over the fire pit to hold a pot over the flames (G). Anchor the rear end with rocks or heavy logs.

7. When your headlamp burns out, make a torch

survival torch
Make a torch from a green branch topped with a fatwood torch head. Chris Crisman

Burn out your AAA batteries today, and a flaming ball of sap may be your only source of light. If you’re lucky, you can simply cut a pine-knot torch from a tree. Look for a dead branch still attached to the lower trunk. Scrape the joint with a knife, and if you see wood with a dense, red, sap-rich color, you can simply hack it off and light the knot. Otherwise, you will need to craft a torch from a green branch topped with a fatwood torch head.

Step 1: Cut a 4- to 5-foot shaft from a green tree branch 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Remove all of the bark. With a hatchet or a knife and baton, split the thicker end of the branch with two perpendicular lengthwise cuts down the stave about 10 inches. At the end of the splits, tightly lash parachute cord around the branch to prevent the splits from lengthening.

Step 2: Wedge fatwood splints or a couple of pine knots into these forks, all the way to the top. Pack the spaces between with smaller splinters and chunks of dried sap you can find on the bark of wounded trees or trunks drilled by woodpeckers and insects.

Step 3: Fatwood burns like crazy, but it often takes a little bit of coaxing to ignite. Use your knife to score some of the fatwood splints and shave curls of resin-rich fatwood onto the head of the torch. A quick word of warning: When lit, fatwood pitch will drip in globs of flaming sap—so never walk around with the torch. Instead, anchor the stave in the ground over bare soil or rocks. Then you can revel in channeling your inner Neanderthal.

8. When there’s snow, build a platform fire

Platform Fire
Simply building it will warm your cockles. Robert Prince

Break through a frozen pond and you’ll need to un-shiver your timbers pronto, but fire and water don’t mix even when the latter is in the fluffy, crystalline form of snow. Digging through the snow to bare ground is best, but if the snow is too deep you’ll need a few degrees of separation to keep a fire burning in deep powder. This platform fire does the job nicely, and with a bonus: Simply building it will warm your cockles.

Look Overhead: It’s always best to build a fire away from overhanging branches, but if you have no choice, don’t lay your blaze under snowy branches. Use a long stick to clear the snow burden off the foliage so it won’t melt into your fire, causing the ghost of Jack London to snicker in derision.

Heavy Footwork: Stomp down the snow in an area (A) large enough not only for the platform fire but for extra wood, cooking gear, and your freezing butt. Tamp the fire site as level as possible. Once the blaze is going, the entire fire lay will most likely settle a few inches into the snow, and starting off level will help keep wood and coals from sliding into the powder an hour into the burn.

Build a Raft: To raise the blaze, create a platform of two layers of wrist-thick wood (B), the greener the better. Break the wood into 4-foot lengths. Lay down one layer, and then the top layer perpendicular to the first, placing the sticks as close together as possible.

Flame On: Start with a simple tepee fire (C). It will catch quickly and throw out heat and light for the task at hand. Build a log-cabin fire (D) around the tepee, feeding dry sticks into the chimney formed by the cabin walls. This helps dry out larger pieces of wood, and creates a draft of hot, rising air to keep the tall, warm flames licking.

9. When it’s the last night at camp, build a magnum bonfire

survival fire
Bright Idea: The soil in established fire rings is often sodden just below the surface. Start your fire on a platform of dry sticks to keep humid air from being sucked into the blaze. Chris Crisman

A bonfire is not a campfire. If you can roast a wiener in the flames with anything shorter than an 18-foot-long telescoping tree pruner, it’s no bonfire. The only utility of this fire is to sear the memory of an awesome week at camp into the brain of every person within a quarter-mile radius. Let’s get started:

Step 1: Carefully consider the fire site. If you’re thinking about 6-foot logs and flaming spare couches, you might need 50 clear paces between the blaze and the first row of spectators. Dig a shallow pit a few inches deep and encircle it with rocks or mounded soil. This keeps the fire from spreading but also helps prevent burning logs from rolling into the crowd if the bonfire collapses in an unplanned way.

Step 2: To build a fire that will grow from a single match to a towering inferno to a contained bed of glowing coals all on its own, start with a 4-foot-tall tepee fire in the middle of the fire ring. The outer logs on the tepee should be 5 inches thick. Then build a towering log-cabin fire structure around the tepee. Keep every layer as even as possible.

Step 3: Everyone’s watching, so don’t screw it up. Soak a roll of toilet paper in kerosene and tuck it at the base of the tepee fire. You don’t have to light it with a flaming arrow shot across the dark sky. But, then again, you could.