Whether they’re used for cooking food, staying warm, or just pure enjoyment, campfires are a staple of outdoor living. However, if you’ve never done it before, it can be hard to know how to start a fire, leaving you cold and frustrated.
That’s not how we want your camping trip to go. To keep you from wasting hours of time and resources, here are some of our top tips for creating a roaring blaze in minutes.
How to Start a Fire – The Conventional Way
Before we get into any of the fancy ways to start a fire, let’s talk about the “normal” way first. There are really four steps to the process that you need to consider: fire preparation, fire starting, fire maintenance, and fire extinguishing.
Get Your Wood
I can’t stress how important it is to have a good stash of bone-dry wood on hand before you get going. While I have made fires using wet wood in the past, it takes a lot more patience, effort, and frustration than I think most of you are willing to put up with. Dry wood will ignite a lot faster, and it won’t pop as fiercely as wet wood, making it a safer option as well.
Always make sure you have a decent stockpile of tinder, kindling, and fuel before you actually try to start the fire. It might take a few tries, and you’ll probably go through a fair amount of your stash before anything catches well enough to stay lit. And once you have your little baby fire, the last thing you want to do is leave it unattended while you try to find more wood to grow it bigger!
Also keep in mind that you should only use local deadwood to start your fire. I know it’s tempting to bring a few logs from home, but this is an easy way for pests and bacteria to spread places that they shouldn’t be. Likewise, never harm a tree in your search for firewood. It doesn’t follow good LNT principles, and it won’t burn as easily as deadwood anyway.
Start Your Fire
Don’t make things more difficult than they need to be. While it can be fun to start a fire using something like a bow drill or a flint and steel, there’s no shame in using a lighter or box of matches either.
Tinder is what you’ll use to get the fire going. Good tinder ignites quickly and easily, though it does tend to burn out within a short amount of time. Items that you can use include dry pine needles, leaves, small twigs, grass, and anything else you can find that will burn easily.
Once you’ve got the tinder going, start adding in the kindling. This is going to be any small sticks that you’ve found, falling somewhere between one or two inches in diameter. By adding these, you’ll give your fire a bit more body and energy without completely suffocating it with a giant log.
Once you’re satisfied that the flame won’t go out as soon as a gust of wind comes blowing through, you can start incorporating the fuel. These are your larger logs that will keep the fire burning for many hours to come.
How Will You Stack the Wood?
Now that you’ve started your fire, it’s time to put some thought into how you’ll build it from there. If you toss your logs in haphazardly, the wood won’t burn evenly, and it won’t be nearly as efficient as something more refined. To give you a few ideas of designs you can use, here are a few of the most common:
Teepee. It’s a classic for a reason. As the name implies, you’ll end up making a “teepee” out of your kindling, nesting your tinder in the center of the structure. It should look something like an inverted ice cream cone when you’re done. Make sure you leave some gaps between the wood to allow for adequate airflow, and a way to ignite the tinder inside. Once it’s all on fire, the kindling will eventually collapse into itself, at which point you can start adding in your larger logs.
Log cabin. One of my personal favorites, the log cabin is perfect for creating a long-lasting fire. Start by making a teepee shape, and add a “fence” all the way around it. Think of it like you’re making a Jenga tower out of the wood logs, keeping the teepee in the middle. As the fire expands, the larger logs that make up the walls of the cabin will get consumed, significantly extending the life of your fire.
Lean-to. Find yourself a long kindling stick, and plant it in the ground at a 30 degree angle. Spread your tinder around the base of the stick, along with some other smaller pieces of kindling. Lean some other kindling up against the support stick, and some larger logs on top of those. Then, light up that tinder and enjoy the fire!
How to Start a Fire – Alternative Methods
With the use of modern technology, anyone can start a fire with relative ease. As long as a lighter is available, it’s easy enough to get tinder and kindling ignited, especially if it’s dry.
However, this convenience can easily birth a sense of complacency, which is dangerous when you’re out on the trail. From personal experience, I’ve run out of fuel in my lighter right when I needed it the most. What would you do if that happened to you? Fortunately I had a spare, but what if I didn’t?
Whenever it comes to matters of survival, always remember the acronym PACE (primary, alternate, contingency, emergency). Building out these layers of preparedness will help ensure that you’re never caught between a rock and a hard place when it matters most. Let’s take a look at each of these categories:
Primary – Lighter
Assuming nothing goes wrong, your primary lighter is going to be something like a BIC lighter or a Zippo. They’re cheap and effective, often allowing you to create about 1,000 one second fires. Remember not to use more gas than you need to, and keep the lighters stored in a dry location where there’s no chance of the button getting depressed.
For the most efficient use, only use the tip of the flame (that’s where it’s the hottest). You’ll be able to set fire to your tinder a lot faster this way, conserving the gas in the lighter, so you’ll be able to get more use out of it later.
Alternate – Flint and Steel
If your primary lighter fails, it’s time to pull out the alternate. You could just whip out another BIC lighter if you happened to have a spare (which you should), but what happens if that one runs out of juice too?
I never go camping without some way to start a fire that I know will always work. Using a Ferro Rod or some other “flint and steel” combination is my preferred backup method, simply because I know it will never run out of fuel. However, it is a bit harder to use if you’re a novice fire starter, and you will have to be more intentional when you’re in the fire preparation stage.
Since you’ll be using sparks instead of a consistent flame, it’s vitally important that you set your materials up properly. Gather your tinder and make a bed of the dry materials – paper, orange pine needles, dry grass, and wood splinters. If you have magnesium that you’d like to shave into the middle of the pile, this will help get the fire started faster as well.
Make sure you spread them out a little bit, so oxygen is able to permeate. Then use your striker to create sparks, directing them toward the center of your tinder. Don’t be afraid to use a little elbow grease at this point, as it does take a fair amount of strength to create the sparks.
Contingency – Waterproof Matches
Also referred to as “storm matches,” these big guys are water resistant and windproof. In fact, they’re so strong that they will quite literally burn underwater, as long as there’s still some of the chemicals left on the head. So on the off chance that you lose your flint, steel, or both, these are a good backup for your backup.
Just beware, they’re bulkier than your standard book matches, and the heads tend to be more fragile. If it’s been awhile since you’ve lit a match, I’d suggest reviewing your technique before you attempt to light one of these.
Emergency – Flare
It’s unlikely that all your options up to this point will fail, but stranger things have happened. Just in case of emergency, it’s good to have one final option to help you out in times of need. And if this doesn’t work for some reason, it just wasn’t meant to be!
Many road flares make use of magnesium for the best results, and this high energy output is certainly capable of setting your tinder on fire. Since most flares will burn for several minutes, it should give you plenty of time to get your campfire going. While it’s not an ideal option for starting a campfire, it can certainly be an effective method in case of emergency.
Managing Your Tools
So now you’ve got a primary way to start a fire and three backup methods. But what happens if you store them all in the same Ziploc bag and then lose the bag somewhere along the way? All of your preparation was for nothing!
Always store your fire starters in different places around your pack, and possibly in your pockets as well. That way if you happen to lose one of them, you’ll still have three others to pick from – it’s part of the reason why we have more than one option in the first place.
Also store them in locations where you know they won’t get damaged. The flint and steel are pretty durable, but matches are prone to breaking if you aren’t careful with them. Stick them in a side pocket where you know they won’t have much weigh pushing against them, or at the very top of your primary backpack compartment.
Dousing Your Fire
This might be an article on how to start a fire, but I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t mention how to put it out! We don’t want to be starting any wildfires around here, so I would strongly recommend you don’t skip past this section.
In general, you always want to have a container of water close by as your fire is burning. That way you have a quick and easy method for putting it out if it gets too wild, or when you’re ready to call it a night anyway. Douse it with water and stir the ashes, repeating the process until everything is cool to the touch. Never leave a fire unattended, even if there are only a few glowing embers left. These are still capable of igniting other materials, and are therefore too risky to leave alone for any amount of time.
Learning how to start a fire is easy, but actually applying the steps can be a different story. When I was a novice fire builder, I used to gather a small amount of tinder and kindling, try to light it, and watch it fizzle out before I could add any more fuel. Needless to say, it would have helped a lot if I had gathered all of my material first, instead of assuming I could do it along the way.
Another point to remember is that, after you’ve started the fire, you should keep it a reasonable size. Don’t go overboard when you start to add the big logs, as this could cause the fire to grow too big to control. This is yet another good way to start a forest fire, which is obviously something we want to avoid.