How to start a summer bonfire

By Arran Wallace

The bringer of warmth, cooker of meat, and provider of a romantic atmosphere in a log cabin, fire has held a special and primal place in our hearts ever since early humans learned how to make ti and control it—marking a dramatic shift in human habits. It also ushered in a new era for man kind, the reduced risk from uncooked food and ability to stay warm in colder climates, among many others.

Given its historical importance to human life, it is surprising how few people actually know how to start a bonfire. We rely so heavily on modern appliances to warm ourselves and our food that we've forgotten one of the most important basic skills a human can have.

That's why we've put together this guide on how to safely start a bonfire this summer...and all year round, for that matter! When you head out on your next glamping getaway and want to start a bonfire to roast marshmallows or tell ghost stories, you'll know how to do so safely—protecting you, your fellow glampers, and the natural setting that surrounds you.

Step 1: Prepare the pit

Nonflammable surface? Check. Small pit for embers to fall into? Check. Perimeter of stones? Check.
Photo courtesy of Silver City Resort.

The first thing you'll need to do is choose a good location for your fire. It needs to be on bare earth, sand, or gravel—anywhere that can't catch fire itself. (Dry or dead grass is an absolute no-no.) Visualize an eight-foot safety perimeter, and clear any flammable materials within that area. If you're in a wooded area, make sure there are no low-hanging branches or vines that the flames could reach. Ideally, the fire should have open sky above it, so that smoke doesn't rise up into any branches nor affect any nests or animals up in the trees.

Once you've chosen your spot, start to dig out a pit that is a few inches deep, which will prevent the fire from spreading. As the wood turns into embers, they will fall into the pit rather then spread outwards. A perimeter of rocks also stops the spread of embers and ashes, especially in windy areas. It's also a good idea to have extinguishing materials nearby in case you need to put the fire out quickly in an emergency.

Step 2: Collect and arrange materials

From left to right, you'll see tinder, kindling, and firewood.
Photo courtesy of REI.

What you'll need

There are three main materials you will need to start your bonfire:

  • Tinder: Dry pieces of thin material that catch fire and burn very quickly. Good examples include straw, dry grass and leaves, newspaper, cotton balls, and even cattail reeds.

  • Kindling: Bigger pieces of flammable materials that catch fire quickly but burn slower than tinder. Good examples include twigs, thin branches, pine cones, and tightly-rolled newspaper.

  • Firewood: A standard log, about the length of one's forearm, and what most people envision when you picture a fire. These burn slowly and provide warmth for a long period of time.

Once you have these three things, you light the tinder, which is used to light the kindling, and then use the kindling to light the firewood. Try to collect twice as much as you think you'll need, because there's nothing worse than running out of materials before your fire is ready.

How to lay the fire

Once you have your tinder, kindling, and firewood, you can begin to arrange the materials, which must be done in a specific way, otherwise known as a fire lay. As an homage to glamping, we're going to go with the tipi fire lay, although there are many variations you can choose from.

This is a tipi fire lay, with tinder surrounded by kindling, leaving space to access the tinder.
Photo courtesy of Outdoor Life.
  1. Collect your tinder into a bundle, and place it in the middle of the fire pit.

  2. Use three or four twigs or sticks to form a tipi structure that contains the tinder bundle.

  3. Continue adding to the tipi structure, all while leaving a small opening upwind so you can access the tinder inside. Make sure to build upwards rather than outwards and leave spaces between the sticks for air to move freely.

  4. If you have a couple of small or thin pieces of firewood, you can add these, too, as long as their weight does not compromise the structure.

How to light the fire

Take your lighter or matches, and carefully light the tinder inside through the opening you left upwind. By leaving it upwind, this ensures that the wind pushes the flames through the tinder bundle. You may have to blow carefully to encourage the tinder to catch fire. If done correctly, the tinder will light the kindling, creating a quickly burning fire. At this point, you can slowly add the firewood, being careful not to suffocate the flames. As the anonymous quote says, "A fire is like a child; you must look after it carefully in the beginning so that it can look after you later."

Step 3: Safely extinguishing the fire

As the woman extinguishes the fire, note how she is upwind to avoid the smoke blowing in her face.
Photo courtesy of REI.

Now for the easy part! Remember that container of water you carefully prepared before lighting the fire? Take it and pour it slowly on top of the fire until the hissing stops. Don't stand directly above the fire to avoid breathing in the smoke.

Once you've done this, use a stick and stir the ashes into the dirt, which may reveal embers that weren't extinguished by the water. Put these out with more water, or simply stamp them into the ground with your foot. Make sure you're wearing shoes with thick soles, though!

If there are any sizable sticks or logs left, scrape away the surface to check they are not still burning. Finally, give everything the palm test: Hold your palms up to the embers and logs. If you can't feel any heat radiating off them, it is safe to leave.

In the unlikely event you don't have any or enough water on-hand, the extinguishing process is pretty similar. You'll use dirt or sand to cover the embers instead, which will deprive them of oxygen and stop the fire. Be careful not to fully cover the fire, as this could create extremely high temperatures under the dirt or sand that could reignite later. Once the flames have been extinguished, use a stick to mix the embers around in the dirt/ or sand to check that there isn't anything still glowing and then give it the aforementioned palm test.

One final tip

A camper strikes a flint and steel to create sparks, which land on the char cloth below.
Photo courtesy of Twin Eagles Wilderness School.

How to create a spark with no lighter or matches

Perhaps you left your lighter at home or it's run out of lighter fluid. Maybe you fell into a creek earlier, and now your matches are sodden and useless. In order to be prepared for every possible scenario, make sure you tuck some flint, steel, and char cloth in your backpack before you head out into the wilderness.

The steel is a C-shaped piece of tempered steel; the char cloth is a piece of sooty linen that has been burned in a low-oxygen environment, which catches fire easily and burns slowly; and the flint is a hard gray rock with a sharp edge. All of these can be found in any camping supply store. What's more? This old-school method of starting fires will impress your friends, won't run out of gas, and can't break. (You can still lose the materials, though, so be careful!)

The idea is to strike the steel against the sharp edge of the flint to create a spark, setting the char cloth aflame, which can then be transferred to your bundle of tinder. From this point, you can continue as described above, blowing the nascent flames carefully until your fire is blazing away.

Hot Tip: If weather conditions are windy, you may have to hold the char cloth on top of the flint, so that the sparks don't have to travel very far.

Another (easier) option is to invest in a ferro rod, short for ferrocerium rod, which is a small rod made from a compound of iron and cerium. Striking against it with a blade will produce a shower of sparks, similar to the ones created by 4th of July sparklers.

For those who prefer a visual, this video will show you how to create a spark with these materials:


Want to find somewhere to practice your skills? Check out all of these cabins with fireplaces, and don't forget to pack your flint!