A campfire is a fire lit at a campsite, usually in a fire ring. Campfires are a popular feature of camping, particularly among organized campers such as Scouts or Guides. Without proper precautions they are also potentially dangerous. A certain degree of skill is needed to properly build a campfire, to keep it going, and to see that it is properly extinguished. In some regions it is called a bonfire.
A campfire may burn out of control in two basic ways: on the ground or in the trees. Dead leaves or pine needles on the ground may ignite from direct contact with burning wood, or from thermal radiation. Alternatively, airborne embers (or their smaller kin, sparks) may ignite dead material in overhanging branches. This latter threat is less likely, but a fire in a branch will be virtually impossible to put out without firefighting equipment, and may spread more quickly than a ground fire. Hence, many campgrounds include fire rings to prevent this from occurring.
Embers may simply fall off of logs and be carried away by the air, or they may be ejected at high speed by exploding pockets of sap. With these dangers in mind, some places prohibit all open fires, particularly during times of the year that are prone to wildfires.
Campfires are prohibited in many public camping areas. Public areas with large tracts of woodland usually have signs indicating the level of fire danger, which usually depends on recent rain and the amount of deadfalls or dry debris; when the danger is highest, all open fires are prohibited. Even in safer times, it is common to require registration and permits to build a campfire. Such areas are often kept under observation by rangers, who will dispatch someone to investigate any unidentified plume of smoke.
Ideally, every fire should be lit in a fire ring. If a fire ring is not available, a temporary fire site may be constructed. One way is to cover the ground with sand, or other soil mostly free of flammable organic material, to a depth of a few inches. Fire rings, however, do not fully protect material on the ground from catching fire. Flying embers are still a threat, and the fire ring may become hot enough to ignite material in contact with it. Generally, one must simply stand away from the ring to prevent injury.
No fire should be lit close to trees, tents or other fire hazards. This includes overhanging branches; some carry dead, dry material that can ignite from a single airborne ember. In addition, a fire may harm any roots under it, even if they are protected by a thin layer of soil. Conifers run a greater risk of root damage, because they lack taproots and their roots run close to the surface.
Fires also should not be lit on bare rocks. The ash will leave a black stain that cannot be easily removed, but the fire's heat can lead to more dramatic consequences. It will cause the outer layer of the rock to expand, possibly causing it to crack. It may also boil pockets of water contained in the rock.
An additional safety measure is to have sand and water on hand to smother and douse the fire if it does get out of the fire pit. It is wise to gather these materials before they are actually needed.
Areas such as State Parks and National Parks which permit camping most often will allow the collection of wood lying on the ground with the exception of parks that have erosion problems (i.e. campgrounds that are near dunes); although you should always ask the person in charge of the campground such as the park ranger if the gathering of wood lying of the ground is allowed. Cutting of living trees is almost always forbidden - but neither is it very useful, because sap-filled wood does not burn well. Squaw wood (dead parts of standing trees) may also be prohibited.
Having found a suitable site and gathered materials, the fire-builder has a variety of designs to choose from. A good design is very important in the early stages of a fire. Most of them make no mention of fuelwood - in most designs, fuelwood is never placed on a fire until the kindling is burning strongly.
Once the fire is built, the next step is to light the tinder, using either an ignition device such as a match or a lighter. A reasonably skillful fire-builder using reasonably good material will only need one match. The tinder will burn brightly, but be reduced to glowing embers within half a minute. If the kindling does not catch fire, the fire-builder must gather more tinder, determine what went wrong and try to fix it.
One of five problems can prevent a fire from lighting properly: wet wood, wet weather, too little tinder, too much wind, or a lack of oxygen. Rain will, of course, douse a fire, but a combination of wind and fog also has a stifling effect. Metal fire rings generally do a good job of keeping out wind, but some of them are so high as to impede the circulation of oxygen in a small fire. To make matters worse, these tall fire rings also make it very difficult to blow on the fire properly.
Steady, forceful blowing may be in order for a small fire in an enclosed space that has mysteriously slowed down, but blowing may extinguish a fire if it is done abruptly or when it is not needed. Most large fires easily create their own circulation, even in unfavorable conditions, but the variant log-cabin fire-build suffers from a chronic lack of air so long as the initial structure is maintained.
Once the large kindling is burning, all of the kindling should be put on the fire, save for one piece at least a foot long. This piece is useful later to push pieces of fuelwood where they are needed. Once all of the kindling is burning, the fuelwood should be placed on top of it (unless, as in the rakovalkea fire-build, it is already there). For best results, two or more pieces of fuelwood should be leaned against each other, as in the tipi fire-build.
Campfires have been used for cooking since time immemorial. Possibly the simplest method of cooking over a campfire and one of the most common is to roast food on long skewers that can be held above the flames. This is a popular technique for cooking hot dogs or toasting marshmallows for making s'mores. Another technique is to use pie irons — small iron molds with long handles, into which can be placed slices of bread with some form of filling — which are placed over hot coals to cook. However, portable stoves have all but replaced campfires for cooking.
Most campfires, though, are lit exclusively for recreation. People tend to find something fascinating about flames and glowing coals, so a campfire is usually an agreeable (and warm) way to pass the time from dusk to bedtime, particularly for those in a pensive mood. Campfires are also good venues for intimate conversation and storytelling; yarns and stories about poltergeists are particularly popular. Songs are also usually sung by the fire, a tradition that is usually associated with Scouting and Guiding. Scouting Songs are popular tunes that are sung all over the country at campfires all summer – and all year – long. Another tradition in most scout outings involving a whole scout district (especially Boy Scouts) is to perform sketch comedy a.k.a. skits.
Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting and the Chief Scout of the World, used to collect some of the ashes from each Scouting event and he would mix them with water and all people with him at the time would drink from the cup. As this tradition has spread, Scouts from around the world have shared campfire ash water with each other. Lists have been kept of the events where this has happened. These lists form a history and a bond between Scouts and Scouters over the years; regardless of the distance, language, culture or uniform. This ash tradition represents the Friendship and Scouting Spirit shared by Scouts and Guides at campfires around the world.
Large amounts of water are indispensable for extinguishing a fire. To properly cool a fire, water should be splashed on all the embers, including places that are not glowing red. Splashing the water is both more effective and efficient in extinguishing the fire. The water will boil violently and carry ash in the air with it, dirtying anything nearby but not posing a safety hazard. The water should be poured until the hissing noises stop. Then the ashes should be stirred with a stick to make sure that the water has penetrated all the layers; if the hissing continues, more water should be added. A fire is fully extinguished if the ashes are cool to the touch.
If water is scarce, sand may be used. The sand will deprive the fire of oxygen quite well, but it is much less effective than water at absorbing heat. Once the fire has been covered thoroughly with sand, all water that can be spared should be poured on it, and the sand stirred into the ash.
However, since wetting the pit and/or filling it with sand makes it difficult for the next person to get a clean fire lit, fully extinguishing a campfire in a frequently-used metal or rugged stone firepit is considered poor etiquette. At a popular campground or other location where you expect other people to want to light a fire within two days and where the local fire risk isn't unusually high (ie, if the fire risk is in the blue or green zones) and only when surrounding vegetation is green and healthy rather than dried out, you should cool the firepit rather than fully extinguishing it. A few hours before you vacate the site, extinguish visible flames, preferably by suffocating the flames in their own fuel, or let the fire "run out." Spread the remaining coals around within the confins of the firepit to allow them to cool down. Once the coals are no longer red, it is safe to leave the site.
When winter or "ice" camping with an inch or more of snow on the ground, neither of the above protocols are necessary--simply douse visible flames before leaving.
Finally, in lightly-used wilderness areas, it is best to replace anything that was moved while preparing the fire site, and scatter anything that was gathered, so that it looks as natural as possible. Make absolutely certain that anything that was in or near the fire is fully cooled before following this protocol.