OUTDOOR BASICS

How to Start a Campfire: Learning to Stay Warm During those Cold Nights

How to Start a Campfire
Jerry Mueller
Written by Jerry Mueller

We take for granted just how easy life can be when we have all of our appliances at hand. But once we’re without, we’re not sure how we can function, especially when it comes to hot meals and staying warm. That’s a real problem if you easily get sick of cold meals and having to wear a lot of layers at night. However, we’re here to show you how to start a campfire so that you’ll never have to run into this problem again.

A campfire is more essential than you may think: not only can you cook hot meals on it, but it serves as a much-needed source of warmth. That can be crucial if you’re camping during the fall months when the temperatures can dip pretty low. Campfires also provide a sense of security, which is a good thing to have when you’re away from home and surrounded by the mysteries of nature.

People Sitting Next to Campfire

That’s why we’re going to show you the various methods used in starting a campfire. Not everyone is going to have the same materials and methods at their disposal, so it’s important that you’re aware of several processes so you can easily adapt to the situation before you.

Things to be Aware of

When it comes to building a campfire, you should first check with the regulations of the area you’ll be camping in whether you’re allowed to build one at all. Some parks restrict or prohibit the building of campfires, and you can end up paying a hefty fine if you end up breaking their rules.

Camping grounds usually have designated fire rings for you to use, so stick to these. If you’re out in the backcountry, it’s best to use fire rings that already exist, but if you can’t find one or you’re in an emergency, then feel free to build your own.

Campfire at Fire Place

That doesn’t mean that you should just make one anywhere. Look for a site that is far from low-hanging branches and doesn’t have a lot of vegetation litter in the immediate vicinity. If it does, you can gather these up to use as kindling to get your initial fire started, but you should clear a good ten-foot radius of litter from around your campfire. This is to prevent embers from igniting the nearby area of risk the beginnings of a forest fire.

Secondly, if you are allowed to bring a campfire, be sure that you bring the means to put one out effectively. Nothing is more dangerous than a smoldering campfire or an out-of-control fire, as they can spell a recipe for disaster. Be sure to have a bucket on hand with some water or sand to completely douse the site of your campfire so that it doesn’t end up burning down the forest around you.

If push comes to shove, you can always bring a portable fire extinguisher with you, if they’re allowed.

Fire Bucket

Third, if you’re in an emergency situation that requires your fire being maintained, be sure to take shifts in gathering firewood and watching the fire. Leaving a fire to burn while everyone is asleep is very unsafe.

Lastly, you should be aware of the kind of wood you’re using to build your fire. Softwoods and hardwoods serve different functions, and knowing the difference will help you to build a fire more effectively.

  • Softwoods: look for pine, balsam, spruce, hemlock and poplar. These woods are less dense and burn very quickly. They make very good kindling, or firewood for short fires. It’s also much easier to control their heat, if you need a steady source for cooking.
  • Hardwoods: look for rock elm, hickory, sugar maple, beech and ash. These woods are very dense, which means that they will burn for a very long time. These make great sources of firewood, as they’ll supply a lot of heat for an extremely long time. Because they are dense, they also make great campfire reflectors.

Gathering Your Essentials

Before you can get your fire started, it’s important that you gather the ingredients that you’ll need. You require tinder (dried leaves, small twigs, pine needles, for example) to serve as your initial fire starters. They light easily and will help to spread the flames more quickly. Secondly, you’ll need kindling. These are small sticks that have less than a one-inch diameter. These are more substantial in storing the heat of the flames so that the larger pieces of wood can eventually ignite.

Kindling

Lastly, you’ll need firewood, which is any piece of wood larger than kindling. You first want to start off with thick branches before graduating to a larger log to ensure the longevity of your fire. However, don’t use any wood that is larger than your wrist, as they will never burn completely through. If you’re using camping grounds, parks can restrict you to using only local wood. In the backcountry, never cut branches from living or dead trees. Some animals use dead limbs as homes.

How to Start your Fire

Getting your fire started can either be extremely easy or require some effort on your part. There are benefits and drawbacks to the methods we’re going to suggest, so it’s best that you have a combination of starters to ensure you’re covering all your bases.

Lighter

this is the easiest one to carry with you, and is usually guaranteed to work every time. They’re also extremely cheap, so you can buy a pack of them to bring with you on your camping trip. However, since they’re disposable, it increases your carbon footprint and the garbage being placed in dumps.

Lighter Fire

You could get a lighter that is refillable, but that means carrying another container of fuel to pour in once it’s empty. This can happen more often than you think, given that the fuel evaporates very easily.

Matches

another great method to have on hand. Invest a little more money in matches that are waterproof/water-resistant, as being out in nature brings the unexpected. Wet matches won’t be of any use to you, and that leaves you completely vulnerable to the elements.

Coated cotton balls

In the event that you can’t find any tinder around, cotton balls will definitely save the day. On their own, however, they burn up too quickly. You can make them last a little longer by soaking them in vaseline or candle wax. These not only serve as fuel so that the cotton balls can burn a little longer, but they also spare the cotton balls from getting wet if it happens to rain.

Coated Cotton Balls

If you don’t have cotton balls, you can soak other materials in vaseline/candle wax, including small pieces of cardboard, dryer lint, rolled-up balls of newspaper, and wood shavings.

Fire starters

These are pocket-sized kits that come with a ferro rod (usually made of magnesium) and striker/scraper. The rod can be scraped to add some magnesium powder to your pile of tinder and kindling, and then it can be struck to create some parks. Magnesium lights easily, and creates a hot flame that will light your kindling in no time.

Commercial fire sticks

When there’s no kindling or tinder around, these fire sticks burn for a really long time once you get them going, and get hot enough to get your firewood going.

Fire Sticks

They even get hot enough to dry out your firewood if it happens to get wet.

Various Ways of Building a Campfire

Although the structure of these methods are different, the basic premise is the same: creating enough heat to get your larger pieces of wood burning. However, these varying methods can be adapted to your situation, should you find yourself in circumstances where you can’t build an ordinary fire circle.

Tipi

This is considered one of the easiest and most effective ways of building a campfire. You’ll have to start off with a cone of kindling. Arrange the small sticks in a tipi, and leave yourself a small doorway to insert your tinder.

Light your tinder and quickly push it into your tinder tipi. You’ll need to start adding larger sticks around the outside of your small tipi to concentrate the heat being generated, as well as protecting your tinder from being blown out. Be sure you don’t do this too quickly, however, as the fire still needs air to remain alight.

Tipi Fire

Image credit: themanual.com

Continue to add firewood to your tipi as you see fit, as the original structure will eventually burn down and disintegrate. This method is great to sue for cooking, as it gets a fire burning quickly and provides you with a lot of heat to get a meal going.

Log Cabin

This method is very effective if you want a long-burning fire with very little maintenance. You’ll first need to start off your kindling and tinder in the same structure as if you were making a tipi. However, with the larger pieces of firewood, you want to build a square as your base. Take two pieces of firewood, and lay them parallel with some room between them.

Log Cabin Fire

Then do the same with two more pieces of firewood on each side until you have a square. Continue adding firewood to the base in a cabin-like structure so that you can trap more heat within your campfire’s structure. Once it’s lit, you can add more tinder to the middle of your fire to keep it burning for a really long time.

Pyramid

This is similar to a tipi, but the construction of it is the opposite. Instead of starting with your tinder in the middle, you start the base off with your firewood. Build the pieces in a triangle; for the second layer, use your smaller logs to build another triangle. Alternate between these sizes of wood, getting smaller as you go up. Then add your tinder and kindling to the top to light.

Platform

If you’re interested in cooking, then it’s a good idea to have a flat surface to work with. That’s what makes the platform the best way to get a fire going for this purpose. This is no different from using the pyramid or tipi methods, but your base needs to be made from extremely large pieces of wood that won’t burn easily. The point of this is to trap the heat and turn your large logs into charcoal.

Platform Fire Lay

Image credit: snowys.com.au

Build your campfire in either of the methods mentioned above, remembering to use the large logs as your base. Over time, as the centre burns down and chars your logs, you’ll have some hot coals to work with when cooking your meals, and they’ll stay hot for a very long time.

This method does take some practice in figuring out the size of wood you’ll need to create your base. However, once you’ve figured it out, you’ll never have to settle for cold sandwiches ever again.

Star

You’ve probably seen this style of campfire very often in movies. The structure itself is very easy to make, and is a great choice if you don’t have access to a lot of firewood. You need to start off with a small tipi fire in the middle, then place logs around it in three or five points.

Star Fire

Image credit: instructables.com

As they burn, slowly add the rest of the log to the fire. If you want a more maintenance-free version, you can build your initial tipi fire in a hole, with the logs built around the edges of the hole. This way, they’ll slide in on their own while they burn.

This is a great way to maintain control over your fire, as you don’t need to gather more wood to keep it burning. The fire itself will be quite small, but it’s good to have in cases of emergency.

Fire Pit

A fire pit is a great way to trap a lot of heat from your fire, while protecting it from the wind. Look for an area that’s free of debris, or you can clear the debris yourself. You want to work with bare dirt so that no nearby vegetation can catch on fire.

Fire Pit

Once you’ve found a suitable spot, dig a hole into the dirt that’s several inches deep. This is where you’re going to be building your fire. Don’t throw away the dirt you’ve dug up, as this can be used to out your fire once you’ve finished using it. Alternatively, you can use the dirt to build up a small wall on one side of your fire pit to use as a reflector. If it’s not enough, you can stack larger rocks around your pit to serve the same purpose.

Then use any of the methods mentioned in this article to get your fire going. The dirt will help to trap the heat, minimize the risk of a forest fire, and can be put out easily. Hungry? Wrap some potatoes or vegetables in some foil and toss them into your pit. You’ll be surprised at how quickly they cook; just pull them out with a stick or a pair of tongs.

Lean-To

One of the easiest campfires to make, this is a good choice for those who are camping for the first time. First, you need to find a decent-sized piece of firewood to serve as your lean-to. Lean your kindling against it at roughly a 30-degree angle, facing the oncoming wind to protect your fire. Wedge your tinder underneath your angled kindling.

Lean To Fire Lay

Image credit: geekprepper.org

Place larger pieces of kindling as a second layer to trap some of your heat. Then set your tinder on fire, and your kindling will eventually start to burn. Add more kindling as you need, and even some small pieces of firewood to keep your flame going. This is a good fire to use for cooking, as it burns steadily. However, it doesn’t last very long and does require some maintenance to ensure the life of the flame.

Working with Nature

Instead of using nature itself to start your fire, there could be other elements around you that can help to improve upon your campfire. If you only have a small fire to work with, you can trap more of the heat by using a reflector. This can be a boulder, a stack of logs, or the mylar layer in your sleeping bag. Build your fire near a large rock or stack some thick logs across from your position to reflect the heat back at you.

Are you camping in an area with high wind? Dig a hole near your fire with the shallow side facing the wind and the steep side on the other side of your fire. This funnels air towards your fire to keep it burning, but will prevent it from being blown out.

Campfire

If you plan on cooking over your fire, using green wood to stack your cookware on or hang a pot from will save your gear from being directly in the fire. Green wood also won’t burn, so they’ll last a long time if you’re camping for several days.

Overview

We hope that this article has taught you the many tips and tricks involved in getting an effective campfire going. Keep in mind that it does take some practice, however, so don’t get disheartened if your first few attempts at building a fire don’t go well. But once you get the hang of it, there’s very few obstacles left in your way to getting a fire started.

Do you have any comments or stories you’d like to share with us? Be sure to do so in the section below, as we’d love to hear from you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jerry Mueller

Jerry Mueller

Jerry ‘Boy Scout’ Mueller spends 99% of his time camping or teaching others how to live in the wild. He became an Eagle Scout which is the highest rank attainable in the Boy Scouting division when he was 17 and after that he still lives the scout life. Jerry always plans neatly every trip, takes leadership very seriously and if you listen to his tips and stories, you can learn tons of useful things.