Fire pits are one of the greatest backyard accessories. Not only do they give you the opportunity to enjoy summer barbecues and s’mores without having to pitch a tent, but they give you the freedom to continue enjoying the outdoors year-round, even through months of cold weather.
When building bonfires, though, it’s essential to keep safety in mind. Every type of fire pit comes with a list of pros and cons, but if you’re looking to make safety your number-one priority, you should consider digging a hole for yours.
Not All Fire Pits Are the Same
Homemade fire pits can be both fantastic and dangerous. There are countless DIY projects available online so you can create your own backyard bonfire in two variations: above-ground and in-ground.
The difference between the two is pretty obvious. Above-ground fire pits are designed to keep your bonfire flames above ground, while in-ground fire pits keep the flames below the ground surface, or at least lowered.
The Drawbacks of Above-Ground Fire Pits
Above-ground fire pits aren’t always the easiest to build. Most above-ground fire pits are actually more complicated than their in-ground counterparts. Some feature layered brick stacked high enough to conceal the flames, while others are simply large metallic bowls for a bonfire to burn in.
They might be the most attractive and even portable in some cases, giving you the ability to enjoy bonfires almost anywhere you go, but the extra level of convenience can come at a cost.
Above-ground fires pits simply don’t contain the flames as well as an in-ground fire pit, and while it might look great on your wooden deck, uncontained flames pose a potential threat to surrounding trees, shrubs, and wildlife.
If you decide to install or purchase an above-ground fire pit, keep it small to minimize the risk of fire spreading uncontrollably.
The Drawbacks of in-Ground Fire Pits
In-ground fire pits might contain the flames more effectively; however, they aren’t perfectly safe either. The biggest downside to having an in-ground fire pit is the risk it poses to children and pets.
It’s literally a hole in the ground, so unless it’s clearly visible there’s a possibility for anyone (people and pets alike) to trip and fall in. This may not happen when you have a fire burning inside it, but if it’s not lit, there’s a possibility of twisted or broken ankles if you’re not careful.
The best way to avoid this is by building a firewall around your in-ground fire pit instead of simply leaving the hole uncovered. If you prefer to keep your in-ground fire pit level with the ground, consider purchasing metal sheeting or a wooden board to serve as a cover for the hole when the fire is not lit.
Why You Should Dig a Hole for Your Fire Pit
Aside from the few concerns we just mentioned, fire pits are relatively safe. As long as you understand fire safety, you should feel just fine installing one in your own backyard.
If we’re being honest, though, an in-ground fire pit will serve you better in the long run, and here’s why.
We touched on this point already, but fire safety can’t be emphasized enough. Bonfires can easily get out of control. If you’re just using fallen debris from surrounding trees as fuel for your fire, you don’t always know how the wood will burn.
Some woods burn clean, while others produce plumes of smoke and even sparks. Burning fallen debris from your backyard might seem like a natural way to clean the area, but it could come at a cost.
Branches and cones from pine trees, which are extremely common in most of the United States, tend to burn fast, hot, and uncontrollably in some cases, so if you’re using an above-ground fire pit, you may be putting your backyard at risk.
Burning the same pine tree debris in an in-ground fire pit is safer, though, as the flames won’t reach as high, and firewalls, stones, or bricks surrounding the hole will be able to better contain them.
The key to having a safe backyard bonfire is containment. In-ground fire pits keep flames from reaching high enough to ignite overhanging trees, and in turn, keep embers from drifting off into dried brush, thereby eliminating the possibility of igniting a negligent fire.
In-ground fire pits are generally safer simply because they’re often smaller than their above-ground counterparts, as digging a hole in the ground can be a hassle -but worth it in the long run.
They Just Look Cooler
It’s hard to beat the convenience and portability of some above-ground fire pits. There’s something about being able to take it with you anywhere that feels so free, but if you’re going for more of a wow-factor with your landscaping, an in-ground fire pit will serve you better.
It’s almost magical when you see the final product. With stars overhead, and a drink in-hand, your in-ground fire pit displays flames in a way that makes them seem as if they’re emerging from nothing in the ground.
There are many ways to make in-ground fire pits look cooler, whether it’s a simple hole in the ground lined with stones large enough to contain stray flames and embers, or a full-blown stone patio featuring a brick-lined hole as a fire pit.
How to Build an in-Ground Fire Pit
If you’re ready to build your in-ground fire pit, there are some things you need to consider first.
Any fire pit should be located in an area that’s at least 20 feet (6 meters) from any building or structures. That means that you should absolutely avoid digging your fire pit immediately off your back porch. Instead, follow the twenty-foot rule.
Your fire pit should also never be located underneath overhanging trees. Stray embers aren’t the only potential catalyst for wildfires. Even if embers don’t reach overhanging trees, the heat from a bonfire can be enough to dry out the branch and ignite it — no sparks necessary. Proper placement of your fire pit is crucial.
Once you have a suitable location for your fire pit selected and have checked with your local fire marshall to avoid any fines, you can begin to build your fire pit.
If you want to build a simple fire pit for limited use only, all you’ll need is a shovel and some large stones. It’s recommended to dig the hole for your fire pit between 6 and 12 inches below the level of the surrounding ground. For larger fire pits, you may want to dig a little deeper.
If you live in an area close to or at sea level, you may not be able to dig very deep at all. In these instances, dig until you hit water, and then add a couple inches of dirt back on top so that you’re able to burn above the moisture. Of course, if you get 6 to 12 inches deep and never hit water, you’re in the clear.
If you plan to cook over your in-ground fire pit, you need to make sure that it’s not too deep. You still want some of the flames, as well as the heat, to reach the food you’re cooking.
Create the diameter using your shovel (two to three feet is a nice size for small gatherings), and then dig your hole. Make sure to add a couple inches of sand in the bottom of your fire pit for insulation.
Once you’ve got your hole, you can surround it with bricks, stones, or pavers for a nice cozy appearance. Now you’re ready to build a fire!
Fire pits are a landscaping delight, but to make safety your top priority, you need to make sure that you dig a hole for your fire pit.
I have a bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and over 10 years of experience working in IT. As a homeowner, I love working on projects around the house, and as a father, I love investigating various ways to keep my family safe (whether or not this involves tech). I’ve also played guitar for almost 20 years and love writing music, although it’s hard to find the time these days.