Sign up for newsletter updates!

Build a Safe Fire, in a Safe Place.
© 2006

STEP ONE: Site Selection

Where you make your fire is very important. You need to make sure that the fire you start doesn't burn down the woods you are living in. No fireplace site should be anywhere near overhanging tree limbs. If the rising heat from the fire reaches these limbs, there is no way you can put it out by yourself unless you are "Smokey Bear" with a fire truck standing by. Smaller is better.

The site of the fire should be protected from the surrounding vegetation. A good rule of thumb is to keep all the vegetation back at least 3 feet from all parts of the fire site. This includes green plants that will eventually die and then burn from the heat of your fire. Don't burn down the woods just to have a hot cup of coffee.

Rocks are naturally found in most states. But not all rocks can be used to protect a fire. River rocks, or rocks that have been very wet for a long period of time can explode when the water trapped inside turns to steam and expands inside the rock. The exploding rock can do you serious injury. Instead, select rocks that have been laying around in the open for years. The harder and denser the rock, the better. If you can't find suitable rocks, use metal parts (including junk) you can salvage from virtually anywhere. It doesn't have to be pretty, just usable. Be inventive. Dirt and water = mud. Mud will not burn. Get the kids to line a fire pit with mud, the thicker the better. Your first fire will harden the mud into a safe fireplace. Don't forget to clean up the kids.

Try to build your fire in a "protected" location. That is, out of the direct force of possible strong winds. A very safe fire can be made into a raging inferno by strong wind. Blacksmiths have used forced air to melt and weld iron for centuries. Welding heat is not cooking heat.

Rain can ruin a perfectly safe and well-built fire. Without a metal-type roof, cooking over a campfire in the woods is very difficult, if not impossible. If you are facing several days of rain, cook several meals in advance and store them to eat cold later. Cold food is better than "raw" food. Never try to protect an open fire from the rain by using a cloth or plastic material of any kind. It will burn and then sag all over the place, eventually setting fire to you, your equipment, tent, trailer, etc. I have used a hood or trunk from a junked car in the past with good results...just make sure all the insulation is taken off first. Burned insulation in your food is dangerous and probably poisonous. I know it stinks. Sheet metal or corrugated metal roofing is adequate but sometimes difficult to support over a fireplace. Don't even think about building one inside one of those "screen-type" shelters that are available.

Many parks and recreational areas now are providing designated fire sites with brick, concrete, or metal rings. These sites are selected by Rangers who usually (but not always) know what they are doing. As long as stealth is not one of your problems, use these sites. After years of public use, most vegetation around these sites has been beaten back so clearing the ground around the fire is easy. Sweep away the leaves, and light your fire.

Speaking of leaves, keep your eye on them. A leaf that blows into and then out of your fire can burn down the whole place. Try to AVOID using paper in any open fire. As loose paper burns it gets very light weight and some burning embers will rise in the heat of the fire to be blown many feet away from the safe area. It looks spectacular at night, but can burn down Bambi's home forest.

Always keep a bucket of water (or a fire extinguisher) nearby to put out loose embers that escape from your fire site. You are responsible for what you do. Legally, morally, and financially.

STEP TWO: Build a fire place

There are many different types of fire sites you can quickly construct if there is no prefabricated site where you are camping (or hiding). You will have to decide which type to make. If you are going to be in the same site for a prolonged period of time, you probably want to make one that will stand up to daily use. The mud-lined fire site will work for a short time, but will deteriorate and eventually wash out or blow away. A fire site that is lined with brick, rock or metal is definitely preferable. In winter, a fire site that is lined with brick or rock will retain a great deal of heat and reflect it back even after the fire has gone out. Pioneers have been known to take hot rocks into their beds at night. (Be careful, some modern fabrics can burst into flame from the high heat of some rocks.) I personally feel that there is a good reason this in no longer done. Prehistoric or aboriginal peoples have been using hot rocks to boil water for centuries. I personally will pass on this one...but there it is, it works.


This is one of the easiest, quickest and safest fires to make. Dig yourself a trench about 3' by 1', about 1' deep. Place a layer of rocks, brick, (gravel will work) on the bottom of the trench. Build your fire on top of these rocks. By placing the rocks on the bottom, they will absorb and hold a lot of heat. When the embers have died out, the rocks may still be hot enough to cook on. For general cooking you will need some form of support over the top of the fire to hold your skillet or pots. These supports should be made of metal, but in a pinch heavy green wood can be used. However, the green wood dries cook quickly. You can use any type metal rod, tool, or device to hold up the pots and pans. Just make sure it is heavy enough to stand up to the heat of the fire.

OK, you don't have the time, energy, or tools to dig a hole. If you have a protected site, you can just clear the ground and make a circle of rocks. Clear away vegetation for at least 3' around the outside of the rock circle. Don't put the circle under any trees. The rocks will contain the fire inside the circle and (usually) keep burning logs from rolling out of the fire as it collapses. (Remember the warning about river-type rocks)

Of all the types of fire sites made over the years, this type is probably the most commonly used...and abused. Prehistoric people made elaborate fire pits using the largest rocks they could manage. They were used by generations of people in the same spot. Archeologists have used these sites for years to find out what types of food were eaten by these people. That means they were very sloppy and left their garbage in the pits. Don't do that. Partially cooked food rots. Rotten food not only smells bad but it attracts insects and rodents. I personally don't like sharing my campfire with rats.


A brick or stone fireplace is very hard to build while camping unless you are a stone mason. Some parks may provide them, but making one yourself is very hard to do. Unless you are homesteading, try for something smaller.


Not all brick is suitable for prolonged use around an open fire. If you can find "fire bricks" (used to make the inside of modern fireplaces, indoors) use these. They are reasonably cheap and transportable. The "common" brick, especially those with holes molded in them, hold water. And as we already know, water in heated masonry turns to steam which causes the masonry to explode. Enough said.

If you are staying in one place for a long time you can build one of these fireplaces. It combines a few good qualities of both a fireplace (with a flue) and a rock-lined pit. Building this one on the side of a sloping hill will save you some work later on putting wood into the fire.

Dig a circular hole around 9" deep with a channel on one side that leads down to the bottom. Line the bottom with rocks or gravel if you have them available. The firewood will go into the fire through the channel you have made so make sure you make it big enough for your largest-size firewood.

Place rocks (or bricks) all around the outer edge of the hole, building them up into an inverted funnel shape, gradually sloping inwards. You have to "bridge" over the channel you have just dug. At the top, flare the rim outwards slightly.

Now seal all the rocks with earth. (Remember the kids in the mud?) You now have a sealed and insulated chimney that will create its own upward draft from the rising heat.

Larger pieces of wood can be loaded down through the flue itself. It can burn almost any combustible material. Once the flames have died down, you can put a grill or grate over the flue and cook away.

You can control the fire temperature by opening or closing off the opening at both the top and bottom of the pit. This fire is very safe and will be very efficient, leaving little ash. It will burn for a long time and the heat is concentrated into a specific cooking area. However, its use as a heat source for a cold winter's day will not be as good as an open reflected fire. On the plus side, if evasion is a goal, this fire is hard to see unless you are directly overhead; and at a distance all you can see is what looks like a pile of dried mud

This is a kind of stove easily made with minimum hand tools. You need to find a metal drum of some size to make this one. A 5-gallon drum will be right for just a few people, while a 55-gallon drum will heat a whole group.

Make holes at the bottom of the drum and the sides, cutting a door in one side to load wood. Leave the top of the drum sealed but cut a few holes near the top to let out smoke and heat.

Set the drum on a ring of rocks to insure an updraft to keep the fire going. Start a fire inside the drum, stoking it through the door. Cook on the top and get warm on the sides. It works.

CAUTION: Make sure the drum never held flammable or caustic materials. There may still be residue inside the drum that will explode violently when heated with an open flame. Poisonous gasses can also develop. This entire drum will get VERY HOT.

HANGI METHOD (In Hawaii...Imuing)

This type of cooking is usually done by large groups of people and can be used to cook an entire pig, oink and all. It is very labor intensive but works really well if done carefully. The biggest danger is: 1. Opening the pit too early to discover the meat isn't done yet, and 2. Having dirt fall into your food. Once again, this method requires the use of hot rocks as a heat source for the actual cooking.

Dig an oval-shaped hole with rounded sides about 20-24" deep. Place kindling on the bottom. Lay dry logs across the hole, then another layer of logs at right angles to the bottom row.

Intersperse suitable rocks between the logs that are about fist-size. Continue to build up layers until you have at least 5-6 layers built up.

Top off the entire pile with another layer of rocks. The fire you will set will super-heat all these rocks, so make sure they don't explode and ruin all this work you have just done. 

When you set the kindling alight, the logs will burn down until everything eventually falls into the pit.

Remove all embers and ash. Be careful, it's hot!

Use tongs to handle hot rocks.

(In Hawaii, the hot rocks are carefully lifted up to put fragrant leaves under them, eventually wrapping up the food to be cooked. Unless you're a botanist, don't do this in the woods. Poison Ivy makes a poor garnish.)

Place your food on top of the hot rocks with the meat in the center. Keep the veggies towards the edge. Keep a gap between the food and the dirt.

Lay green saplings across the pit and place leaves, blankets, etc. over these logs. (Hawaiians use wet blankets that are specifically used only for cooking). Cover the entire lot with earth. Seal it well. Let no heat escape. You have just made an underground pressure cooker.

Cooking time will vary greatly based on the amount of food to be cooked, the amount of heated rocks, and the quality of the seal over the pit. Unfortunately, there is no second chance if you misjudge the cooking time. After at least 1-1/2 hours (preferably more) you will find the food cooked and usually delicious. Overcooked is preferable to undercooked.

I don't know if the time and energy for this method is worth it for normal camping, but would make a great group effort if you need to keep people busy on a group project. The morale factor should be considered here since a lot of cooperation is needed for a large meal.

Undercooked meat can be salvaged by roasting or broiling over a fire until done. The flavor of the pressure cooked food will be slightly less, but the food will be edible. Veggies can be boiled or sauteed with the same result.


This is a very common contraption, with many variations available commercially. To make one yourself all you need is a large food tin or metal box. If it has some type of hinged lid, so much the better. The lid will be turned sideways to make a side-opening door.

To make this one work, you set the metal box (with door opening sideways) on top of some rocks. The fire will be built below the metal box to heat the oven. The tricky part is that it now has to be covered with earth to make a layer of insulation around the box. You have to leave a small opening or gap at the back of the oven to let out the heat and smoke of the fire (chimney). You also have to leave the front open so you can add wood, light the fire, stoke the fire, etc.

If you have a oven thermometer handy that looks like a long nail, you can stick the end into the box and actually read what the inside temperature really is. The more insulating dirt you use, the better the quality of this oven will be. Once again, keeping the dirt out of the food can be tricky. If you elect to use mud to cover the oven you will have to bring it up to heat once or twice to drive off (dry) the cooling water in the mud.

It is often easier to use charcoal to heat this type oven since controlling the heat of hard-wood embers can be difficult. If you assume that each charcoal briquette adds 25-35 degrees F. to the oven, then it is easy to compute how many briquettes you will need. Temperature can be regulated by adding or taking out briquettes. The closer you monitor the heat, the less fluctuations will affect the cooking. Nobody said it was easy.

Do not let baked goods sit directly on the floor of this oven. Place it on some sort of rack, aiming to be as close to the middle of the oven as possible. Now you can cook anything in here you could cook at home.


Boiling water requires a container of some sort. Anything that is metal and can hold a liquid can be used. I am not aware of any commonly used metal that will melt at the same temperature water boils (212 degrees F).

Paper bags can be used to boil water also. Yes, its true. Find a good quality paper bag and place it on a removable grill. Fill the bag about 1/2 full with water. Get a fire going with supports for the grille around the edge. Place the bag (on the grille) over the fire. Open flames are OK. After a while, the water will boil. How does this work? Simple. The paper burns at a higher temperature than water boils. As the water is heated, the water cools the paper over the fire. Some of the bag "over" the water may burn off, but not below the water line. To use the water, move the entire grille off the fire to another location. The bag is fragile now and if you break it over the fire, you will put the fire out. (Want to know how I know this? I did it.)

Another method is to take a container of water close to a fire and use hot rocks to heat up the water. Just place the rocks (using tongs) directly into the water. Remove them when they are cooled, adding another in its place. Eventually, the water will reach boiling temperature.


The rocks used by past civilizations were used over and over and apparently handed down from generation to generation. If you are a nomadic type person, then the next spot you select to camp may not have suitable rocks for cooking. Take them with you. It adds to the load, but you can eat, boil water, and even sleep with them on a cold night. Before metal was discovered, rocks were all there was.


The phrase "stoking the fire" refers to the fire-keeper using a stick or metal rod to jostle the logs and embers around inside the fire while it is burning. If you light a fire and do nothing to it, ash builds up on the logs and sticks, effectively smothering the fire. This ash creates uneven burning and "hot spots" in the fire. A really good fire will burn evenly in a circle, with an equal amount of hot embers evenly spaced throughout the fire base area. It is frustrating to have a skillet with one cold corner. It is important to get as even a bed of coals as possible when baking with any type of oven. Your electric oven has a serpentine electric coil to spread out the heat in the oven. In a campfire, you have to spread out the coals and embers by hand.

Hint: Do this adjustment gently. A large log falling through a pile of smaller, partially burned sticks can make quite a shower of sparks. You risk getting burned yourself, setting the woods on fire, or at the least getting soot into your food while it cooks. A little practice will help you get the feel of how the fire is developing. You can carefully use your hand above the fire to feel where the hot and cold spots are. Move the fire into the cold spots. The ash on the logs is usually so fine that just the movement of the logs will knock it off. Some hardwoods have tough bark. The bark protected the tree during its life, and it does the same thing in a fire. Bark will come loose from the wooden limbs but will not fall off easily. It creates an insulating airspace between the bark and the log, preventing the main limb from burning evenly. Knocking the bark off sometimes takes more effort than merely shifting the logs around.


Any wood will burn, but some is MUCH better than others. Hard woods burn the best but are usually the most expensive if you have to buy your wood. The last park I stayed at sold a dozen pieces of seasoned, split oak for $5.00 a dozen. This park would not let you gather firewood from the forest. You can save yourself some money by gathering firewood in advance of a planned camping trip. Let's look at some terminology:

  • SEASONED WOOD: Refers to wood that has usually been cut down at least a year ago and left stacked in someone's yard to dry out. Oak burns best if seasoned at least 1 year. Softer woods have fibers that are not as densely packed so will dry out a little faster. Some shady wood-mongers drive around neighborhoods with oak or maple or what-ever and claim it is "seasoned". Ask them how long. Just because the outer 1/2" is dry doesn't mean its dry in the center. Try to get wood that is a consistent length so that it will fit into your pre-planned fireplace without needing further cutting to size. 18 to 24" is about right for most needs.

  • SPLIT WOOD: This is usually large tree limbs or trunks that are way too large to handle if left un-split. Most splitting now is done by hydraulic rams that can split automobiles. The old fashioned way is to use an axe, a sledgehammer, and some wedges to split the big pieces. This is a labor intensive job best done in the cold of winter. "Firewood warms you twice. Once when you split it, and once when you burn it."

  • BAD WOOD: Some wood should not be used for cooking. Any wood that has a wood preservative in it should be avoided. The chemicals can really foul up a meal. Most pine woods should be avoided. The pine tar (pitch) will never dry out of the wood. As the wood burns, the pitch turns molten and then to steam. It can make logs literally explode if enough steam is trapped in the wood. Burning pine has caused many a chimney fire in modern homes. Burning pine logs creates creosote in the rising column of smoke. This creosote will slowly coat the liner of the flue, getting thicker and thicker. Finally, the heat from the fireplace will ignite this buildup of creosote and the entire flue will catch on fire. In older homes without sufficient protection around the flue, the entire roof can go up in flames in just minutes. The first thing a Fire Marshall looks at after a chimney fire is what type of wood you are burning. He usually walks away shaking his head mumbling about stupid people who don't know NOT to burn pine in an indoor fireplace. He also tells your insurance company.

  • TINDER: This is the term used to describe small fuzzy-like materials that will catch fire quickly when you first light up a fire. When I was a tadpole we were only given one match to light our fires. If it didn't start the first time, you went both cold and hungry. Pioneer women and children collected suitable tinder while they moved across the prairies and woodlands. They kept this stuff dry in a wooden or metal "tinder box". You only need enough tinder to get a good hot flame going to light the next larger pieces of wood you will put on the fire. It will produce a fast-burning hot flame. It doesn't last long, though. If you only have one match to use, keep a second supply of tinder handy so the flame doesn't go out before the larger pieces of wood catch fire. Even dry pocket lint can be used, if you collect it. A lot of plants have fuzzy seed pods you can use and dry out. The best tinder I have ever used is finely shaved birch bark. Birch bark will burn even when its wet. Practice with different types of tinder before you go out on your first campfire trip. Try to avoid using paper, especially newspaper. Paper attracts moisture, produces a lot of easily blown flying embers, and isn't a really good choice of materials. Most tinder sizes (stick-type) are under 1/4" in diameter. It must be kept dry. When the stone age man was discovered in the Alps, he had small pieces of tinder still in his pack. He was high in the hills, where no vegetation grew at all.

  • KINDLING: This term refers to the next larger size of firewood to put over the tinder when you start the fire. The size of this wood varies greatly, from 1/4" to 2" in diameter. It also must be kept dry. The whole point is to use small wood to light big wood, the hotter the better. Start small and get bigger. Small strips of split dry wood make ideal kindling. There is a lot of shaggy edges that catch fire easily. Small sticks can be used, but be careful of those that have a bark covering. The bark may burn quickly, but the wood itself may be protected by the airspace created when the bark pulls away from the wood. I try to ex deep. Place kindling on the bottom. Lay dry logs across the hole, then another layer of logs at right angles to the bottom row. Intersperse suitable rocks between the logs that are about fist-size. Continue to build up layers until you have at least 5-6 layers built up. Top off the entire pile with another layer of rocks. The fire you will set will super-heat all these rocks, so make sure they donclusively use split wood for kindling.

  • LOGS: Refers to cut or chopped tree limbs or trunks, and are the largest woods put into a fire. They are only added after a very good fire has been started using tinder and kindling. A common mistake is to load up a fire with logs too early in the fire building process. If, for some reason, the fire you set goes out, you have to take the logs off again to get back to the base of the fire. There can be embers and hot spots on these logs that can burn you if your not careful. Once a fire is really going good, you can use all sorts of techniques to keep it going. More wood must be periodically added to the fire to keep it going. But do this carefully. Always "SET" a log on a fire, never "THROW" it on the fire. Remember the flying burning embers? Don't do this to yourself. Setting the logs is not a haphazard toss onto the fire. All fires need oxygen. Logs should be stacked or placed in such a way that air can still get to the wood too. A large pile of ash will not allow enough air into the fire for it to burn well. It may smolder and smoke, but nothing useful is coming out of it.


    Yes, there are customary things to do and don't do around a fire. Here's a partial list of time honored rules:
    1. Approaching someone else's fire: Call out a greeting and wait to be invited in.
    2. Never throw cigarette butts into the fire.
    3. Don't spit into a fire, particularly someone else's fire. There may be food cooking in the embers and you just spit on their food.
    4. Never, never allow running or horse-play around a fire. The danger should be obvious.
    5. Always tell everyone in camp when you are starting or putting out a fire. That way they will know when the danger of an open fire starts, and when it ends.
    6. Clean out the fire site when you leave. I hate it when I have to clean up someone else's mess. Dispose of garbage in a proper container, or bury it deep. Leave the site cleaner than when you got there.
    7. Make sure the fire is completely out and will not re-light after you leave.

  • SQUAW WOOD: This old term refers to dead branches hanging on an otherwise live tree, or any dead tree. Many parks allow you to collect "squaw wood" since its just going to fall off and hit someone anyway. Some parks prohibit all wood collection. Dead branches are usually pre-seasoned for you by Mother Nature.

    The most efficient and safest way to collect "squaw wood" is to use a long rope with a rock tied onto the end of it. Toss the rope over the dead branch and pull it down. Be sure you're standing a ways away from the falling branch, and not standing under it. Make sure no one else is around to inadvertently walk under the same branch you are trying to pull down. Let everyone know what you are doing and where you are doing it.


There are a few no-no's in fire building:

  • Don't use gasoline or kerosene to start a fire. The chance of spilling the "accelerant" is just too great. If you just cannot find any other way...soak a small absorbent pad with the stuff and carefully haul it to the fire area. Use this ONLY if there is no other fire going. Even a small spark can light off the pad while it's still in your hand. Alcohol can be used here since it evaporates very quickly and leaves no ecologically damaging residue.

  • Don't build a fire on or around the roots of a tree. The fire will destroy the roots, killing the tree. Roots can catch fire underground and eventually work its way to the main trunk, sometimes weeks after you leave the area.

  • Never burn used motor oil. It stinks, leaves oily soot on everything it touches, and is a terrible mess to clean up. Your neighbors will hate you if you burn any petroleum product in your fire.

  • Don't use an old tire as a fire ring. Burning rubber is one of the biggest stinks there is. Rubber is now a man-made product that burns forever. Many fires starting in used-tire collection yards have burned for months, even with the fire fighters pouring water on them daily. No friends will be made with burning tires.

  • Don't make a fire that is larger than what you need. A large fire can get out of control quickly, especially in a strong wind. A large fire is wasteful of resources and is just not necessary for an enjoyable camping experience. You do not need a college-style bonfire to celebrate camping. Experienced campers will avoid you as "not knowing what you're doing", when they see you with too large a fire. They may have other comments as well.

  • Don't put out your fire by pouring a bucket of water on it. Dribble the water on the embers or unburned logs slowly. A large amount of water causes a shocking amount of ash and embers to fly up as the water instantly turns to steam in the fire. Remember to cool the rocks too. You can only be sure the fire is completely out when you can pick everything up with your bare fingers. One or two burn blisters will quickly show you if you have done a good job putting out your fire. Using too much water will also cause the ash and small stuff to flow out of the camp fire ring and into the walking/living areas. No friends made when you make people and animals walk through soot and fire ash.

  • Don't leave your old ash and partially burned junk in the fire pit. This is just common courtesy. In a survival or evasion situation, you are giving away your position to anyone following you. An experienced tracker can tell you how far behind you he is by the heat from a "cold" fire. He can also tell what you have eaten, and how you are feeling, by what you leave behind. If you are careless enough to leave your junk behind, you are probably making other mistakes too. If possible, bury your fire area under fresh dirt. Make sure its out. A fire underground can smolder for weeks.

STEP THREE: Laying the fire

Laying the fire refers to the step-by-step procedures to make any fire. The basics of any fire are always the same. You start with the smallest wood (tinder) and add kindling, then logs. The photo (left) shows a newly lighted fire before the logs are added.

When you have cleared out the site that you will use for your campfire, start collecting the firewood you will need. Experience will tell you how much wood you will need, but it is always better to have too much wood, than too little.


The heat of a campfire creates a rising column of air that is extremely hot. Smoke and partially burned ash and soot go with it. Always be aware of which way the wind is blowing. Tents, trailers, and people should be UP wind, not down wind.

Heat travels up, but radiates in all directions. It is almost just as hot on the side of the fire as it is above it. A really hot fire can burn you and other flammable materials without even touching the flames. If you are ever in doubt that you are too close to the fire, back away from it.


It will do you no good at all to collect dry firewood only to find that a night-time shower has soaked it so badly you can't use it. Covering dry firewood is also necessary. I try to haul in as much wood as I can, keeping it in the back of my covered pickup until it's needed. But you can also make a storage shelter for it if you are so inclined.

The longer you stay in one particular site the more important a covered wood storage rack becomes. You don't want to waste valuable camping or cooking time searching around all over the place for a suitable piece of firewood. I keep a small 8' x 10' tarp exclusively for this purpose. It's very romantic to use only sticks and leaves to cover your firewood, but I also believe some modern equipment has its place in my modern campsite. A totally waterproof firewood cover falls into this category. I hate gathering firewood in the rain.

The rack shown here was made using small limbs and leaves to hold the firewood. It is sorted by size so you can easily reach what you are looking for.

It has to be reasonably strong, since firewood is heavy. The stronger it is, the less likely it is to fall over from the weight of the wood or the strength of a strong wind. No matter how you make it, keep all firewood off of the ground. The ground has moisture in it that will seep into the bottom pieces of firewood. A wet piece of wood will smoke badly and burn poorly, making coals of questionable quality.


Many campers elect to use a "U" shaped rock perimeter. This allows you to easily add wood from the front of the fire. The larger flat rock in the rear will direct smoke upwards acting like a chimney. It will also reflect heat back into the fire area and act as a wind break if the back faces the wind. Care needs to be taken to make sure the front of the fire area is free of combustibles. A metal grille will be added to span the side rocks to support skillets, pots and pans. 

Inside the rocks, you will first lay out the tinder you have so carefully saved in a waterproof container. Use only enough tinder to get a good flame going but keep enough handy in case the flames goes out before the fire gets going good. Stack the smallest sizes of kindling on top of the tinder. Probably the most efficient method is to build a small teepee-shaped pile atop the tinder. This inverted funnel shape keeps the heat going up into the next larger layers of kindling. Ed. Note. One website I found states that the "teepee" should never be used. I challenge this. The "teepee" is perfectly fine for all kindling under 1/4" diameter.

A common mistake is to try to light the tinder before an adequate supply of kindling is on top of it to burn. One slip of the hand and the kindling can fall down on top of the tinder, putting it out.

Continue to lay out your kindling over and around the assembled tinder and small kindling. You can use a "log-cabin" type pile to surround the tinder, or just randomly pile it across the top of the pile. The fire photograph shows the random method of adding kindling. In either case, you continue to add progressively larger wood to the fire.


Another common mistake is to pile so much wood on the fire that you can't reach the tinder to put a match to it. You have to leave a small hole in the pile (in the front where you are working) so you don't have to take the whole thing apart just to light it up.

Light it up. Stand back, and admire your work. Keep a bucket of water nearby in case something unplanned happens. Keep adding larger and larger wood until you get the final sized logs going at a full blaze.

Keep the wood evenly distributed all around the cooking area. You will be cooking with the coals, not the flames. Continue stoking (poking and prodding) the fire to ensure it burns evenly and won't have hot and cold areas in the fire. For cooking purposes, even heat is important.

Make use of this time to start preparing your food for the pan.

Once the fire has reached it maximum size you want it to be, let it burn down into coals and embers. When the last flame dies out, you are ready to get down to cooking. Spread out the coals evenly, or bank (stack) the coals around the area you will finally place your pots, pans, or oven.


Your cooking fire is now ready for whatever you want to cook. But no matter what you are cooking you have to put it into something over the fire. That "something" has to be held up securely. There are numerous tools and tricks to campfire cooking.

Simple Grate: This is usually and iron or steel grating provided by the campground you are in, or that you brought with you. Avoid using the flimsy shelving found inside junked refrigerators as they will warp or melt after a while. A cast iron grate is found in many parks. However, they are usually filthy dirty from previous campers who didn't clean up after themselves. If you put the grate over the fire while the flames are still high, it will usually burn off old food and kill wandering bacteria. Use a barbecue wire brush to clean off the grating to knock off the larger chunks of stuck food, etc. It may not look pretty but it is sanitary after 10 minutes in a hot flame.
Modern fire rings: The photo on the left shows the newer type fire rings that some parks are now using. They have a fold-over adjustable rack that will flip back out of the way when you are starting the fire. My personal experience with them is that they are usually only large enough to cook one pan at a time. If you want to cook two or more things at a time, you will have to bring another rack with you.

However, there are a few other options available to you for holding your cooking tools: 

Hanging Equipment:
You can suspend many types of pans and pots from any number of things, including green limbs. In all of the examples below, the pot or pan is suspended by using metal hooks and/or chain. You will need to be able to raise and lower the pots over the fire depending on the heat of the coals. If cooking stops, lower the pot closer to the fire.

DANGER: All metal equipment over the fire is hot enough to severely burn you. Use heavy gloves or tongs to move metal parts. Most kitchen oven mitts are OK for a while but will burn through quickly over an open campfire.

POT RODS: The two diagrams show two hand-made types of pot rods using green branches. On the left is the Swinging Pot Rod that the cook can use to raise and lower the pot, as well as swing it off of the fire if you want to check the contents or add other items to the pot. On the right is two views of a semi-adjustable pot rod. The height of the rod is adjustable by making longer or shorter forked sticks to prop up the rod. I have used this one and find that the base of the stick/rod is hard to keep firmly in the ground when you move it up and down with the adjusting forked sticks. If you're careful, this one works well. However, you cannot swing it off of the fire.

SIMPLE RAIL: This method is fixed in one position unless you have other hooks built in at various heights up and down the support poles. A simple set of forked sticks of green wood or metal can be used. The most common method of adjusting the height of the pots is to hang them on hooks and chain. From experience, the supporting forked sticks need to be set well into the ground. A heavy pot being stirred starts to swing, putting sideways pressure on the supporting poles. If it's too flimsy, dinner and all comes crashing down into the fire.

The sturdiest of all the hanging methods. Modern tripods have a chain type system to prevent the 3 legs from kicking out around the fire. Again, the only way to raise and lower the pots is to use hooks and chain. The tripod can also be made of green wood, but since it is centered over the middle of the fire, the top will dry out quickly and may even smolder or burn during cooking. Use green wood only one time or you are really pushing your luck.

MODERN DEVICES: Let your checkbook be your guide. All the following equipment is available for purchase from numerous suppliers. The more cooking tools you have the easier it will be to cook over an open campfire. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Examine your own cooking style and needs to evaluate each item. Purchasing an expensive cooking tool is fruitless and expensive if you use it once and never use it again. If you are setting up a semi-permanent camp for long periods of time, it is easier to get volunteers to do some of the cooking chores if you have strong, simple cooking tools. Rotating the labor is one way to ensure the cook doesn't "burn out" before the fire does.


Tinder today is just as important as it was 200 years ago. So much so, that today's camper, backpacker or survivalist has a lot of modern choices from equipment manufacturers. There are now many modern choices to pick from for chemical-type waterproof (resistant) "fire starters". Most come in waterproof containers and are easy to fit into a pocket. Gone are the days of Mom and the kids searching the prairie for dry tinder. You can still do it, of course, particularly if you're mad at your wife, but its not necessary. Almost every camping equipment section of Walmart or K-mart will have similar items on the shelves.

Most look like little sugar cubes or sticks. They burn with a high heat for a long period of time and usually only require one match to start up. Some claim to be waterproof. They are inexpensive and there's usually enough of them in a pack to start several fires. Purists may not approve, but in rainy weather, having a piece of tinder that is hot enough - long enough - to dry out damp wood, is a real plus. It can make even a bad camping day into a memorable experience.

The following is just a few examples of what's available today. I haven't used them all, but most will work.


You probably noticed that the price of modern waterproof tinder available today is not cheap. There is another option: you can make your own. The only cash outlay for many of the following examples will be for a block of paraffin wax. Paraffin wax can still be found on the grocery shelves where they sell home canning supplies. Paraffin wax must be melted in a double-boiler: That's a pan sitting inside another pan that is filled with boiling water. Molten paraffin wax will burst into flame over an open fire, so be careful.

Egg Cartons: Make cheap and disposable molds for paraffin wax-based firestarters. Some recipes call for the paraffin wax to be filled with dryer lint. Some call for the addition of sawdust or small wood chips (such as from a pencil sharpener). Whatever you use to add, follow these steps:
  1. Melt paraffin wax in a double boiler. Take some dryer lint (or wood sawdust) and mix it into the paraffin wax. Stir it into the wax so it is all saturated.
  2. Pour the molten paraffin wax into an egg carton. You don't have to fill them up, half-way is just fine. I like to use those small 2 oz medicine cups as a mold. They have a flat bottom and top and can be kept in the cup until needed around the campfire. Burn the cup too, if you like.
  3. Let them cool. If you're in a hurry, put them in a freezer.
  4. Cut the hardened starters into small pieces, or break them apart by hand. It is not supposed to be a thing of beauty, you are going to burn it up anyway.

Charcoal: Often overlooked, the self-lighting charcoal briquette works just fine as a fire starter. Pile your pre-assembled tinder on top of one single charcoal briquette and it will burn for more than 30 minutes. Make sure the kind you use has "Self Lighting" on the package. Without these added chemicals, it will take forever to start. An option is to dip a charcoal briquette into the paraffin wax. Wrap a string around the charcoal and use the waxed string as a wick to light it. As the wax ignites, the charcoal starts to burn.

Paper and Paraffin: As much as I dislike using paper, here's another method of starting a fire: Take a newspaper and cut into 4" strips, roll up tight. Tie the roll with twine, leaving a 2" tail of twine for dipping. Dip the whole thing into melted paraffin wax. Use the "tail" as a wick when you light it up. Cheap and easy. Another method is to take empty toilet paper rolls and fill them with dryer lint. Wrap the whole thing with wax paper, sealing it with paraffin. Burn the whole thing. Not pretty, but it works.

Fuzz Sticks: One of my all time favorites since I learned how to do this about the time dinosaurs roamed the woods. Find a piece of dry hard wood about 3/8" to 1/2" in diameter (about 5-8" long) and take off the bark (if any). Using a very sharp knife, cut as many curls of wood on the stick as you can fit along its entire length. Don't worry if you accidentally cut a few off, make a new curl in its place. When you light up this stick, the small curly ends burn first since they are thin and catch fire quickly. Use can use a fuzz stick as the center support post for all the other small pieces of tinder and small kindling you will use. This is a great thing to do while sitting on the bank of a river, watching your bobber in the water. Make sure that if youngsters are going to do it, they keep the knife pointing away from themselves; and the other thumb out of the way. A little training will prevent a nasty finger cut. Dull knives only cut people!

I learned the hard way that a paraffin wax starters will melt all over car seats if left locked in the car in the sun.


The worst thing you can do around a campfire is to start up without a plan. The Scouts have for years used many methods of organization that can be used by even a single camper. The cowboys on roundup used a chuck wagon that was organized with a place for everything, and everything in its place. It is frustrating to start up a dinner fire only to find you left your favorite pan or utensils at home. The best method I have found is to keep all the outdoor cooking equipment in the same box.

The Scouts call these boxes a "Chuck Box" or "Patrol Kitchen Box" or "Troop Box". I call them very handy. I have included a couple of plans I found on the internet as an attachment in the back of this book. Someone with carpentry skills needs to put these together, and you can add or adjust these boxes according you your own needs. I keep the height of my box lower than the tonneau cover over the bed of my pickup. You can make yours any size you need. Everything you need for campfire cooking can be kept in this one box, either loaded in the truck all the time, or taken on/off as needed. You can make the boxes out of plywood or salvaged boards. The cost of the box is limited only by your pocketbook.

A couple of manufacturers sell these boxes pre-made, and in some cases, pre-stained or painted. If you have no carpentry skills, this may be the way to go.

Keeping your campfire neat and clean shows everyone else you know what you're doing. You can find all the tools you need when you need them. You are not stumbling around in the dark hunting for the lost spatula that you should have put away but didn't. Your valuable equipment is safely locked away from both human and animal predators. Everything is close at hand to the work area, and put away neatly when not needed. At night you can go to sleep peacefully knowing everything will still be there when you wake up.

The more permanent the campsite, the more you will improve on this box. Boy Scout troops are notoriously hard on their toys. Most boxes, if strongly built, will last for years.

A family-sized box, used carefully by caring family members, can last a lifetime. Military mobile kitchens use this same method to move their kitchens from place to place. Only their "boxes" are made of military quality metal. If you have a friend who is a welder, ask him/her to make you one out of diamond-plate aluminum. That's my next goal.

The box on the left is an example of one that's offered for sale commercially. It has piano (continuous) hinges for the lids and doors. Setting out of the truck, it is a piece of professional furniture you would be proud to show off around the camp grounds.

Some sort of lifting handle on each side must be added to ensure the box is easily moved by 2 people. They are usually too large for one person to handle. The fold-down front door is used as a preparation table for the cook to use. Padlocks should be added if you store food inside the box. Raccoons can get into anything.

Some boxes have their own fold-up legs that make it a free standing storage and preparation center. If you are smart, you will try to make this box as water-tight as possible. Wet cast iron tools will rust if left exposed to rain...doesn't do the sugar much good either. Or you can just cover it up with a tarp. You pick.


Safety around a campfire cannot be over stated: You life, and the life of everyone and everything in the woods depends on it. I've covered a lot of safety rules around a campfire, but here are a few more that I need to add:
  • Keep all propane and gasoline tanks as far away from the fire as possible. I have seen the disastrous results of a propane tank explosion. It was indoors, and over 150 people died as a result.
  • Never use fires, candles or matches in or near a tent. Use a flashlight
  • Never freshen a fire with a liquid accelerant. This includes gasoline, kerosene, lamp oil or gas, or any other liquid that can catch fire with explosive results. A good friend of mine lost some skin using a can of lighter fluid. The fire climbed up the column of fluid, catching his hand on fire.
  • Teach everyone around your campfire what to do if their clothing accidentally catches fire. The old "STOP" "DROP" and "ROLL" is still true.
  • Develop a fire escape plan for every new camp site you use. Go INTO the wind to get away if it gets out of hand.
  • Make sure any free-standing equipment around a fire is level and firm. Don't let a strong gust of wind knock over your tables into a fire.
  • Pitch tents at least 15 feet UPWIND from all fires.
  • Use only approved lighter fluids for charcoal fires. Gasoline is NOT approved.
  • If you have an infant or toddler, keep them in sight and control at all times. Babies don't understand fire and are attracted to the pretty colors. They haven't a clue what "HOT" means.
  • Fill lanterns and fuel-oil stoves well away from the campfire. Use a funnel and if you spill something, clean it up immediately.
  • NEVER throw aerosol cans into the fire. THEY EXPLODE!
  • KEEP A FIRE EXTINGUISHER NEARBY!!!! I can't stress this enough.
You're ready now to go forth into the forest with sufficient knowledge to build a safe and usable fire. You have enough knowledge and equipment to cook. The next section is dedicated to one of the most versatile and clever pieces of cooking equipment you can own. The venerable cast iron Dutch Oven. Good Luck.


This could be called the 'Rambo' page. You're alone in the woods, being chased by bad guys, you're cold, wet and in dire need for a fire to survive. What do you do? Improvise...Adapt...Overcome...ho-hah! Here's some more fire-making tips I've used in the past. Granted, the butane lighter is still my first choice...but you don't always have one:

The Burning Lens: This has been used ever since glass was invented. Any magnifying lens has a focal point where all the incoming light focuses on one spot. Using the sunlight as the source, hold the lens over your small pile of tinder until an intense spot of light hits it in the center. Very soon, the gathered heat from the sun will start the tinder to smolder and then burst into flame. Blow gently on the tinder and it becomes very hot, very quickly. The size of the lens does not matter, but the better quality of the lens will make the job easier. Some "survival knives" have this type lens built into the knife (such as the bigger Swiss Army knives).

Bow Drill: This labor-intensive method of starting fires uses the friction of moving wood to create enough heat to ignite tinder. A springy curved bow, about 2' long has a leather thong or rope loosely hung between the ends. This loop is passed one time around a second piece of hard wood, the spindle, preferably oak. The bow will be "sawed" back and forth to spin the spindle. This piece is usually about 12" long, about A third block of wood is used on top to hold the spinning wood, while a forth piece of soft wood is on the bottom to create friction. All these woods have to be carefully selected, and dry as a bone. With a lot of effort, and a lot of luck, you'll have a fire...sometime. Of all the primitive methods available, I would use this one next to last. However, the effort of sawing the bow will keep you warm as you work.

Flint and Steel: This is probably the best all-around method if you can find the stuff to use. The best way is to have it on your person when you hit the woods. The main problem is the steel itself, not the stone. Contrary to popular opinion - knives, hatchets, gun barrels and belt buckles are RARELY (IF EVER) made from the proper steel for starting fires. In fact, damage to those items can occur if you try to use them. It is best to purchase this item ahead of time. The flint can be the "true" English flint or any other rocks in the flint family, such as Chert, Quartz, Obsidian, etc.. Many of these rocks can be found almost anywhere in North America. Look around for small rocks that fracture to a sharp edge when struck with a blunt object.

Hand Drill: My least favorite method. In this method, the spindle is spun back and forth using only the friction of your hands. You have to start at the top of the spindle and rapidly move the palms back and forth to create friction on the bottom piece. It takes a lot of work and a lot of patience to get this hot enough to create an ember in the notch. Don't get me wrong, this actually works. But it's hard on your hands. Having extra people around to spell you is a definite plus.

This type tinder has to be made up in advance. Essentially, it is made up of squares or circles of un-treated, 100% natural cotton or linen cloth. (Untreated means no fire-proofing or other man-made chemicals added to the material in the cloth. No rayon or nylon blends, please.) Old tee-shirts and underwear works great. You are going to cook this cloth to be a small, thin, easily ignited piece of charcoal:

Cut the cloth into small circles or squares. Place them loosely packed into a tin-can. Cover the tin can with a tight-fitting piece of aluminum foil and with a small pin, place one hole in the foil top. Place this can in the coals of a fire for 5 to 10 minutes. Pull the can out when the smoke stops coming out the hole in the top of the can. Let the can cool off. I refresh my supply using my charcoal grill, when dinner is done. Open the lid and check the char-cloth. It should have a uniform black color and have the feel of silk. These little jewels will light up almost immediately using any of the fire starting techniques above. It is especially useful with the flint and steel method that relies on sparks to ignite the tinder. When used with the Burning Lens, it makes starting a fire almost instantaneous.

Store the char-cloth in a small waterproof metal container for later use. I use an old "Altoids" container with the sides sealed with electrical tape. The char-cloth weighs next to nothing. You can pack a lot of char-cloth into this container, for use with many fires. You only need one piece for each fire you start. See Attachment 6, Making char-cloth, for details.

For detaild instructions, see Making Char Cloth.

The Burning Lens - From ICE:

Any clear water can be frozen to make a lens. Use the clearest water you can find; boiling it makes it even clearer...but you don't have fire yet...forget that. Use a small plastic bag or aluminum foil to make a rough mold for the water. Since you're probably already freezing in Alaska, or Boston, set it aside to freeze. Once it is solid all the way through, use a knife to shape it roughly as seen on the right. Then, find a rough rock and grind down the rough edges until it's nearly smooth. Then, using the heat from your hands, gently melt down all the grind marks until it is smooth and clear. Then, holding it perpendicular to the sun, find the focal point, heat the tinder, and enjoy your fire. The ice must be clear.

The Mini-Bow Drill:

As this picture shows, not all bow drills have to be full size. If you take all the dimensions given for the Bow Drill, scale everything down until the whole thing fits in your pocket. With the right wood, this little item might even pass through a quick pat-down search. Fully functional, it will allow you to keep your hands free for more important items such as water, weapons, food, blankets, etc..

Adobe Oven:

This little oven is constructed from adobe clay and straw bricks. The bricks were made small enough to make the small oval shape you see here. Once the little bricks are sun dried for 5 or 6 days, build the oven as seen on the right. Make it as big or as small as you like. Use adobe clay as the mortar between the bricks. Once its finished, cover the entire outside with more adobe mud, to seal all the leaks, and provide a measure of water-tightness. Eventually, if you don't paint it (whitewash will do), rain will melt the whole thing down to nothing. A bio-degradable oven. To use it, build your fire inside the oven, adding or taking out the coals to reach the cooking temperature you need. The relatively thick adobe walls will hold heat for a long time. Since each oven will be different, you will have to experiment to find out what works for you. Just slide your meal into the oven, and watch it cook. You might want to rotate it for even cooking since it will be cooler by the open doorway. If you will be camping for only a short time, you won't have the time to build one. But if you are in a semi-permanent spot, it might be worth the effort.

Trench Stove:

This is a modified version of the Yukon Stove shown earlier. In this version, no chimney is built. Best built on the side of a slope, the fire is fed into the larger lower hole, using only small sticks and branches. Food is cooked in a pot set over the chimney hole. Be careful not to cover the hole completely, smothering the fire. Make sure you pull out the surrounding vegetation around the stove, as the temperatures will be quite hot. If the wind is blowing directly into the hole, it will be a "trench furnace", instead of a stove. This system is almost invisible unless the pot is in place. Smoke is kept to a minimum using only very dry wood. A good semi-permanent, easily cancelable method for cooking with a pot or skillet. If you have to leave in a hurry, pile all the dug out dirt back in and "boogie".

Fires such as the trench stove can be placed under tall trees since the flames are kept below ground level. The rising (almost clear) smoke is further dissipated by the branches and leaves of the tree, making your fire almost invisible to the naked eye. Fires built among rocky ridges and in small valleys do the same thing, with the shape of the rocks dissipating the smoke.

With a little pre-planning, cooking and living WELL is possible.