You’re in the woods. You have a lighter. You’ve made a lovely little circle of stones, piled up the driest wood you can find and you’re about to enjoy the elemental pleasures of a campfire at night. Right?
There’s more to starting a campfire than flicking a bit of flame at a heap of wood. Amateur campers like myself know this only too well. I’ve tried - and failed - to keep fires burning inside fireplaces, never mind in the great outdoors. My friend and I once used up so much tinder trying to get a fire going we were reduced to burning receipts from our wallets, before he accidentally incinerated his return bus ticket.
The Short Answer
- You'll need a fire starting device like matches or a lighter, dry larger chopped wood and kindling
- Choose a campfire setup like the tipi or simple Lean to configuration.
- Lay the large chopped wood out in the desired configuration
- Set up the kindling in a mini tee-pee bundle over or below the larger blocks of wood (depending on the desired setup)
- Light the tinder with matches or a lighter
- You might want to cover and blow on the kindling to get things going
- Enjoy and relax
- Make sure the fire is out when you're done
But there is more to it than that, keep reading for more details...
Thankfully, building fires isn’t a completely lost art. With a bit of expert advice you’ll be basking in the glow and enjoying toasted marshmallows.
Let’s start with the basics first.
Tools and Gear You Might Need
A lighter or matches would be handy. Obviously. In fact, experts advise that you carry both. Mechanical lighters are easier to use but if they break the matches are an essential backup. Ferro rods and sparkers are another option, though when gearjunkie.com tested various firestarters they felt that these lagged behind waterproof matches and Bic lighters for performance.
If you don’t have either a lighter or matches - and, let’s face it, it’s good to be prepared for the worst - then you’ll have to do things the old-fashioned way. Sparks can be generated by rubbing flint and steel together, making primitive wooden drills to bore into dry wood or by making use of reflective items like glasses, drinks cans and even ice to focus the heat of the sun.
Whatever firestarters you hope to use keep them in a waterproof container to protect them from the inevitable camping downpour!
Before it was a dating site tinder performed an equally valuable function: taking a flicker of flame and nurturing it into a full blown fire.
Practicalsurvivor.com describe tinder as “a material that is easily ignited” and suggest bringing along cotton balls to perform that all important role of igniting from a spark. Gearjunkie go a step further and suggest using cotton balls soaked in vaseline, which, handily, is both flammable and waterproof.
Check out the following YouTube tutorial if you want to know how to make these up quickly:
If you happen to find yourself in the wild without a manmade source of tinder don’t despair. Practicalsurvivor note that materials like “dry grass, Cattail fluff, Birch tree bark and Dandelion clock” can be gathered on site to do much the same job. Other improvised forms of tinder include belly button fluff. Might as well put it to some sort of use!
Broadly speaking, two types of wood are required to make a fire: kindling and firewood.
Kindling, defined by reserveAmerica.com as “twigs or small branches between 1/8 inch and 1/2 inch in diameter” should be placed around tinder to help the fire grow and spread.
Firewood, proper thick branches, can then be placed atop the healthily burning kindling to create an enduring blaze.
When collecting wood it’s vital that you seek out the driest stuff you can find. Wes Siler, of Gizmodo, suggests that you bring along a saw, axe or, at the very least, a camping knife, to help you access the dry wood at the centre of dead trees and branches (reserveAmerica ask that you avoid cutting live branches from trees for firewood as it damages forests).
Cutting tools can also be used to split wood down to the required size for tinder and to expose the dried inside of branches to help them burn quicker. These tools and tricks are likely to prove particularly handy in wet or rainy environments.
Types of Campfire Set Up
You’re prepared. You have the tools, tinder and wood to make a fire. The next question is: what type of fire will you build?
The most common campfire set ups are listed below. Weigh up the pros and cons of each one to work out which kind of set up will work best for you.
Those looking to become adept at building fires would be well advised to master the art of tipis.
Tipis are described by Wes Siler as “the simplest and most effective way to start any kind of fire” and are similar in structure to teepee tents.
Straight pieces of wood, arranged in a circle, are tilted towards a central point to create a rudimentary cone. Tinder is piled at the bottom of the circle, where the wide gaps between pieces of wood provide the fledgling fire with an abundant supply of oxygen, and the narrowing towards the top concentrates the flames to glorious effect.
A lean to fire provides a solution to one of the problems that plagues tipis: vulnerability to poor weather. Using a thick log as a backbone and “leaning” pieces of wood against it creates a structure that shields the base from the worst of the elements.
Kindling, in the form of a small tipi structure should be placed beneath the lean to, stuffed with tinder and lit. When the sheltered fire is strong enough it will set ablaze the leaning pieces of wood and create a healthy, all-weather fire.
Pros of the lean to:
- Good chance of getting a fire going in wind and/or rain
- Stable structure
Cons of the lean to:
- Can take a while to build and doesn’t burn as intensely as other fires
The name log cabin just oozes a ski holiday sense of warmth and cosiness. The fire is once again based on a small kindling tipi, this time with a log placed on either side of it. Another two logs are placed atop these, but at right angles to the logs on the base, forming the distinctive “square” structure of the log cabin fire.
Further logs can be added to make the fire bigger, with the angles of the logs continuing to alternate on each layer. The logs on the base should be the thickest, with “smaller and shorter pieces of firewood” (reserveAmerica) added as you go up the way.
Pros of the log cabin:
- Log cabins burn stably and should not require much maintenance, freeing you up to do chores or simply enjoy the warmth
Cons of the log cabin:
- Can become unstable if too many circular logs are used as these can roll off the fire
Platform fires are similar in structure to log cabins, however the kindling tipi is placed atop the fire rather than below it. As the tipi burns the flames and heat work their way down and create a bed of hot coals on the bottom that can be used for cooking.
Pros of the platform fire:
- Ideal for cooking and, once fully ablaze, can burn for a long time
Cons of the platform fire:
- Can be tough to get going and the exposed kindling could fall victim to heavy winds or rain
The Star is the last and, arguably, the most stylish fire set up on the list. A tipi kindling structure is surrounded by logs pointing out the way like a child’s drawing of a star. For shelter and greater endurance the star can be placed in a circular indent in the ground.
Pros of the star:
- Requires little maintenance - will often burn all night unattended
- Uses a minimum of wood
Cons of the
- This is not a roaring fire. “Minimalist” best describes the star.
Starting a Fire
The moment of truth has arrived. Your friends and fellow campers watch on eagerly as you attempt to light the carefully prepared fire structure. Can you match the magic of the ancients and produce the goods?
First things first, let’s make sure it’s safe to start a fire. ReserveAmerica suggest you make sure “there's at least 8 to 10 feet of bare dirt surrounding the fire ring” and that no tree branches overhang your fire in case flames leap and set them ablaze. For further insurance (since you don’t want to burn down a forest or anything), it’s recommended that you have a shovel, loose dirt and water on standby as fire extinguishers.
It goes without saying that you should not throw or spray flammable materials like gasoline on the fire and that, yes, be wary, fires are hot.
When you’re ready to start the fire you’ll need two items to hand: a firestarter and tinder. Refer back to the “Tools and Gear” section for a breakdown of the various firestarters and tinder available.
Whatever your choice of tinder and firestarter, you’ll need the latter to set the former ablaze. Once burning the tinder should be slid beneath a pre-prepared kindling tipi. You’ll want to blow gently at the base of the structure to increase the supply of oxygen as this will, according to rei.com, “increase the intensity of the flame and further ignite the wood.”
Fires are delicate in their early stages. Monitor the situation carefully as the wood begins to burn, adding or removing small and large pieces of wood as necessary to find the correct balance between fuel and the supply of oxygen.
Firemaking is a skill and, like all skills, requires a sense of feel that can only really be obtained by “hard practise”. Get yourself out there, experiment, and you’ll become an accomplished firestarter.
Methods of Starting a Fire Without Matches
Those who hold that using anything more modern than wood to start fire is “cheating,” or who find themselves accidentally acting in their own survival movie, will have a keen interest in ways of starting a fire that don’t involve matches.
Check out the below list for some options that are sure to impress your friends and/or save your life.
Wooden Hand Drill
Ways of starting fires purely from wood are a variation upon a single theme: rubbing two bits of wood against each other with sufficient intensity to generate glowing embers. The hand drill is the simplest but arguably the hardest work.
Artofmanliness.com recommend cutting a notch in a wooden board and placing the tip of a “spindle” of wood around two feet long in it. This piece of wood should be rubbed between both hands with sufficient power and duration to bring about an ember that can then be delicately transferred to tinder.
The method will put “hair on your chest” (they promise).
Flint and Steel
We’ve seen this one in the movies - striking metal against stone to generate a precious spark. As in the previous method, you’ll have to nurture this spark onto a clump of tinder cupped in your hands and blow to produce fire, but you’ll feel like a caveman crossed with a magician if you can pull it off.
Lens/Reflective Based Methods
Every kid who’s ever melted plastic through a magnifying glass knows that the heat of the sun is a powerful tool. The lenses of glasses can be used to direct light directly onto tinder and set it ablaze, but is a boring method when compared with other reflective options.
Artofmanliness suggest using a condom filled with water to redirect rays of light from the sun onto tinder. Could a prophylactic save your life?
Graywolfsurvival.com are interested in doing things on a bigger scale. They link to a youtube video that shows how to use a massive fresnel lens extracted from a big screen TV to generate temperatures up to 2,000 degrees celsius - enough to melt concrete.
Those interested in using the reflective bottom of a drinks can to get a fire going should check out this youtube tutorial, while the coolest method of all for starting a fire, focusing the sun through ice, is outlined on the takeoutdoors website.
Safety and General Tips
It’s critical to consider the environment when building a campfire. After all, you’re out in nature to enjoy nature. It’d be kind of counterproductive to despoil it!
First things first, are fires allowed in the area? If you’re unsure contact the relevant local administrator to find out.
Where fires are allowed they should be built in accordance with local guidelines. Campgrounds usually have “designated fire rings, grills or fireplaces,” in which to place fires. Likewise, in the wild use the site of a previous fire if available as it will leave the rest of the area untouched.
Evaluate the surroundings and weather carefully before starting a fire. In extremely dry, wooded areas rei.com recommend that you “keep your fire small or skip it altogether,” since an errant ember could start a wildfire. Wind can also carry embers so if conditions are dry and windy it might be best to do without a fire.
Get out there, stay safe, and bask in the elemental glow of fire - the force that forged civilisation!