The Dakota Fire Hole

thumbnail3A little known survival aid related to wilderness fire making skills is the Dakota fire hole, also known as the Dakota fire pit. This handy device is easy to construct and has marked advantages over other types of campfire constructs. Once you make a Dakota fire hole and try it out, you may choose to use this method on a regular basis.


Making a Dakota Fire Hole is initially more labor intensive than simply building a fire on the surface of the ground. However the outlay in energy required to make a Dakota fire hole is more than offset by its efficient consumption of fuel; it greatly reduces the amount of firewood required to cook meals, treat water to destroy pathogens or warm your body.



Dakota fire hole

Dakota fire hole


The Dakota fire hole is a valuable wilderness survival aid because it burns fuel more efficiently, producing hotter fires with less wood. In many areas firewood is scarce or requires a large amount of time and expenditure of energy in foraging to obtain it. Once you build a fire, efforts are better spent attending to your other wilderness survival needs rather than in the constant gathering of firewood.


Other advantages of the Dakota fire hole are that it creates a kind of woodstove with a stable platform that is very convenient to cook over.


Should you need to conceal your fire, the fire hole will limit the amount of visible smoke that rises from the fire, since the fuel wood is burning hotter and more efficiently. The pit will also help conceal the light emmited from your fire, especially at night when even a single candle flame can be seen from miles away.





Before you start to dig your Dakota fire hole you should scout out an area where soil conditions are conducive to its proper construction. You will want to avoid areas:-


• That are rocky and difficult to dig.
• With thick tree roots that require cutting.
• That are wet or where a dug hole will fill with water.
• With soil conditions such as dry loose sand that will not hold shape as it is dug.
• Peaty ground which may itself catch fire and burn.


To make a Dakota fire hole first remove a plug of soil about 12 inches in diameter and dig down one foot.

To make a Dakota fire hole first remove a plug of soil about 12 inches in diameter and dig down one foot.


The usual requirements related to general fire craft and care always apply. As always treat the wilderness areas you enjoy and count on to survive with respect. Be sure you do not make a Dakota fire hole in conditions where out of control wild fires are a possibility and avoid ecologically sensitive areas. Try not to injure the roots of trees and plants.


Follow local ordinances regarding the making of fires, these rules are in place for good reasons.





Now that we have the introduction taken care of, we can make a Dakota Fire Hole. As shown in the picture, I am using an army folding shovel to dig with. Many wilderness survivors carry a small hand trowel for the burying of human waste and this also works well. A strong stick or part from your mess kit can also be utilized for digging holes in a pinch; survival experts are experts at innovation so use whatever means you have available.


Starting about one foot away from the edge of the fire hole, dig a six inch diameter air tunnel at an angle so that it intersects with the base of the fire pit.

Starting about one foot away from the edge of the fire hole, dig a six inch diameter air tunnel at an angle so that it intersects with the base of the fire pit.


Making the fire pit chamber


Having selected a likely area in which to dig the fire hole, first remove a plug of soil and plant roots in the form of a circle about 10 or 12 inches in diameter. Continue digging straight down to a depth of about one-foot being sure to save the plug and the soil you removed for replacement later on.


This part of the Dakota fire hole will serve as the main chamber that contains the fire. I prefer to extend the base of the fire chamber outward a couple of inches in all directions so that it can accommodate longer pieces of firewood. This saves time and energy in breaking up firewood into suitable lengths, and also has the effect of allowing larger and therefore hotter fires.


The effect is a jug-shaped hole at the base of which you place firewood. The neck of the jug will serve as a chimney of sorts the function of which is to increase the draft and concentrate the heat of the fire into the small opening.


Making the fire hole airway


Now comes the key component of the Dakota fire hole that makes this fire making method so effective; the airway.


Before you start on the airway tunnel, determine the general direction of the wind. If the wind is generally to light to ascertain its direction you can often lick a finge and hold it up, being sure it is away from any obstructions. Evaporative cooling on one side or the other of your appendage will be felt from the direction of the wind, however light it is blowing. That is the side of the fire hole on which to construct the airway.


Dig a six inch diameter airway tunnel starting about one foot away from the edge of the fire hole. Angle its construction so that the tunnel intersects with the base of the fire chamber as shown in the diagram and picture. As when you made the fire hole section be sure to save the plug containing the vegetation and roots as well as the loose soil you remove.





Now that the Dakota fire hole is properly constructed, you can partially fill the fire pit chamber with dry combustible kindling materials and light the fire.
To light the fire, I am using a firesteel, the kind Bushcraftstuff recommends to be included in every survival kit. These firesteels work even when wet and will light literally thousands of fires before wearing out – try doing that with matches or a lighter!


Once the flame is going strong, drop it into the fire pit so that it catches the kindling on fire, gradually add sticks so that a strong hot fire is maintained.


Light the fire.

Light the fire.





The accompanying diagram shows the secret that makes the Dakota fire hole so effective. As the fire burns, the hot air that is created goes up through the fire hole “chimney” . This creates a suction action that forcefully draws air down through the tunnel and into the base of the fire. The draft is increased even more by your having constructed the tunnel on the side from which the prevailing wind is coming.


Acting as a kind of bellows, the flames are continuously fanned and the fire burns hotter and more efficiently than a fire that is simply made on the surface. Hotter fires mean less smoke, in addition the heat of the fire is concentrated into an upward direction where you can better capture it for use. This allows you to do more with less wood – an excellent survival fire by any measure.


Dakota fire hole diagram.

Dakota fire hole diagram.





Once you have made the Dakota fire hole you can easily set up a cooking surface for pots and pans by laying several parallel green sticks across the fire pit as shown in the picture. Lacking camp cooking gear you can also find a flat rock that only partially covers the hole – and use it as a sort of hobo frying pan.


It is also an easy matter to set a ‘Y’ shaped stick into the ground onto which is rested a green pole with bannock dough, fish or another outdoor meal





When it is time to leave the area, be responsible. Fill in the Dakota fire hole with the dirt you removed and saved when you were constructing it. Then replace the cap of vegetation. Doing so serves the double purpose of extinguishing the fire and leaving as little trace of your visit as possible.


**if there are any points you would like to raise or any information you would like to add  regarding this article, please feel free to use the Comments box below.**

3 Responses to “The Dakota Fire Hole”

  • Rowan:

    Thank you for creating and publishing this fire technique. It has many advantages and is relatively unknown. When doing a search on “types of camp fires” none of the first pages has this technique described. If used with charcoal one can in fact smelt aluminum, lead and even forge iron, if a forced draft is used.

    This way of fire is a treasure and your presentation is a very good tutorial.

  • Mary:

    Easy to follow guidance. Thank you for posting. I work on a fixed site and wondered whether this type of fire can be maintained over a long period of time? We are looking at ways to reduce smoke inhalation. Many thanks

  • Jennifer:

    Mary- Could you line the hole and airway in firebrick? It might mean making the hole and airway bigger, but that might make it more stable.

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