How to Build a Backyard Bonfire

By: Elana Duré autumn, How to

A backyard bonfire is the perfect complement to a cookout, s’mores, or just drinks—a great draw for friends to gather and enjoy a little bit of novelty, even if just for the evening.

Before you build your own, here’s what you should keep in mind.

Safety considerations and city ordinances

Most municipalities have ordinances regarding the size of bonfires and when they can occur. Before you even start collecting materials, research your city’s fire requirements and limitations with a quick internet search or by contacting your local fire department.

It’s also important to let your neighbors know that you intend to have a bonfire, the approximate time you plan to have it, and how long it’ll last. You don’t want to create a nuisance, especially if the smoke is likely to blow into your neighbor’s home or if any ashes or hot cinders may land on your neighbor’s property.

Remember to tie back long hair and avoid wearing loose or dangling clothing (like scarves) when building and maintaining your backyard bonfire.

Materials

  • Wood of various sizes (hardwoods like oak, ash, hickory, or apple work well)
  • Charcoal briquettes
  • Matches
  • Water (a bucket or two to extinguish the fire at the end of the night)

6 steps to building a backyard bonfire

1. Find the right spot

A bonfire can be dangerous if not done correctly. Choose an area sheltered from wind that’s located far away from buildings, fences, garden structures, trees, roots, bushes, and plants.

Clear the area of any household trash or garden waste, including bottles, cans, aerosols, flammable liquids, rubber tires, and anything containing plastic, foam, or paint.

Your backyard bonfire should be built on bare earth, not grass. If you can’t find a bare area, you can make your own by digging and raking away all plant materials, especially dry grass, branches, and bark that can easily catch fire.

2. Make a pit

Once you’ve cleared the area, you can start making your pit. The pit should be a circular, dish-shaped hole that cradles the fire, grouping the coals together to help them burn longer and hotter.

Dig a pit a few inches deeper and wider than you want your fire to be. About two feet in diameter and a foot deep is sufficient. If your fire pit is too deep, your fire will not be able to thrive. Place garden rocks, bricks, or heavy logs around the perimeter of the pit.

Make a flat bed of charcoal briquettes in the center and ensure that all your materials are dry.

3. Gather some wood

Seasoned wood (wood that has been cut and left to dry for an extended period of time) works best for starting and sustaining a fire, but if that’s not available, use hardwood over softer woods. Ash, oak, hickory, and apple work best for this type of fire.

You will need three types of wood to ensure your fire is strong and lasts: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood.

Tinder catches fire easily and burns quickly. Materials like dry leaves, dry bark, dry grass, wood shavings, and mosses all make for good tinder.

Kindling is the wood with more substance that will keep your little flame going, but won’t smother it. This type of wood is usually about the width of a pencil, like small twigs or branches. Similar to tinder, kindling must be dry to burn easily.

Fuel wood keeps your fire hot and burning. Look for branches or split logs as wide as your wrist or forearm. If the wood is too big, it will take a long time to catch fire.

4. Build a tipi shape

Now you’re ready to lay your fire. Start by placing your tinder in the middle of the pit and building a tipi shape from small kindling, at 45° angles, above your tinder. Make sure to leave gaps for oxygen to reach the tinder.

Continue adding kindling, working your way up to the pencil-sized twigs. After you’ve exhausted your kindling, build a larger tipi shape around the smaller one with your fuel wood.

5. Light it up

Light a match and drop it inside the tipi. Never pour oil, petrol, paraffin, or methylated spirits on the fire—it’s safer to use dry wood to grow your fire. The tipi structure will eventually fall and you can add fuel wood as needed.

You should always be nearby to attend your fire. Have a bucket of water, a garden hose, or a fire extinguisher nearby, and keep children and pets away from the fire pit.

6. Put it out

Never leave the fire to smolder—put it out completely with water. If you or someone else plans to use the pit at a later time, sprinkle—don’t pour—water on the fire to avoid flooding the pit. As you sprinkle water over the embers, stir them with a stick or shovel to ensure all the ashes get wet.

Once there is no more steam or hissing noises coming from the pit, hold the backs of your hands near the ashes. If you still feel heat, continue sprinkling water and stirring. If the ashes feel cool, pile dirt on top. Then, you’re good to go.


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