Bonfire Vs Campfire: What’s The Difference?


Bonfires and campfires. They are both controlled outdoor fires, so what is the difference? All flames are the same, right?

Not quite.

In this article, we’re going to do a deep dive into the differences between a bonfire vs campfire – as well as what they are primarily used for.

The main difference between a bonfire and a campfire is that campfires provide light and warmth to campers. In contrast, bonfires, historically, are built for spiritual practices, and more recently to either burn unwanted waste or to be a focal point of a celebration.

Bonfires are usually lit in the middle of a paddock and are a good chance to burn off green waste from around the property- often a farm, or lifestyle block. 

On the other hand, campfires are small and can be lit in the woods, and are typically reserved for trips out into the wilderness and family bonding times.

What Makes a Fire a Bonfire?

First and foremost, the size is what makes a fire a bonfire. 

Bonfires are large, burning mounds that consist of items such as brush, yard clippings, felled trees, old wooden furniture, invasive plants and vines that can’t be disposed of, and any other waste materials that might be at hand.

They are a practical fire that is usually lit in spring, once the green waste that’s been sitting all winter has had a chance to dry out. 

On rural properties, in particular, a lot of maintenance is required. This results in large amounts of felled trees, pruned branches, and piles upon piles of dead leaves and weeds that all need to be disposed of!

What’s the quickest and easiest way to dispose of these things, you may wonder? 

Why, to burn them of course!

However, bonfires must be lit responsibly and must remain a controlled fire at all times. 

That is why they are always built in an open space such as the middle of a large paddock. 

This is to keep them away from anything that could catch alight, or otherwise be damaged by windborne ash and other flaming debris.

Traditionally, bonfires have a religious connotation to them and are still often used as part of a celebration. For example, people in the United Kingdom would often celebrate Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night) with a controlled bonfire.

What Makes a Fire a Campfire?

As with bonfires, the size is what makes a campfire, primarily.

While also controlled, a campfire is a fire of a much smaller scale. They are used for warmth, light, cooking and they can even be used to ward off pesky bugs.

Fire is one of mankind’s earliest discoveries and its original application was to aid with discovery.

Campfires are generally built within a fire ring or firepit specifically designed for small campfires. These designs are to help campers maintain an easy-to-control fire to minimize the risk of the fire getting out of control – which can cause devastating destruction.

What are the Main Differences between a Bonfire and a Campfire?

In this section, we’ve created a list of features that should help you distinguish between both campfires and bonfires.

Hopefully, it’ll help you decide which is more appropriate to build for your purposes!


  • Made at campsites, by campers, for lighting, warmth and cooking purposes
  • Built of leaves, brush, sticks, logs, tinder, kindling, and other types of woodland fuel that can be found near your campsite
  • Ranging from small to reasonably sized, but definitely limited by safety concerns such as nearby trees, shrubs, and other flammable flora


  • Made in paddocks, farms, beaches and lifestyle blocks, the primary purpose of a bonfire is for burning off waste and other unwanted material or as part of a celebration
  • Built by marking an area with rocks and other nonflammable material. A pit is then dug to help contain the flames.
  • Typically quite large. Taking up an area of several meters squared at minimum, a bonfire is several orders of magnitude larger than even a big campfire.
  • Cannot be camped near. The heat and pieces of flying, flaming ash make camping near bonfires a hazardous pursuit, and one not recommended by either serious campers or farmers

What are Big Campfires Called, Then?

Simply put, a big campfire is called… A big campfire. 

Big campfires, if they have been built and lit with the sole purpose of providing light and warmth to your campsite, are simply that. They can also provide protection from invasive bugs.

Additionally, since camping frequently happens out in the woods, it’s practically impossible to light a bonfire without creating a severe fire hazard. 

Therefore, a fire lit in the woods, and kept under control, is a campfire. 

Aside from the size factor, purpose comes into play when deciding how to categorize a particular fire.

Have you built it to burn off farm debris and other flammable material? It’s a bonfire. 

Are you camping around it, perhaps sitting on large logs, outside a log cabin? It’s a campfire! 

With these things in mind, it should be easy for you to distinguish between bonfires and campfires.

Will a Bonfire Keep you Warm, and How Long Do They Last?

There’s no doubt that a bonfire can and will keep you warm. Such a large mass of burning matter will certainly produce significant amounts of heat. 

This is why parties are often thrown around a bonfire- they are a cheap and easy way to get rid of unwanted material while ensuring your guests stay warm at the same time.

The heat generated by bonfires is far greater than that of a campfire. However, this doesn’t mean that you should build a bonfire in the woods, as it is quite the fire hazard.

When camping, it’s definitely advised you keep your campfire to a manageable size in order to keep you, your fellow campers, and your surroundings safe.

A typical bonfire can last all day and night, and into the next day as well. 

It completely depends on the weather, how it has been built, the materials it’s been built with, and whether fuel has been added continually. 

A common practice is to pile on burnable material as the fire progresses, to keep it roaring hot. Again, this applies to campfires as well, but on a much smaller scale.

On average, a bonfire may last around 8-12 hours. If you don’t want yours to last that long, it’s highly recommended that you stop building it and light it before the mound reaches chest height. 

Unlike a campfire which must keep being fed with sticks, twigs, and other types of firewood, a well-built bonfire will burn for hours without much need for maintaining it beyond giving it a stoke from time to time.

It’s not uncommon at all to visit a bonfire the following day and see that its ashes are still smoldering. 

When it’s still in this state, the fire can be built up again by placing kindling on the smoldering ashes, letting it catch alight, and then laying more heavy-duty fuel onto the flame.

The Purpose of Campfires

Camping without a campfire will make the evening and nights tough. Campfires help keep you warm, allow you to see what you are doing during the night and also allow you to cook food.

People often associate campfires with bonding. Fellow campers like to connect with each other by telling stories, playing games, and singing around campfires. Unlike bonfires, campfires do not have any celebratory connotations to them.

In Summary

There are huge differences between bonfires and campfires, with the main ones being their size and purpose.

Bonfires are large fires typically built on farm paddocks, away from anything that may catch alight. 

Meanwhile, campfires are built in the woods, or on a campsite, and are much smaller.

But both types of these fires are controlled.

Campfires give your campsite light and warmth, providing something to gather around during the night. 

Bonfires can also be gathered around but at a further distance and are not used for cooking.

With this information in mind, it’s up to you which type of fire you build, and how. Just make sure to keep fire safety in mind at all times, and never build a bigger fire than you can handle- whatever the situation.

Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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