How to Build a Fire Pit

There is nothing quite like a group of friends gathered around a fire drinking beer and telling stories of their adventures. The warm glow lights up the faces of those you love while you are mesmerized by the flickering of the flames.

a functioning Dakota fire pit
a functioning Dakota fire pit

However, having the ideal structure with which to contain your fire is very important.  There are dozens of ways to build fire pits, but there are definitely some basic characteristics that should be a priority.

So why is a fire pit important? There are several reasons. Fire pits can help contain your fire so that it does not spread or get out of control. They can help make cooking easier by giving you a structure with which to work.

Fire pits can even hide your fire if you are being pursued or help you stay warm in your shelter after you have left the fire itself. Certain fire pits will continue to emit heat hours after the fire has been extinguished.  All of these reasons make this structure important to consider.

How To Build a DIY Smokeless Fire Pit That Really Works!

The first question to ask yourself is what do I need the fire pit to accomplish?  We will first look at your standard back yard permanent structure. The goal is to have a nice outdoor area where you can light a fire and entertain guests.

First, pick a level spot with a minimum of a 15 foot radius clear of any other objects.  Make sure there are no low hanging branches from trees. If you have a wood pile for your fire wood, you may want this area close to your pile or you may want to move your pile closer. This area should not have any low spots where water can collect, and should be somewhat sheltered from the wind.

Next, cut away any sod from the area in which you plan to build your pit.  This will help you outline your dig area so that you can be sure you like the size.  Normally a circle that is three to four feet in diameter is ideal.  Next, dig down about a foot deep across the whole area.

Make sure that the bottom of your hole is level, especially around the edges.  If you want your fire pit to last for several decades, you need to put footer blocks in at this point.  These blocks are not mortared together and form a ring around the outside edge of your hole.  As temperatures change, these blocks will shift allowing your above structure to remain unharmed.  You can also pour a footer with concrete if you like.  You would need to build a mold to create a ring around the outside of the hole.  You would also need to use steel rebar to reinforce the concrete.

Drainage is a major concern with fire pits.  There is nothing more frustrating than going out to light a fire and finding several inches of water standing in the bottom of your pit.  To avoid this, put gravel in the base of your pit about four inches deep.  This will help with runoff from rain and melting snow, and allow you to build fires in any weather conditions.  I suggest going with the cheapest gravel you can find.  You can buy gravel that has a certain appearance for aesthetics, but it all looks the same after a few fires.

As you build up the walls of your pit, there are a few things to keep in mind.  One is that your finished product will be fairly deep.  You need to have a few holes built into the base of your wall at ground level so oxygen can readily get to the fire.  Also, you can either mortar your building materials together or you can leave them loose.  Obviously mortar makes the structure permanent. The only benefit of leaving your blocks or stones loose is that you can remove them or replace them if you ever feel the need to.  Blocks in particular are heavy and square enough that they will typically stay put even without mortar.

The best material to use would be firebricks because they are specifically designed to handle the heat.  Regular bricks, landscape blocks, or rock can be used, but they will tend to crack over time.  You should also use refractory cement as it will hold up to the heat better.

As you build up your walls, you want to think about the ideal height.  Two or more feet from the ground is ideal because it will hold most sparks in the pit and also keep small children from falling in.  However, you would need large fires to be able to see them from your lawn chair.  Many people opt for shorter walls for this reason.

The height desired depends on your personal preferences.  If possible, you want a bit of a lip on the final layer of bricks.  If your highest layer hangs a bit over the inside and outside edges of your walls, it will help your structure last longer.  Over time, rainwater running down the side of your fire pit will wear away at your mortar.  By building in an overhang, you prevent a great deal of this water from reaching the mortar.

For a video on one way to build a fire pit, please view this:

How to Build a Fire Pit | This Old House

A pit of this type will help contain your fire and protect people from falling in.  This type of structure is a lovely addition to any property, and will add value to your home.  It also gives you a reason to get outside and enjoy the night sky.  We have one in our yard and absolutely love it.  However, there are several scenarios in which you may need to build a fire pit on the fly. Often these pits will be different because of the varying needs you may have.

We have all seen fire pits and rings in camp ground, and they serve an important purpose.  It seems like every year wildfires in the United States get worse and worse. Keeping your fire contained is the only way to keep these disasters to a minimum.

Like your back yard fire pit, you want to find a level area that is clear of any low hanging branches.  It would be preferred to find an area that is bare ground instead of turf.  Clear any leaves or small sticks out of the area so they will not catch fire.  If you can, dig a pit a few inches deep.  Then line the outside of the pit with a ring of stones.  That is all it takes to build a good camping style fire pit.

The rocks from this structure serve several purposes.  Of course they help to contain the fire and sparks, but that is only the beginning.  The rocks will absorb the heat from the fire over time.  Then, once your fire has gone out the rocks will continue to emit heat for hours.  This could keep you warm even after you run out of fire wood.  Another option would be to use this ring of rocks for cooking.  You can put food directly on the rocks and it will act as an oven would.

If you want direct heat, you can build a rack with green branches and set it on the rocks.  Place your food on the rack and the coals will cook it just like you were grilling in your back yard.

You can also build a tripod and anchor the base of the sticks just inside the ring of rocks.  From this you can hang a pot or anything else you would like to cook.  The hot rocks can be dropped in a pot of water to boil and purify it for drinking. If your container is plastic or wood and cannot be set directly on the fire, this is the best way to boil water.

You can also move a few hot rocks into your shelter and they will keep you warm all night.  Just be careful not to burn yourself.  The safest bet is to dig a hole, place the hot stone inside, and put a few inches of dirt or gravel over top.  Also, never use wet rocks for your fire ring.  As the water heats up and evaporates it can make the rocks explode shooting shrapnel everywhere.

Another type of fire pit is designed for a very specific situation… being on the run.  If you are trying to hide your location, the Dakota fire pit is the way to go.

Native Americans invented this technique, but it has been used by various military forces for hundreds of years.  First, the area you pick for this fire pit is different from the others I have mentioned.  In this case you want to build it directly underneath a large thick tree.

You still want to keep any leaves or twigs away from your pit, and the overhanging branches need to be at least six feet off the ground.  You also do not want the pit to be too close to the trunk.  Keep it at least six feet away.  The purpose of the tree is to dissipate smoke.  As the smoke rises from the pit and sifts through the leaves of your tree, it will thin out.  From a distance, people will not be able to see your column of smoke.

Next you want to dig a pit about two feet in diameter and two feet deep.  Move over about six inches and dig another hole to the same depth, but less than one foot across.

Finally, tunnel at the base to connect the two pits.  Build your fire in the larger of the two holes and you are good to go.  The small hole draws in oxygen to keep your flames going. If built right, all of the flames will be under ground level and not visible from a distance.

A normal fire can be seen for miles, especially at night.  You can also place a rack across the large hole to grill food or place a single stick across and hang a pot of water.  You still get all the functionality of a normal campfire but without disclosing your location.

For a video on building the Dakota fire pit, please see:

As you can see there are many ways to contain your fire and make it more functional.  Whether you are on the run from a posse or enjoying the company of your family or friends in your back yard, a fire pit will always make your experience safer and more enjoyable.  Sometimes they take a little extra time to construct, but a good fire pit is always worth it.

3 thoughts on “How to Build a Fire Pit”

  1. Eveline Armstrong

    This is excellent video for learning how to build a Dakota Fire Pit. You do not need to give the finger after putting your arm through the dug tunnel. Bitch, bastard, and prostitute has nothing to do with this video and there is no need for the gratuitous vulgarities uttered by the narrator. They are offensive.

  2. I agree, no need for offensive language. Good video though.
    Save the swearing for when you need it.
    Yes, there are times!

  3. Daniel Aka rangoon

    Caution caution caution
    The dakota fire pit is basically a smelting forge…..

    ANY increase in wind flow can and will Burn the bottom of a container….

    Using the back of a bare hand (not the calloused hand, Palm down) monitor the temperature

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