The typical campfire seems pretty basic. You gather dry wood and pile it
into a cast iron ring at your campsite. Once lit, it provides light and heat
for as long as it's fed. Beyond this ancestral appreciation of fire, is the
utilitarian purpose for all that heat, too.
Different fire "designs" provide enhanced benefit over other
styles. For example, firewood stacked like Lincoln logs produce a good bed of coals where a tipi
fire is quick to heat the contents of a pot. Here are a few different fire
types and what their most efficient uses are for each of them.
This is probably the most basic of fire designs. It is often used as a starter fire upon which bigger, longer-lasting fires are founded. A tipi fire directs heat upward and can be used beneath a hung pot on a tripod for fast heating. It's great for
a quick warm-up or a water-boiling snack break. This fire uses mostly kindling,
but a larger tipi (also spelled teepee) fire can be created by adding larger
logs vertically to the fire. Many beach fires are large teepee fires where
pole-sized driftwood is laid upright against others to form this familiar
This fire consists of a foundation framework of large logs laid side by side to
form a solid base. A slightly shorter log is laid perpendicular and on top of
this first layer. Each subsequent layer is slightly shorter as the platform or
pyramid rises. This solid mass of right angle firewood takes a little effort to
light, but it's well worth it for the huge amount of coals it produces,
especially when the fire is lit on the top most layers and burns down through
A lighter version of the pyramid fire is the platform fire. It's similar in shape
to the pyramid fire except the logs are layered only along the outside edge
(like walls on a log cabin) with each level of logs slightly shorter than the
ones beneath. This creates a hollow wood platform into which smaller kindling
can be placed and ignited. It can provide quick warmth and be the start of any
number of larger blazes.
Sometimes a fire is built between two long logs. If the logs are the same size,
the tops of the log can be used to place pots for cooking. It has the added
advantage of sustaining the fire since the insides of the log are burning, too,
and it's easy to direct the fire up or down the length of the side log,
literally until the entire log eventually consumed.
Similar to the parallel fire, the trench fire is used almost exclusively for
cooking. A trench is dug and a fire is built in the middle of the trench. These
work by either blocking the wind or by funneling the wind into the fire for a
more concentrated and hotter "burn." Several pots can be placed over
the trench and the fire can be maintained at different levels for a variety of
Star Or Indian Fire
This fire design is often depicted as the campfire of the old West. Imagine
five or six logs laid out like the spokes of a wheel (star shaped). A fire is
started at the "hub" and each log is pushed towards the center as the
ends are consumed. It's another fire that can be kept burning all night long
with little maintenance.
This is a fire built in a slight depression or pit. A side channel or tunnel is
dug at a right angle to the pit and acts as wind tunnel to direct air into the
center of the fire. From above it looks like an old keyhole (the skeleton key
As a human, I am convinced that the feelings evoked by a good campfire are
remnants of our cave-dwelling ancestral days. Even if we have a good coat on
our back, and a belly full of warm food cooked on a camp stove, there is
something about any fire that makes the campsite complete.
Shop The Sportsman's Guide for a great selection of Camping Accessories, including fire starters!
Tom Watson is an award-winning writer who lived in Alaska for 16 years, 12 of which were on Kodiak Island. He is a frequent contributor to "Camping Life," "Canoe & Kayak" magazines, author of three books:" Sixty Hikes within Sixty Miles of Minneapolis," "Best Tent Camping-Minnesota," both by Menasha Ridge Press, and "How to Think Like a Survivor," by Creative Publishing International. He's also an avid kayaker, camper, naturalist, writer, and photographer residing in western Minnesota. He will write a weekly column on camping tips for sportsmansguide.com.