Fire pits are good for more than toasting marshmallows and sitting pretty.

Brian Bennett/CNET

One excellent way to relax right in your backyard is to use a fire pit. If you’ve never started one up, there are key things to know first that will help you maximize your outdoor fun and keep everyone safe. 

So before you give your backyard this upgrade, take a look at this guide. I’ll go through what points to think about to safely enjoy your personal bonfire. I’ll also suggest some uses you might not have considered.

Safety comes first

Any open flame is potentially dangerous. As such, check with your local fire authority before buying a home fire pit. Confirm that home campfires are permitted in your area. If your house is part of a homeowners’ association, it should be able to provide specific guidance.

If fires are permitted, then follow these general guidelines issued by the National Fire Protection Association. Essentially they call for having a water bucket, garden hose or fire extinguisher at the ready before ignition. You should also closely monitor children and pets around the fire, not letting them get too close.

Choose a suitable spot

The NFPA also recommends placing fires at least 25 feet from any structure or flammable material. Besides buildings, that includes overhanging tree branches, grass, shrubs and bushes, as well as leaves and sticks. 

Choose an area that’s level. Avoid dry and windy conditions, as a brisk wind can quickly blow your fire and stray embers around the yard. Also, don’t forget to respect your neighbors: Select a spot that’s not extremely close to or directly upwind from their property.

Split hardwood logs are the standard fire pit fuel.

Brian Bennett/CNET

Use the right fuel

The preferred fuel for fire pits is hardwood logs that have been kiln-dried. Examples include hickory, maple, birch and oak. For my fire pit tests, I use Simple Simon Premium Hardwood. However, you can source wood from many vendors. Home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes are handy suppliers. 

There are specialty stores that ship firewood nationwide like If only fancy wood will do, check out Cutting Edge. Based in Georgia, Cutting Edge claims its “premium ultra kiln-dried firewood” burns longer and produces less smoke. Starting at $59 a box though, this wood better be outstanding.

Also consider wood from a local dealer. Often these mom-and-pop outfits offer the best deals around.

Another way to go is to embrace your inner lumberjack. By that, I mean chopping your own firewood from a fallen tree on your property. This path, however, requires planning: Fresh-cut wood needs about six months to cure naturally — and of course, there’s more physical labor involved. 

Use hardwood logs, a fire starter and kindling to get your fire pit rolling.

Brian Bennett/CNET

How to start your fire

Starting a campfire isn’t rocket science, but it does require technique. Assuming you have a quality fire pit, you’ll need three items to be successful. These are split hardwood logs, some kindling and a fire starter. Begin by arranging your logs in teepee or pyramidal shape (point facing skyward). If your logs are too long, stack them in a rectangle. They should be touching but with enough space for air flow.

Next, place your kindling inside the base of the log teepee. Small fallen tree branches from your yard waste pile work well for this. Then nestle in a fire starter inside the kindling. Wax fire starters work, as do the pressed cardboard variety. You can also use newspaper, cardboard scraps, or paper towels in a pinch.

Lastly, light the fire starter with a match or grill lighter. A good fire pit with properly constructed fuel should fully ignite in 5 to 10 minutes. You should also stay clear of liquid accelerants like light fluid. They’re dangerous as well as adding noxious chemicals, flavors and odors to your wood. 

Turning your fire pit into a grill can be as simple as dropping grates on it.

Brian Bennett/CNET

More than just s’mores

S’mores are great and kids love them, but fire pits can cook other things too. I don’t just mean hot dogs on skewers either, though that’s certainly a classic. If your fire pit is physically compatible, think about upgrading it with a grill grate. 

There’s the DIY route of simply dropping a repurposed barbecue grate over your pit. You can purchase aftermarket add-ons too. Some fire pit companies sell accessories designed to match specific products in their lineup. Regardless, the end goal is the same. A grate lets you cook virtually any food item you’d usually grill or heat on the stove. Think veggies, burgers, poultry and so on. Just be mindful that cooking oils and meat drippings will create more mess to clean up.

Shutting down

Unlike a charcoal grill, a fire pit lacks adjustable vents. That makes safely snuffing out the fire a slow process. High-performance fire pit makers like Solo Stove and Tiki instruct you to wait until the fire dies out naturally. Only in the case of emergencies should you douse the fire with water. Doing this instantly generates steam and hot debris. And even if the remaining coals appear extinguished, wait a minimum of 12 hours before disposing of them.