Want to bring your culinary skills to the campsite? Check out these simple tips for how to build a live fire like a camping champion.
There’s something magical about food cooked in the great outdoors. Whether it’s that natural smoky barbecue flavor or the nostalgic taste of charcoal, campsite cooking is super special—but not without a certain bit of stress.
The task of building a campfire scares many chefs away. Not only do you have to keep the fire going. Safety is a constant concern. You also have to worry about maintaining consistent heat to ensure food cooks to perfection.
Still, with the right tips, tools and cookware supplies, anyone can build a solid campfire. So grab a torch flame and your Made In carbon steel pan, and let’s get this thing lit.
Tips for Building a Safe Fire Pit
1. Start with a circle
Sounds pretty obvious, but for safety reasons, a ‘fire ring’ is preferred, as its circular shape helps to contain the fire. Without this barrier, nearby grass and leaves may catch on, spreading the flame to other areas of the forest.
So, if you can’t find a fire ring available, take inspiration. If permitted by local authorities, build your own firepit. And above all else, remember safety. Do not barbecue if conditions are windy, and always keep plenty of water on hand in case of emergency.
How to Build a Fire Ring
- Choose an area clear of tree canopy and other foliage
- Remove all debris from the ground, and mark out a tire-size circle
- Make sure the surrounding area is also clear of debris (at least 5’)
- Build a flat 6” mound using sand, dirt, gravel or small stones
- On the outside of the ring, place large stones as a barrier
2. Choose your fuel
Outdoor cooking enthusiasts typically fall into one of two camps: charcoal or wood. While charcoal heats fast and creates additional steam (helping to cook food consistently), a traditional wood fire is more popular in most campsites. After all, you’re living off the land. Who wants to trudge a bag of coal around?
So, once your ring is in place, it’s time to forage! Get out into the thick of things and gather the following:
- Firewood – large segments of tree trunk that burn long and slow
- Kindling – thin sticks, typically from tree branches and similar brush
- Tinder – leaves, twigs, needles and other dry forest foliage
Per campsite etiquette (and environmental practice), never cut down live trees, branches or twigs—that is, unless you’re in a survival emergency. Instead, search the forest for wood and sticks that have already fallen.
3. Build your base
Before lighting your wood and brush, build your supplies into a proper campfire via one of the following methods. Experts offer up four variations of the popular fire ring wood formation:
- Teepee – Place a layer of tinder on the floor of your base. Then, layer on kindling, and continue to build up incrementally with larger pieces, finishing with your largest wood on the top layer. This design allows the fire to spread upward throughout the pit, at which point the tinder will collapse and you’ll have a flatter surface to work with.
- Pyramid – Position a few of your largest pieces of wood on the bottom of the ring. Next, rotate your placement (around 90°) and complete a second layer using smaller logs. Continue to choose smaller logs, layering up until you reach a point (like a pyramid!).
- Log Cabin – Remember playing with Lincoln Logs? Those skills finally come in handy! Place logs parallel to each other at the base. Rotate your placement (around 90°) and place smaller sticks to form a square. Fill with leaves and kindling, then repeat to build up your ‘log cabin.’
- Cone – At the center of the circle, position logs and kindling in the style of a cone. Keep things loose, as oxygen helps to increase the fire’s temperature. Continue to add wood and kindling as necessary.
No matter the method you choose, remember a few key points. Never stack or position logs so tightly together that air cannot move around. This is a surefire way to extinguish your campfire in no time.
Also, if you do not intend to stay long, choose smaller logs. Just like charcoal, big pieces of wood have a tendency to burn for hours, posing a risk when left unattended.
And finally, use a healthy mix of firewood, kindling and tinder. The variations in size and shape encourage the movement of air and help to keep the fire burning consistently.
4. Fire it up!
The key to safely building a live fire is to use a fire starter. This is essentially any material that burns easily, allowing you to transfer it to your existing wood formation. Consider this the ‘ignition’ to get your fire started. Most people use wood bark/chips or dry kindling or tender, but you might have some of the DIY starters at your campsite or at home.
Popular DIY Fire Starters
- Dryer lint
- Cotton balls soaked in Vaseline
- Dry grass
- Cattail fluff
- Greasy snacks (chips or cheese puffs)
How to Start a Fire
Once you spark up your fire starter with a match or lighter, use it to set fire to the tinder. You can carefully blow at the ring’s base to help spread the flame about the entire campfire.
Continue to blow until smoke appears and larger pieces of kindling and wood catch. You’ll feel the heat—so back away! Keep your face and fingers away from the open flame once it’s roaring.
5. Grab your carbon steel pan
Now that you’re warm, cozy and enjoying the gentle glow of your homemade fire, it’s time to get cooking. The nice thing about carbon steel is that it’s durable, versatile and able to handle plenty of heat (making it ideal for outdoor cooking).
Remember: cooking over a campfire is notoriously difficult. It’s nearly impossible to control the amount of heat hitting the pan, and even harder to ensure consistency across the entire cooking surface. But unlike other inferior materials, carbon steel is great at conducting and maintaining heat.
We recommend you invest in a decent grill grate. Staking (or perching) a platform atop your fire allows you to rest the pan evenly. If you’re lucky enough to have access to a pre-existing fire ring at your campsite, a grate is likely already installed. When setting up yourself, just be sure to follow proper instructions for mounting.
Other Essential Campsite Tools
- Stainless steel spatula
- Stainless steel tongs
- Stainless steel frying pan (as backup)
- Torch lighter and matches
- Oil or butter (for cooking surface)
- Dried herbs and seasonings
- Paper towels (for cleaning purposes)
- Pocket knife (or ideally, a chef’s knife)
- Water, water and more water!
6. Cook a full Made In menu!
Thanks to its sensationally versatile surface, a carbon steel pan is excellent for cooking a variety of campsite staples. Impress your fellow campers with the following:
- Eggs, bacon and sausage
- Hot dogs and hamburgers
- Steaks and chicken
- Veggie kabobs
- Baked beans
- Foil pack shrimp and salmon
- Campfire nachos
- Corn on the cob
For more ideas, visit Bon Appetit's Campfire Meals article to feel inspired.
Feeling like a happy camper? There’s more Made In methodology coming soon!