How to Build a Better Bonfire

Build a Better Bonfire

by Sandy Austin Goldstein

Want to safely hang with your friends but space is at a premium? Let’s take it outside! Now that the cooler weather is here, you’ll need to turn up the heat to create cozy den-like space in the safest place to engage, so come on baby, light my (bon)fire! Bonfires are a great way to socialize AND social distance, stay warm AND stay safe.  

 Never built one? Never fear! We’ve got a few simple tricks. Just like there’s more than one way to build a great pizza, there’s more than one way to build a better bonfire, but here’s our take:

 Getting Started

Use this simple acronym: TRF (Tools, Rules and Fuels)

  • Tools: If you have the space and are on land that allows for you to dig a new fire pit, you’ll need a shovel and enough rocks or bricks to make a base large enough to suit your group.  You’ll want an axe if you’ll need to cut logs vs. buy them. Most convenience stores sell firewood this time of year, which is, well, convenient, but the choice is yours. You will also need need fireplace matches, a portable fire extinguisher and a bucket for water. 
  • Rules: Every area has its own applicable laws and guidelines - so learn before you burn! Contact local government officials and fire department prior to your event-you may need a permit. Also, bonfires are not legal in certain areas and/or at certain times of year or there are other restrictions-so a quick check first is best. And never make a bonfire under high wind conditions. If you at a campground or hiking spot many have designated fire pits.
  • Fuels: There are three types of fuels and you’ll need them all to build a better bonfire: Tinder, Kindling and the big guns, Logs. 

Tinder can be small sticks (about the size and thickness of a pencil), wadded up newspaper, tree bark, or my personal favorite, dryer lint. That fuzzy pile of fluff that’s been piling up in your dryer’s holding bin gets a new lease on life as a great source of tinder. Avoid anything green or wet (leaves or wood). Two good sized handfuls of Tinder will go far to fuel your fire. 

Kindling requires heavier hitters, so you’ll need larger sticks (1-2’ long, no thicker than your wrist). Have at least two armfuls on hand.

Logs should be cut to sizes no more than 3’ long and 8” wide. For the warmest fires, use a hard, dense wood, like oak. Have at least a dozen Logs on hand to start the average sized fire.

Setting the stage

  • Choose your site: For everyone’s safety and comfort, be sure to choose a large open space which is at least 50’ from any buildings, cars or trees. 
  • Dig a hole: It should be roughly 6-12” deep with a diameter of about five feet. As a general rule, it should be three times as wide as you plan your fire to be. Be sure to build the fire on sand or dirt-not grass. 
  • Lay the rocks/bricks: Place them in a circle around the hole that you dug, One layer deep of bricks and stones will do and you’re off to the races.

Building the bonfire

  • Start with Tinder-fashion a teepee shaped pile of Tinder with your hands and place it in the middle of the circle of rocks/bricks.
  • Next, add your Kindling-completely cover the Tinder with Kindling to create a top layer over the teepee. Be sure not to pack it too tightly as you want oxygen to be able to flow through. Leave a small gap in the Kindling where later you can insert a fireplace match.    
  • Then take the two biggest Logs and lay them down on either side of the Kindling teepee.  

Congratulations-you’ve now successfully created your first layer of the bonfire build! 

 Repeat the step that you did in the first layer-Tinder teepee, surrounded by Kindling teepee and laying down Logs; this time, pick the next two largest logs and place them perpendicular to the first two you laid. You can repeat these steps for more layers, (up to five layers high), depending on the size of bonfire you want. 

 The sun is starting to set and your friends will be arriving soon. It’s funny how, if there is a upside to a world pandemic, it's how you experience life in a way that feels richer than it ever did and how you now can appreciate and value relationships and time together on a level that you never knew was possible. You remind yourself that you are finding ways to not only survive, but thrive in the new normal.  Now let’s get ready for an evening you’ll always remember and carry in your heart.

 Lighting the bonfire

Light a fireplace match and take care to drop it into the middle of Tinder in the teepee. If you miss your mark, no worries, you can push it back in with a long stick. If the Tinder doesn’t catch fire well and needs a helping hand, just blow on the base of the pile with a slow, steady breath until it catches. Add logs as needed throughout the evening as needed to keep the fire burning at the level that you want.

 After much laughing, talking, and toasts with recoup hotter toddys, the evening comes to a close.  (P.S. If you want to go non-alcoholic a Cucumber + Lemon recoup, heated up in a mug in the micro is the perfect winter warmer.)

You’ll want to take your bucket of water to douse the fire, stir the ashes with a stick or shovel, and then douse it once again and make sure that the fire is truly out. The signs you want to look for are that the fire is quiet and you no longer feel heat coming from it. When the ashes feel cool, put the fire to rest by placing a layer of dirt on top of it.  

Day is done, gone the sun. You made a difference, you made a bonfire and you made memories. Time stopped for a little while. It was a good day.  

#rest, regroup, recoup