If you are camping in the warm months, worrying about how you are going to stay warm enough is usually never an issue. But, if you are camping in late fall through spring, conserving as much heat from your campfire as you can is essential! One way to do this is through the use of a campfire reflector.
A campfire reflector placed behind the fire will bounce or radiate more heat back toward you. Reflectors can be made from rocks or stones piled up, they can be made by building a simple wall of logs or branches, corrugated metal, or they can be made by propping up and stretching out a mylar emergency blanket.
It is simple to do, but there are a lot of options depending on your situation and what materials you have available. Read below to find out how to stop losing as much heat to the woods and start heating up your cool-weather campsites.
What is a Campfire Reflector
When you hear campers and survivalists talking about campfire reflectors, they are really speaking of two different methods: reflection and radiation. Both of these techniques serve the same purpose, to keep you warmer around your campfire, but they don’t do it in the same way.
A true campfire reflector will do just that, reflect or bounce the heat off of the surface and back toward you. This is best done using some kind of shinreflective surface. The effects from this style of reflector is immediate, but as soon as the fire is out the reflector has no more heat to bounce so the more light-weight materials will no longer serve a purpose.
Quite often, the term “campfire reflector” is also used to describe setups where the material will actually absorb the heat from the fire and then radiate some of it back to you. These don’t have to be made of shiny, reflective surfaces, but rather from materials that can store some heat. Even with this style of reflector, some heat will bounce back toward you immediately, but not as much as a shiny reflector. However, because of the heat gain, this radiative style of reflector will emit heat waves and warm the area once the flames are out.
Why Use a Campfire Reflector
Whichever style of campfire reflector you choose, there are a few different benefits of using one, or even multiple reflectors at your next cold weather campfire.
Both the reflective and radiative styles of campfire reflectors are intended to keep as much heat from the campfire near the chilly campers as possible. Heat is really just infrared waves, so if you imagine waves coming out of the fire going in every-which direction, the campfire reflector’s main purpose is to bounce some of those back toward you. You stay warmer and lose less heat to the woods or campground.
What is great about campfire reflectors is that some setups can also be used to stop the wind from blowing into your camp and keeping you chilly. So not only are you conserving some of the heat that would otherwise be lost, but you are also preventing the cool breeze from blowing through and taking more of your own body heat with it.
Keep Smoke Away From Your Faces
This is one additional benefit that some campfire reflectors may offer, depending of the setup. If the reflector is built close enough to the fire, the smoke will be drawn up it rather than finding its way to your face. The smoke is pulled upward along the reflector and away from the people at your campsite.
What to Make a Campfire Reflector Out Of
Different materials can serve different purposes when it comes to conserving the heat from your campfire. Here are a few of the most widely used, as well as a few used by the hardiest of survivalists.
Using wood is great if you are camping in an area that has plenty of it. This is one of the most commonly used materials for campsite reflectors, although this style gives you more radiative heat and wind-break benefits more than it reflects and bounces heat toward you.
Typically, a wood campfire reflector is built close to a fire on the side opposite of where you are sitting. It resembles a small wall made of logs or branches. Tall stakes are driven into the ground and then logs are stacked one of top of the other between these stakes to create a sturdy wall.
One one side of the wall, drive the stakes in just far enough to accommodate the thickest log. Then, drive in the other two stakes just far enough away to be able to hold the shortest one. Start by stacking your longest logs at the bottom and work up from there. See more about this in our article about heating up your campfire here.
Some build their wall straight up, and others feel there should be a backward leaning slant to more efficiently reflect the heat. Watch TA Outdoors who how they build a massive wooden fire reflector for cold weather camping. They can be built smaller than this, but the same method is used.
One other benefit of a wood campfire reflector wall is that is very effectively dries out your firewood. Using wet wood for your wall will help increase its ability to absorb heat a bit, but then it will also dry it out so that it can be used later and replaced with more wet wood. In very cold weather camping, some allow the wood reflector to start on fire, offering a wall of hot coals that warm them very nicely. Just be sure to do this only in a safe area and be careful when sleeping that it doesn’t get out of control.
Drawbacks of a wooden campfire reflector is that you have to know beforehand that your campsite will have plenty of wood to make your wall. Otherwise, you will have to bring the wood in or go without. Also, it doesn’t reflect much heat and is decent at holding at and radiating heat, but not great. However, if you have a lot of wood available, need a great windbreak, and want to dry out your stash of firewood, it will work well.
Another material commonly used to make a campfire reflector while winter camping is rocks or stones. Like wood, some heat bounces or reflects off of the rocks and back at you, but most of their benefit comes from the rocks absorbing heat and radiating it out once the fire has gone down or out.
There are a few ways to utilize this method and, as you are not likely going to bring rocks camping with you, it will depend on your campsite.
If you are able to find large, flat stones, you can prop them up close to the fire opposite of where you sit. If there are no large, flat stones around, you can pile up a smaller rocks to make a small wall behind the fire. Fire Lilly shows us how to do that in her video below.
Another route is to set up camp next to a boulder, side of a mountain or rocky hill. The fire can be built right in front of this natural campfire radiator, using what nature has provided to bounce heat back toward you and your fellow campers.
Far North Bushcraft and Survival shows the benefits of this type of reflector below.
If you have a fire pit in your backyard, you are lucky because you can source rocks specifically for this purpose and build a nice looking pit that also keeps you toasty and is designed to pull smoke away from your faces. IntenseAngler demonstrates how to make such a pit in the video below.
*If you are camping in cold weather, I came across an article while doing research for another post where the author describes how to use stones to effectively heat your sleeping bag. Read the article from Practical and Primitive here.
Emergency Mylar Blanket
One type of material that definitely falls in the reflector category is an emergency mylar blanket. These are the thin, shiny metallic looking blankets you see people using after an emergency situation, but they can be purchased in many stores to be kept in your vehicle or home.
These blankets won’t store any heat, but the shiny surface allows them to reflect infrared heat waves from the fire toward you much better than many other materials, including rocks and wood.
Mylar blankets can be spread out over a surface behind the fire, or they can be stretched across some kind of frame or support, adding a bit of wind protection as well.
Far North Bushcraft and Survival demonstrates how he uses an emergency blanket in a setup where he can achieve 92 degrees in a tent heated with only a campfire that is outside of the tent. This was winter camping with a fair amount of snow on the ground.
Some of you may be interested in the Baker tent setup shown above, but some of you may only want to use this idea to just warm up a simple winter campfire. Fun in the Woods shows how he made a portable campfire reflector from an emergency blanket that you can store in the garage and pull out anytime you want it.
The cheaper blankets work for this purpose, but the shiny side may begin to rub off and dull after a few uses so they may just need to be replaced more often.
Windshield Sun Shade
Another material that is used as a campfire reflector is a windshield sun shade commonly used to protect the inside of a vehicle from UV rays and heat. These are made with a metallic looking reflective surface that will bounce some of the infrared heat waves leaving the campsite back toward your seat.
These are smaller than mylar emergency blankets, so they don’t redirect as much heat as they do. But, they have the advantage if being made with a structure inside that makes it easier to prop one up behind a fire.
One nice thing about the windshield sun shades is that they are very lightweight and designed to fold down or roll into a smaller shape to store inside your vehicle. This means that you can easily toss one in your vehicle when going on a trip, or take it with you on a hike.
This polyethylene fabric is used to cover the exterior of homes that haven’t been finished yet, protecting the OSB from water and sun damage. However, some use it at their campsite to protect them, as well!
More commonly known as the brand names, such as Tyvek and TYPAR (there are others), this material is usually white or silvery gray in color and is used in a similar way as the mylar emergency blankets, to reflect some of the infrared waves that are leaving the campfire back toward you.
A few disadvanteges of housewrap when compared to mylar blankets is that they aren’t a mirror-like surface so much less heat reflects back from it. Also, for most people, this isn’t as easily obtained as you would need to go inside a building supply store and ask for it specifically. However, one of its advantages is that it is a stronger material, making it hold up better to wind if it is doubling as a windbreak.
Hiker J explains how he uses Tyvek a few different ways while camping in the snow. While he doesn’t show it being used as a fire reflector, you can see what the material looks like and how versatile it is.
If you just built a house or added on, you may have some lying around that you could put to use. If not, the folks at the building supply store are used to supplying people with materials for all kinds of unique projects so they would probably be interested in hearing about your plans for the housewrap as they are getting you a roll. It is definitely more expensive than a mylar blanket, but if you are a hardcore camper you may get your money’s worth in warmer conversation and toastier sleeping bags!
Another building material that would work as a campfire reflector is underslab insulation. What works here isn’t the rigid foam type insultation. Rather, it is the roll of insulation with a foil layer and bubbles on the surface, such as the brand name EcoFoil. This material is lightweight and comes in 4′ rolls, but can be taped together to make a larger surface.
This insulation is designed to reflect UV rays, making it a good candidate for a campfire reflector as it will also work well to reflect infrared rays. It is also more expensive than mylar emergency blankets, but it is sturdier. The underslab insulation could be used many times over and will also work better to cut the wind if there is a breeze.
NampaCamper explains how he used this material under his sleeping bag to keep him warm while cold weather camping. While this doesn’t show using the reflective insulation as a campfire radiator, you can understand why it would be so effective!
Underslab inslation can be found at your local building supply store.
Sometimes the simplest answer is the best answer. If you have an aluminum canoe you are using at your campsite, especially if it is silver, then you already have a campfire reflector ready to go!
Positioning your canoe upside-down behind your campfire can help to reflect some of the heat waves back toward you and your campers. It won’t store much heat to release later, but if you are chilly and have no other campfire reflector available, you may as well use what you have. Just be careful to not let any little campers close to it to prevent burns.
Any kind of sheet metal, including corrugated steel, will work as a campfire reflector. The obvious disadvantage of this is that you probably won’t want to be traveling with sheet metal and bringing it in to your campsite. However, if you have a backyard fire pit or if you’re camping near your property and have some sheet metal available, you will have a heavy-duty campfire reflector and wind break at your disposal.
The shinier the metal, the better, when it comes to reflecting heat back toward you. But, any metal will work well to stop the breeze from cooling you down too much, and it will also store and radiate heat for a little while. The thicker the metal, the more heat it will store and release, but because it is such a good conductor it won’t do this nearly as well as stones or rocks.
You can diy this, but if you are in the market for something that looks great AND is portable, MC Ranch Overland shows their metal campfire reflector in the video below.
Where to Put Them
Many campers and survivalists position their campfire reflectors opposite of the fire from where they are sitting. This works to snag some of the infrared rays that would be lost to the woods or backyard and send them back toward you.
However, this isn’t the only location used. Some used reflectors behind where they are sitting to reflect heat that would otherwise go past them toward their backs, warming their chilly backsides.
Others put them right behind where they are camping so that the reflector redirects heat back into the area where they are sleeping, keeping them toasty.
Also, multiple reflectors and radiators can be used at a campsite in different locations. This conserves more of the heat that would normally be lost and draws it back into your camp, making it a much more comfortable and fun evening.
You may also enjoy our article, 14 Good Campfire Games That Will Win the Night!