Celebrate fall with these community bonfire party ideas. One writer shares how to start a bonfire that burns all night and how to organize bonfire foods.
Fall is a wonderful time of year in Ohio. The oppressive heat of summer has been replaced by mild days and cool, crisp nights. More than 100 kinds of deciduous trees put on a fantastic show with the brightest oranges, reds, and yellows imaginable. For the homesteader, the long-awaited harvest is coming in, and the time to unwind is right around the corner.
Fall is my favorite season of the year, and what better way to enjoy a fall evening than to kick back with family and friends around a huge fire? My wife and I have hosted many bonfire cookouts and tried many bonfire party ideas over the years. All of them were fun, and they still evoke many special memories to this day. With careful planning and a little know-how, we make sure every guest has a great time and continues to come back year after year.
How To Start a Bonfire
Naturally, every successful bonfire cookout must include a well-built fire that starts quickly and continues to burn for hours. As the designated fire builder, I follow a particular method for how to start a bonfire. Well-seasoned hardwoods, such as oak, walnut, and maple, burn the longest, so I try to keep a large supply on hand. We have a large, open-air shelter where I dry wood for this purpose. Inside, there’s a wide variety of pieces that I’ve collected and cut throughout the year. I store the wood loosely with no ground contact to ensure maximum removal of moisture from each piece. As a result, I can acquire high-quality wood for the bonfire with ease.
After gathering the dried wood and hauling it to the side yard, I’m ready to build the fire. To begin, I maneuver several thick stump pieces together in a circle to serve as a sturdy base. Inside the circle, I toss some of our split firewood, followed by the brittle remains of the previous year’s Christmas tree. No kindling is as flammable as a year-old dead fir, spruce, or pine tree. Just outside the circle, I stand up long branches to form a pyramid above the remains of the Christmas tree. This will allow the fire to fall in on itself as it burns, rather than collapse outward into the yard. Lastly, I shove small clumps of loose, easily ignitable straw into open spaces between the long branches.
Before setting the bonfire ablaze, I always pull out the garden hose. As a safety measure, I thoroughly saturate the ground in a wide circle around the fire. After I’ve finished, I leave the garden hose nearby, in the unlikely event the flames spread into the grass. Then, I’m ready to douse the straw with lighter fluid, ignite it, and stand back as the fire roars to life. (If you host your own bonfire, make sure you pay close attention to local weather, and only ignite a fire if the conditions are safe to do so. If it’s particularly dry or windy, you’re in a drought, or your area is under a burn ban, postpone your bonfire until the conditions have improved.)
Meanwhile, my wife sets up two long folding tables in the large side yard and starts filling them with delicious food, including tons of hot dogs, bratwursts, buns, plenty of roasting sticks, and all the condiments. Nearby, we have graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows for making s’mores. With the use of an extension cord and a power bar surge protector, we can keep slow cookers full of mashed potatoes and green-bean casseroles nice and warm. We hang two bright propane lamps above the tables so no one misses out on second helpings after dark!
We also strive for an endless variety of fun activities at our bonfire parties. We bring out all our bubble makers, sidewalk chalk, and some outdoor toys for the toddlers, as well as sporting equipment and outdoor games for the big kids. By the time everyone arrives, adults and kids alike are tossing flying discs, footballs, and cornhole bags.
Fire-Cooked Bonfire Foods
Soon, we’ll be ready to begin roasting. On occasion, however, the fire is still too hot to come near it. When this happens, rather than have everyone wait around until it cools down a bit, we use a bundle of particularly long homemade roasting sticks made from fresh saplings and long, thin branches. At roughly 6 feet in length, these sticks are the ideal replacements for the short, store-bought varieties, allowing us to cook our food without also cooking ourselves in the process. Each one has one or two sharp points at the end, carefully whittled and ready to skewer a cheesy hot dog or a juicy bratwurst.
Several minutes later, once the tasty morsels have been cooked, each one is nestled inside a bun and covered with a wide array of condiments. Competing for room next to them on durable, festive plates are portions of the many prepared dishes provided by our guests. It’s truly a veritable smorgasbord, including everything from sweet potato casserole to potato salad, chili mac, mac and cheese, and many delicious, homemade desserts.
When the fire has burned down further, we make one of the world’s simplest and tastiest culinary delights of all time. We grab the sticks, load them with fluffy marshmallows, and carefully roast the sweet treats to a light golden-brown. There’s nothing quite like the sweet flavor of gooey marshmallow and milk chocolate smashed between two crunchy graham crackers.
By the time it’s dark, the air is noticeably cooler and the adults move their camp chairs closer to the fire. Supper is done, and the kids are rounded up for a treasure hunt. Soon, shadowy figures crisscross our few acres with flashlights in hand and glow bracelets on their wrists. A friendly competition to find the next clue ensues, and the area becomes luminescent as the roving lights pass each other in the dark. The kids discover fun prizes and then settle down to paint pumpkins on the porch.
Bonfire Party Ideas for The Big Finish
Eventually, the kids’ activities come to an end, so I disappear for a little while and return at the wheel of a tractor. It’s time to finish the evening with a good old-fashioned hayride. Gleefully, the kids pile into the old wagon hitched behind the tractor. We do all kinds of circles and figure eights around our small homestead. The kids talk, laugh, and sing together, all the while making good memories and forging friendships that last a lifetime.
When the ride is done, the adults collect their plastic ware, bag their camp chairs, round up their children, and head home. At that point, the fire is diminished, and the Christmas tree, firewood, long branches, and even the sturdy stumps are all gone. Throughout the evening, I push any unburned pieces farther into the fire with my hoe to ensure everything is gone by the end. With little more than burning coals left, I pick up the garden hose and douse them, as another successful bonfire comes to an end.
Our community cookouts have long been a source of much enjoyment, and they offer long-lasting value as well. Roasting a hot dog with family and friends over a large open flame may seem like a trivial matter, but a bonfire party is much more than that. It’s a wonderful, shared experience of joy and friendship, creating lasting memories. In this way, we hope to make our world a little bit better for all of us.
Hosting Your Own Bonfire Party
Looking for more bonfire party ideas? Check out another writer’s experience of hosting a bonfire party.
Want some more safety tips? The National Fire Protection Association has what you need.
Mark Hall is a veteran freelance writer who endeavors to share his life experiences in a manner that is both informative and entertaining. He lives on a 4-acre slice of rural Ohio paradise with his wife, three daughters, and plenty of poultry.