Making fire was a huge step in human history. We use fire for cooking, warmth, and in many other ways. Fire has definitely also become a cherished way to enjoy the outdoors. What is camping without a crackling fire to cook over or gather around? How does fire fit into your survival needs? You’ll need to know how to light and build a fire, what type of fire is best to build, and how to keep your fire going strong. You will also need to know when and where to build a fire and how to be safe about it. So let’s go over what you will want to do when building a campfire.
If you have ever visited a campground or state park, you have probably noticed they post Fire Danger Rating signs, usually with a color-coded gauge that shows how strong the fire danger is that day. If the rating is yellow, orange, or red, you are not allowed to build any fires. It is very important that you obey these rules, so keep this in mind when camping and such.
Building a safe fire means that first, you will need a fire pit. If you are in an established camping area, fire pits might already be available. If not, find a spot at least 15 feet from your tent, any undergrowth or trees, and without low overhanging branches. Dig a pit at least a foot deep so that your fire will be safe from sudden gusts of wind. Then find rocks to put around the edges of the pit—larger ones are best.
Finally, always have something on hand to extinguish your fire. Preferably, you will have both water to pour on it and your shovel nearby to scoop soil over the flames and/or embers. Make sure you stir it with a stick or shovel to confirm it has been extinguished and isn’t smoldering underneath. Fire is unpredictable by nature and can easily get out of hand, so always be prepared to extinguish it quickly, and never leave it unattended.
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First, you need firewood. You will need tinder, kindling, and fuel—the logs.
Let’s start with tinder because that’s the basis for any good fire. (And no, I’m not talking about the dating app, although I guess that’s the reason they named it that, eh?!)
When collecting tinder from your surroundings, look for pine needles, dry leaves and grass, and small twigs. You need small, dry things that will catch fire quickly and burn hot. If in a forest and it has been raining, look under trees near their base to find the driest tinder materials. Checking under any nearby vehicles may also produce foliage on the drier ground.
Cotton balls soaked in oil or coated in Vaseline work great and can be stored in a zip-top baggie. And here’s another tip: if you are in a pinch and have nothing else, a large handful of chips can also do the trick! They have to be greasy, not baked, so think potato chips or corn chips.
Kindling is bigger than tinder, but not as big as firewood. Find sticks that are less than one inch around. Gather enough of them so that you can get your little fire going at a good rate before adding the logs.
The fuel, or firewood, is what will keep your fire burning a long time. Gather larger pieces of wood, at least four inches around, that are already on the ground. You might need to cut the pieces you find, but don’t cut down trees, they are not dry enough to burn anyway.
Softwoods vs Hardwoods
SOFTWOODS are great for starting fires. They burn quickly and help to start your harder wood for your campfires. Some softwoods are Pine, Birch, Ash.
HARDWOODS are great for keeping your fires going. They burn slower and help your campfires continue burning hotter and longer. Some hardwoods are Fir, Spruce, Maple, Apple, and Cherry.
Building a proper campfire may seem like an unfamiliar science if you have never done it. However, the techniques are fairly simple to master, and once you learn them, you’ll be a pro in no time.
Here are some different ways to build your fire. Choose one depending on what you want to accomplish.
TEEPEE: Put the tinder in the center and place the kindling sticks around it like you are making a teepee. They should be leaning upright against each other in a cone shape, surrounding the tinder. When you add the fuel logs, add them in the same way as the kindling. Teepee fires are easy to make and usually light quickly. They are a good choice for cooking. They burn quickly and require a lot of attention to keep them going.
LOG CABIN: Place a pile of tinder in the center and put the kindling sticks around it in a square, like you are building a cabin. Start with two pieces parallel to each other, with space in between for the tinder, then stack two pieces at right angles to those, making a box. Do this until you have three or four layers. When you add the fuel logs, continue with the “cabin” pattern. This type of fire is good when you want a long-lasting fire that produces very hot coals and doesn’t take as much tending. However, it does take longer to build and uses more wood.
CRISSCROSS or STAR: Place the tinder in the center and set two kindling sticks over it in an x shape. Cross two more pieces over your x in the opposite way to make another x, so now your sticks should look like a star. Once the fire is going well, you have two choices: you can maintain it as you started it and add the fuel in a crisscross shape, or you can set wood out in a star pattern on the ground around the central fire and slowly push those logs into the center as they are consumed.
PYRAMID or PLATFORM: This is more of an upside-down fire. Start with your fuel logs. Take four pieces of roughly the same size logs and lay them next to each other in your fire pit. On top of that, and perpendicular lay three pieces. Lay two pieces on top of that, again perpendicular. On top of this, put your tinder and make a teepee of kindling around it.
This is a great fire to make if you want something that will last longer and you don’t have to keep adding logs to. In fact, you can even make it bigger than just four logs to start with, just be sure to check your surroundings, including what is overhead; you don’t want to start anything else on fire, accidentally. If you want to know even more, consider checking out this really good book about the art of fire making, Fire Making: The Forgotten Art of Conjuring Flame with Spark, Tinder, and Skill
Lighting Your Fir
Once you have the pit dug, your shovel and water at hand, and your chosen type of fire set up, it is time to light it. What you use to light it can vary a lot. You might have matches, a lighter, or a ferro rod. You might even be resorting to rubbing two sticks together! Whatever you are doing, be sure to light your tinder first. Once it is burning a bit, lightly blow on it at the base of the flames; this adds oxygen, which a fire needs to burn.
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As the flames get bigger, add more kindling. Bigger pieces at this point might put out your little fire. Once the flames get big enough, the rest of your wood should start to warm up and catch on fire.
Maintain your fire by periodically adding more logs. Be careful to preserve your chosen configuration as best you can, because just throwing logs on can restrict oxygen and smother the fire.
Extinguishing Your Fire
Always be sure to completely put out your fire once you are done with it. This means that the pit and ashes should be cool to the touch before you leave the area. Pour water on the embers, being sure to stand where the steam won’t scald you. The fire will hiss and complain and this is a good thing because once it stops, that is one of the signs that your fire is out. After dumping the water on, stir the fire well and then douse it with more water. Repeat as often as you need to until the embers are dark and soaked.
Some people shovel dirt on top of their fire to put it out. However, if the ashes and embers are still hot, this can actually insulate coals. Coals don’t need oxygen to stay heated the way a whole fire does. (Think of when you cook in a Dutch oven.) So be careful to turn over any coals, ashes, and wet dirt several times before leaving it.
Fire is important for cooking, making hot water, hygiene, light, warmth, and even for psychological well-being. Learning how to build, light, and properly maintain a fire is a huge step in being able to take care of yourself and your loved ones in any situation.
Always remember that fire, while important, is also dangerous. Be aware of your surroundings, use caution, follow the rules, and always stay close enough to an active campfire to keep it in check.