Hot tips to strike up a bonfire.

A host to long days and warm nights, summer compels many of us to seek solace and kinship in the outdoors. Perhaps it’s the natural world heralding us away from our modern comforts, beckoning us toward exploration and adventure, or perhaps it’s us simply seeking an outlet, a release from the daily grind and stressors of our fast-paced society. Regardless of the reason, the allure of and our connection with nature are undeniable, and one of the oldest, time-tested, and visceral outdoor traditions is gathering with family and friends around the glowing warmth and flickering flames of an open, but controlled, fire. 

So join in, grab a camp chair, and cozy on up as together we explore some options for stacking up a safe, inviting bonfire where you and yours can celebrate life’s journey and create your own lasting memories!

Stacking and constructing large bonfires typically requires access to heavy equipment such as a tractor with a loader or a skid steer. For our purposes, let’s focus on a more manageable size. There are a variety of resources that could be used to build this type of fire, but let’s keep it simple and gather the following: 

Seasoned, Dry Chunk Wood 
Cut, gather, or purchase your wood from sources close to your bonfire location when possible, as you could transport hitchhiking invasive species living in the firewood. For wood quality, you can’t beat the slow burn and heat from good ol’ Missouri oak! 

Smaller pieces of dry wood, sticks, and bark are perfect. Kindling is a smaller fuel and ignites faster than chunk wood but will produce the start of a coal bed and give off enough heat to ignite the chunk wood. 

This is dry grass, leaves, and newspaper. Tinder ignites easily, burns hot and fast, and will produce enough heat to ignite your kindling. However, since we aren’t in survival mode here, you could skip the tinder and use prepackaged fire starter sticks with your kindling. 

Ignition Sources 
These could be matches or a lighter. A slow-combusting accelerant such as charcoal lighter fluid can also be used to aid ignition of the tinder and kindling, but ensure a safe distance when lighting. 

DANGER: Do not use gasoline as an accelerant!

Appropriately Sizing & Siting
“Bonfire” is a term that involves the scale of the fire and could include anything from a glorified campfire to a massive pile of logs, limbs, and brush. The scale of each bonfire depends heavily on the setting we wish to create. If in a suburban backyard, it’s probably best to stick with a campfire size or slightly larger so it can be contained within a fire ring or pit. If more remote and on a bit more acreage (with less risk of encountering potential hazards) a larger log or brush pile fire may be ideal to gather a larger group of friends. Whatever your setting, pick a fire size and location that are safe. 

Planning the Gathering
Now that we’ve thought through our desired fire size and location and have our fuels figured out, it’s time to plan our gathering of family and friends. The invite list is up to you, but there are some things we can do to make sure our guests have an amazing and memorable experience:

Date & Time
Be sure to let the guests know the event is weather- and safety-dependent and to be aware of the backup date. Plan a gathering start time that allows guests to arrive while it’s still daylight to leave them the opportunity to settle in before dark and well before the lighting of the bonfire.

Lighting & Seating
Additional lighting may be needed for guests to navigate the area. Flashlights and headlamps are always good backups to have around and can be necessities in case of an emergency. Provide seating around the fire or request that guests bring camp chairs.

Food & Beverages
Provide the guests with favorites like:

  • Homemade guacamole and tortilla chips
  • Pinwheel wraps
  • Chili dogs
  • S’mores         

The hosts can provide some basics like water, tea, lemonade, or punch. With so many different preferences for adult beverages out there, it’s often easiest to just request that guests BYOB. 

Cooking Utensils 
If roasting hot dogs or marshmallows over the fire, be sure to have long sticks or skewers. I recommend letting the fire die down to campfire size or just coals before roasting these. It’s easy to get the fire going again from a good bed of coals. Don’t forget plates, bowls, silverware, cups, and napkins. 


Accompanying Activities
Consider bags, washers, and beersbee, which are easy outdoor games to set up and inspire a little healthy competition among friends.
We live in a rural area, which allows for some excellent stargazing and bonding, too.
Bonfires are celebrations, and music and an open fire complement one another like Jack and Coke. Choose a diverse playlist based on guest preferences, but be prepared to be flexible and take requests as folks start to catch all the feels summoned by the fire — it’ll happen!

Bonfire Time – Woohoo! 
The night of the bonfire is here, so time to prep. It’s best to have food out and organized, the fire prepped, provided seating ready, and the music vibing before guests arrive. This way, as the host, we aren’t distracted and can properly greet our guests as they arrive.  

For this demonstration, the fire is in a controlled fire pit of large rocks. Before building, be sure any extra tinder, kindling, and wood are stored upwind and safely away from the fire location. To start, we’ll need our tinder and kindling, and six to eight smaller pieces of larger kindling or small chunk wood. You can also opt to start the fire with a few pieces of base kindling laid flat on the ground, adding tinder atop an elevated, dry base. Teepee stack additional kindling atop the tinder. Then, create either a teepee or a log cabin-shaped stack close around the kindling and tinder with pieces of the larger kindling/smaller chunks of wood. Now the fire is prepped and ready for later ignition.

Just before sundown, gather the guests around for a ceremonial lighting of the fire. Light up the tinder or prepackaged fire sticks at the base. If done correctly, it won’t be long (10 to 15 minutes) before the tinder and kindling is consumed into small coals. At that time, add some additional chunk wood. Once this is burning well, you’ll be able to add wood until the fire reaches the desired height. 

At this point, you’re set for success, so grab another of your favorite beverages, relax, catch up with friends, and let the evening unfold. Most importantly, enjoy, laugh, hug, and log away some amazing memories! 

Fire Safety 

Now let’s stop you right there before you run off to grab those matches. It is abundantly clear that fire is a powerful force. As such, we must harness it responsibly, understand our setting, and prepare accordingly. 

Let’s go over a few fire safety basics before we start piling on the wood.

  • Please be sure to reference and understand local and community codes and ordinances regarding burning and contact the local fire department if there are any questions. 
  • Fire requires three elements to survive: heat, oxygen, and fuel (the fire triangle). Take away any one of these and, eventually, the fire will die.
  • Understanding a fire’s needs allows us to assess our surroundings before we strike the match. Survey your location and assess fire risk and safety. 

a.  Weather conditions. Has it rained recently or is it dry? Is the humidity low? Is it windy? If it’s dry and windy, do not start a fire!
b.  Types of fuels. What are the surrounding fuels and how quickly might they ignite? Are potential fuels wet or dry, and how flammable are the materials? Are you dealing with dry grass? A close woodpile? A wooden deck or fence? The house? 
c.  Proximity of fuels. Where are the fuels in relation to the fire location? We can move either the fuels or the fire accordingly for safety.
d. Access to a reliable water source or a fire extinguisher. Let’s have a hose with a nozzle, fire extinguisher, and/or mobile water source at the ready.  

Other fire safety tips can be found on the Missouri Department of Public Safety website or by contacting the local fire department.