4 Steps to Building the Best Fire Pits in Survival Shelters


Fire Pit Primitive

The ability to build a safe shelter with fire for warmth is a crucial survival skill. The bad thing is that building one incorrectly can be worse than not building one at all. I have made many mistakes on this front and created this guide to give you the tools you need to correctly and efficiently create a fire pit in your chosen survival shelter.

There are 4 basic things you need to know:

  1. How to incorporate a fire safely into your camping space
  2. What materials you’ll need to build it
  3. Where to build it
  4. How to build it

Survival skills all start with your headspace and your initial decision to fight or give up. Choosing to fight, your first objective needs to be creating a shelter to protect you from nature. While the instinct to protect yourself from bugs, animals, and the weather is serving you well, let’s not forget the importance of a safe and functional fire pit, too.

1. Three Rules for a Safe Shelter Fire

First off, as you’re choosing a place for your shelter, observe whether the ground is flat enough, if there is a break in the tree canopy above for smoke to vent, and whether or not there is fresh animal scat in the area indicating wildlife that may return to the area later.

It’s important that you are not only warm, fed, sheltered, but also safe. Fire, while providing you comfort, can be very dangerous. So, please make sure to respect the nature around you by caring for your fire properly.

The First Rule of Fire: Smoke Needs to Vent

While images of cavemen bent over a flame in a small cavern may come to mind, that is not a safe situation to emulate. Breathing in too much smoke is in itself dangerous. However, even if you’re not seeing a cloud of smoke, you may still be surrounding yourself with carbon monoxide (and possibly other dangerous chemicals, depending on what you’re burning).

Ideally, your flame will be in the open where smoke can disperse freely while still providing you warmth. However, in a covered space, you need a chimney or opening in the roof for the smoke to escape through.

The Second Rule of Fire: Keep it Contained

We are calling this the second rule, but basically, consider this information tied for first. Do not start a forest fire. Your fire pit must have boundaries, and you must keep an eye on it. Also, as we mentioned previously, observe where there is a break in the tree canopy before you set your fire.

  1. You need a proper fire pit boundary of nonflammable material– In a pinch, a wall of sand mounded up is a good start. What you really want, though, are rocks. Not only will they radiate heat, but they also prevent the fire from crawling beyond the intended border.
  2. Keep an eye on the fire– If you need to step away from the camp, it’s not smart to leave a raging fire roaring in the pit. Extinguish it before you go.
    Also, you’re going to need to sleep eventually, but wait until the flames have died down, and you’re just dealing with glowing embers. While these are still a fire hazard, they’re less likely to jump out of the pit and start a more dangerous fire.
  3. Assess the tree canopy over your fire– While you’re probably not thinking of setting a full-on bonfire in the woods, you do want to be mindful of what is above you. Obviously, you don’t want to set surrounding trees on fire. But also, smoking out birds’ nests is inconsiderate, and could lead to you being attacked by your feathery neighbors.

The Third Rule of Fire: Keep Your Fuel Dry

In inclement weather, this rule is more difficult. Always start with the knowledge that any fuel going on your fire needs to be dry to burn. Gather kindling, leaves, and logs and keep them under a tarp if possible.

Leaves are great kindling for a fire, but they are also good for insulating your sleeping area. They can do double duty by creating your bed, dry in the shelter until you need to feed your fire.

2. Ideal Materials for a Fire Pit in a Survival Shelter Situation

This goes without saying, your survival kit should include long-lasting redundancies for fire starting and something that can chop wood, like a good hatchet (Click to see the one I own on Amazon). That way you don’t have to worry about running out of matches or how you’ll chop firewood.

Now, once you’re in the wild, look for the following natural materials:

  • Logs roughly 8” in diameter.-These will burn through in about an hour and give you enough time to catch a nap before it’s time to add more fuel to the fire and stir the coals.
  • Stones big enough to create a border, but small enough for you to move– Remember that on top of foraging for fire pit materials, you’ll need to conserve energy. And don’t move anything that could injure you.
  • Additional kindling– If you don’t have some form of kindling in your pack, leaves are a great resource for both kindling and shelter insulation. You can pack them into the roof of your lean-to, into your bedding area, and use them to get a flame going.

Cool Tip: If you don’t have good kindling but happen to have a roll of toilet paper, it can be a great substitute:

3. Where to Build Your Fire Pit

There is a debate about whether or not there is a safe way to build your fire inside a shelter. For certain confined types, like lean-tos, the general consensus is that it’s unsafe and should not be done. So, where can you build your fire pit?

Let’s operate under the assumption that you’re working with that basic lean-to shelter set up. You’ve gathered enough twigs and leaves to kindle a flame, and you’ve got a great stack of logs ready to go, too. Hopefully, you’ve also managed to find some good stones to set up a perimeter around your fire pit.

To determine where your fire pit should go, take a couple of steps away from the shelter with the direction of the wind. You don’t want to blow smoke directly into your shelter.

4. How to Build a Basic Fire Pit

Having a good folding shovel in your kit is really handy for this step. Start by digging into the ground to create a pit. Lay the stones you’ve gathered in a circle to set the perimeter of your fire pit. Then, inside the circle, dig down a couple of inches to create a true pit. Digging down gives your fire less of a chance to escape. If the ground is too hard to dig in to, this step can be skipped.

Now, you want to build a log structure. We like this resource to visualize the five best ways to pile your logs.

To summarize, here are the five log formations that work in many different types of shelters, plus two that we think you’ll find very useful if you have the craftiness to build them.

Fire FormationHow To BuildBenefit
Log Cabin Channeling your Lincoln Log loving inner child, stack your larger logs up, tic-tac-toe style. This is my favorite option for a long-lasting fire. It also allows you control of the circumference of your fire fuel and works great in wet conditions.
Lean-ToThis is the more complicated of the formations, but you’ll weigh down a central branch with a large log. Then you’ll, first, lean smaller twigs against it. On top of those, you’ll layer large logs leaning over.The benefit of this style is that your fire will be protected by its own shelter against wind and rain.
PlatformSimilar to Log Cabin style, just tighter with a couple more logs in each layer. You’ll lay down your biggest logs first, working up to the smallest. This style is a bit tricky to start, though, because you’ll start the fire on top of the platform instead of beneath it.Platform-style is great for cooking and creates a long-lasting fire with a sturdy structure that will support the weight of cast-iron cookware if you have any.
StarYou will need your pit to dip down in the middle for this style to work. You’ll start your fire in the center of the dip with a tipi kindling set up. Then you’ll place feeder logs like spokes with one end into the fire.This style creates a fire that uses gravity to pull the logs into itself as they burn down. This makes it ideal for an all-night fire with minimal wood to burn.
TipiLean your logs against each other, working in a round. You can build this set up first, with a “door” so that you can open a part of the stack to move your baby fire in after the formation has been built. Then you can continue working around to build up the fire with more fuel, as needed.A tipi kindling formation is a great set up for any of the other log formations, but you can also pile your logs the same way over your kindling formation. This formation is great for getting coals for cooking, and it also serves to protect your baby fire from wind and rain as it grows.
Self-Feeding Fire You’ll need to craft a ramp that leads down into the fire pit on which to stack your feeder logs. The idea here is that as the log at the bottom burns through, gravity will pull a new log down onto the flame to keep it going.The benefit of this fire is that, aside from generally making sure the fire doesn’t jump the pit and cause trouble, it requires minimal tending. It’s great for cold nights when you shouldn’t leave your sleeping area.
Swedish Fire Log (aka Canadian Candle or Swedish Torch) For this “formation,” you just need one large-diameter log, upended in your fire pit. You’ll cut in a star-shape hole in the center, but not all the way through, and drop your fire starter into the hole.This fire can be started even when the ground is wet or snowy, which is a huge benefit. It uses limited wood, and, like a platform fire, gives you a good sturdy surface on which to cook.

Things to Watch Out For

For some of you, these things may seem obvious. But to be thorough, I included these newbie mistakes.

Don’t Use Anything Flammable as a Fire Break

Maybe this is self-explanatory, but when you are building the perimeter of your fire pit, do not use flammable materials. For example, laying dry wood around the edge is just asking for your fire to catch there. This will lead to your fire escaping the pit and causing general havoc.

While wet wood may seem safe but remember that the fire will pull the moisture out of that wood throughout the night, and eventually, it will not be wet wood anymore. Once it dries out, it becomes fuel.

Therefore, you should always use stones to create your fire break. In a real pinch, mound up sand, but never ever use flammable material to create the perimeter of your fire pit.

What Not to Burn

It’s understandable that you may feel desperate in trying to find materials you can use to keep your fire going. However, you still need to be smart and use only proper fire fuel. Some things just should never be added to a fire. Here are a few materials that you should definitely never burn.

  • Garbage- Duh right? But you’d be surprised what I’ve seen people do. It’s bad enough that fire smoke puts off Carbon Monoxide. However, when you toss plastics, rubber, or other man-made materials into a fire, they release noxious if not poisonous fumes.
  • Poison Ivy, Oak, Sumac, etc. Make sure the wood you collect does not have any “hitchhikers.” Aside from the fact that it can leave you with wrecked skin, setting them aflame vaporizes the oils. You breathe them in, and now you’ve got that rash in your lungs, too.
  • Treated Woods. You find a pallet and think jackpot! Think again. Lumber that was intended for outdoor construction is chemically preserved to save it from rotting in the elements. Those chemicals become dangerous when burned. And worse still, older wood may have been treated with arsenic. Try to stick to natural found wood for your fire.

Do I Even Need Fire?

In the warmth of summer, you may think that a hot fire is low on your priority list. It shouldn’t be. Whether it’s hot or cold when you hunker down, you will need fire as a source of warmth once the sun goes down. Did you know that hypothermia can occur at 50ºF (10ºC)? If it’s windy or raining, the temperature doesn’t even need to be that low.

Even if you think you’ll be warm enough in a tube tent or whatever, you will want to start a fire to reduce your risk of cold exposure later. But on top of warmth, consider how you’ll be cooking food. If you’re lucky enough to have camping provisions with you, this is a no-brainer. However, you may be hunting for your own food and needing to cook it, if you’ve come unprepared.

Final Thoughts

You now know what materials you need and what log formations you should use in building your own fire. And knowing a couple of handy rules for fire safety will ensure that you and your temporary home do not hurt the surrounding nature. Hopefully, you go into the wilderness prepared with a few survival tools at your disposal.

One last note on staying safe, always let someone know where you are going before you go for a hike and download the what3words app to help emergency services find you faster.

Be safe out there.

Related Questions

What is a fire pit gazebo? A fire pit gazebo is a smaller than normal “gazebo-like” structure built over a fire pit to provide additional shade and shelter.

What is a Survival Shelter? A survival shelter is simply a structure, natural or manmade, that protects you from wildlife and weather. This spans options from caves to tents.

While a good tent is the most desirable option for its convenience and portability, you may not have packed one with you. A cave is also a great option, but may already be home to an animal, so you’ll want to check it for signs of life before moving in.

Jim James

Jim James spent most of his childhood outdoors fishing on lakes in his area. Due to his scouting background, he has always been interested in survival, camping, and the outdoors in general. Jim is a best-selling author and has a degree in History, Anthropology, and Music. He lives with his family in Charlotte, NC.

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