How hot is a campfire: Temps, colors, wood tips & more

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Can I put this pan on an open fire? Are there enough coals to cook those potatoes? Isn’t this steak burning yet? Why is it sodden after an hour on fire? If any of these questions sound familiar, you’re in the right place. 

Campfires are irreplaceable in giving warmth, light, coziness, and delicious meals in the wild. But they’re often a puzzle, too, especially when it comes to campfire cooking.

In this blog post, we’ll look into the nitty gritty details of campfire temperatures and impacting factors, answer the big question ‘how hot is a campfire’ and tell how you can measure it. Plus, we’ll explore other fire-related dilemmas, like what your pan should be made of to cook the best steak on an open fire. 

Ready? Let’s get that fire started! 

How hot does a campfire get?

We’ll begin from the core. How hot a campfire is depends heavily on how it’s built, how much fuel and oxygen it has, as well as how high the flames are. So there’s no universal answer to this question. 

There are two key temperatures to know: 

  • Internal temperature: A campfire can reach up to 1650°F (900°C), with an average temperature being 900°F (482°C). 
  • Cooking temperature: You’ll do the cooking above the fire in a space with no direct flames. Here, the temperature should be around 600°F (316°C). The higher you go above, the lower the temperature gets. 

However, if we talk large campfires like bonfires, the numbers can get much more extreme, up to 2000°F (1100°C). This is where metals like gold and silver start to melt, so you obviously won’t try to cook there. 

marshmallow roasting

Factors that influence temperature changes

Now, let’s get deeper into why temperatures vary. Often, your typical fire won’t be as hot as the maximums we discussed. Instead, it will fall somewhere in the middle. Here’s what will impact your campfire temperature:

Shape and size of the fire

The shape and size of the fire will have a big impact on how hot it will get. A large, rounder fire is likely to be hotter than a small, more narrow one. That’s because there are more places for oxygen to reach in larger fires, which helps fuel combustion.

Type and amount of fuel

The more wood you add to the fire, the hotter it should get. Hardwoods like birch, oak, ash, maple, and walnut create hotter fires than softer woods like poplar or pine.

On top, how much fuel you use will also determine the temperature of your fire. Oxygen is used up faster when there’s more fuel, creating a hotter and longer burning flame.

Oxygen flow

Oxygen is used as fuel for combustion, so more oxygen means more heat.

If your fire has too little oxygen, it’ll be cooler and won’t burn as well as expected. On the other hand, excessive oxygen will cause the fire to burn too quickly, creating a cooler flame.

The key is to find the sweet spot between these two extremes and adjust how much oxygen gets in accordingly.

The type of fire pit you’re using also plays its part in the oxygen flow and, thus, a campfire temperature. If you’re using a metal fire pit, it won’t let as much oxygen go through, and it won’t get as hot as other fire pits would. 

Recipe for a decent fire

how to build a campfire

The above factors naturally develop a recipe for a good fire: heat, fuel, and air. So, how to build a perfect fire for cooking? Get these three ingredients:

1. Tinder

You’ll need small, easily combustible material to get your fire started. Lightly shred dry and dead leaves, sticks, and twigs are all ideal for tinder. You can also buy ready-made campfire starters. Put it first. 

2. Kindling

Once you light the fire, add some small but thicker twigs and branches to keep it going and generate some coals. Kindling should be dry, as wet wood takes longer to catch fire and create less heat. From here, try to go for a teepee-like structure of the fire to get oxygen flowing. 

3. Fuel

When you have a good flame and some hot coals (and it’ll take some time, so don’t rush), it’s time to look for bigger pieces of wood. Various species of wood burn differently. Hardwoods like hickory, oak, or beech are ideal as they last longer and create higher temperatures. Remember a teepee-like structure. 

Ideally, you’ll want to have an even campfire heat for cooking. For that, wait until your fire calms down a bit, creating a base of coals. Occasionally poke and stir the coals and ash underneath.

Bonus tip

We cover different campfire types and explain how to start a campfire in more detail in our other article.

cooking in coals

Best firewood for campfires guide

Different wood burns differently. Some deliver more heat slower, and some – give blazing fires for a short period of time.

  • Slow-burning, high-heat woods: Hardwoods like oak, hickory, beech, and cedar burn slowly and throw off more heat than other woods. 
  • Fast-burning, less heat woods: Pine and maple give out more smoke but less heat. 
  • What to avoid: Woods with lots of sap, as it burns faster and gives less heat. Dried wood will be better and burn longer. If you have some extra wet wood, place it at the edge of your fire pit – it’ll dry over time and then be suitable for adding to the fire. 
What size of firewood is best?

Larger fires use more fuel and oxygen, reaching the highest temperatures over 2000°F, so you’ll wish to shoot for smaller, medium-sized fires for easier control. The best size is around 1 foot long, up to six-inch wide.

Keep in mind that the temperature at the fire’s center will be much higher than near-the-edge heat levels.

At what temperatures do metals melt?

Material is a vital factor when buying a campfire cooking kit. After all, you don’t want to see your money melting. Here are average metal melting points to help you grasp the idea: 

  • Aluminum: 1220°F (660°C)
  • Aluminum alloy: 865-1240°F (463-671°C). Note: Melting point depends on the type of alloy.
  • Cast iron: 2060°F (1127°C)
  • Stainless steel: 2750°F (1510°C)
  • Titanium: 3,034°F (1,667°C)
how hot is a campfire
Safety tip

Some camping cooking utensils and sets are aluminum-made. While they should still be safe to cook above the open fire, they’ll melt in direct contact with flames.

If you want a safe choice that’ll serve long, pick cast iron, stainless steel, or titanium cooking set.

So, how can I tell how hot my campfire is?

The color of the flame is the most accurate indicator of how hot your campfire is. Here are the different colors and their meanings:

  • White flames: Usually, they’ll appear closest to the wood and will be the hottest part of the flame, reaching 2000°F or more. 
  • Blue flames: You’ll typically see blue flames inside white ones. These can go even up to 3000°F.
  • Orange flames: This area can also get as hot as 2000°F. You’ll mostly see these colors passing off the wood or near the fire center. 
  • Red flames: It usually means your fire isn’t getting enough oxygen and needs to be stoked up; it’s one of the coolest parts of your fire, often visible in coals and plumes. Temperatures in this range are around 600-800°F.
  • Yellow flames: These indicate a cooler fire with temperatures ranging from 300-600°F. This is usually a fire that’s getting not too much oxygen and doesn’t have enough heat.
  • Smoke and sparks: If you see smoke or sparks, your campfire isn’t hot enough for cooking – it probably won’t reach temperatures higher than 300°F. That type of fire might help keep away predators or create light during the night, but not for cooking food.

Another thing to look for is how quickly your fire consumes fuel. If you ever feel your fire is too hot or too low, tweak how much fuel and air it gets to get it back under control. You can do this by adjusting how far away between each other and from the air supply your fuel pieces are.

All in all, practice makes perfect.

giving oxygen to campfire

Some tips for meat lovers

If you’re up for some juicy steak on your next camping trip, you better take advantage of this part. 

Though it’s possible to estimate how long various types of meat should cook over a campfire, this still varies depending on how hot the campfire is. The best way to ensure safe, delicious cooking is to bring a good quality meat thermometer with you. The internal temperature of your meat dictates how cooked it is and how much flavor it will deliver. 

Bonus tip

It’s recommended to heat the food to 140-165°F to kill pathogens. The thermometer does a good job here, as you won’t be sure about the temperature just by looking at your food. The saddest part in the wild is to upset your stomach. 

Here are the approximate temperatures for different types of meat:

  • Rare steaks: 115°F (46°C)
  • Medium-rare steaks: 125°F (51°C)
  • Well-done steaks: 150-155°F (66-68°C)
  • Chicken breasts: 160-165°F (71-74°C)
  • Lambs: 145–160°F (63–71°C) 
  • Pork: 155–170°F(68–77°C)

Safety first

Finally, when dealing with a fire, camping safety should always be your number one priority:

  • Check area guidelines and ensure it’s allowed to build fires there. 
  • Be cautious of what plants/wood you burn – some wood may contain toxic fumes or poisonous sap that will make its way into the air. 
  • Keep water nearby in case of emergency scenarios like your campfire getting out of control. 
  • Don’t ever leave your fire unattended. Always have someone look after it if you need to step away for a few minutes. 
  • Make sure your fire burns in a safe spot where it won’t spread to neighboring areas, and keep it small enough, so it doesn’t get out of control easily.  
  • Think about using a fire ring for extra caution to keep your fire under control.
fire pit

How to properly put out a fire?

Putting out a fire is just as important as lighting it, so take extra care. Always make sure your fire is completely extinguished before leaving the campsite. Take this step-by-step guide:

  • Starve the fire: Stop adding fuel and starve it out of oxygen by smothering it with ash or dirt. Don’t use water if the fire has been burning for a while because hot embers can turn into steam explosions when mixed with water.
  • Wait until your fire stops producing smoke: If you don’t see any more visible signs of heat or smoke coming from the campfire, then it’s safe to assume that your fire has gone out.
  • Use a shovel or stick to stir the embers: Mix up the ashes and embers to make sure that no heat is still coming from them.
  • Feel for heat: Use your hands to feel along the edges of your campfire for any leftover hot spots.
  • Pour lots of water on it: Pour plenty of water over the entire area until there’s not a single spark left in sight.

And, most importantly, always keep the leave no trace principles on top of your head.

Bottom line

Building a campfire is an art and requires some practice to master.

With the right knowledge on how to build, maintain, and properly put out a campfire safely, you’ll have an enjoyable and memorable experience. 

Depending on how much fuel it gets and how well it’s controlled, temperatures from different fire sources can vary greatly.

Ultimately, practice makes perfect when building your campfire for optimal heat output. Pack your gear and knowledge, and get that perfect (and safe, of course) fire going!

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