Primer: How To Start A Campfire

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One of the most valuable outdoor and/or survival skills you can possibly develop is the ability to build a fire. Interestingly enough, it’s also arguably the most important skill any human ever developed, because it helped create a basis for both science and civilization as a whole. What we mean to say is, you should know how to coax a flame.

With fire you can purify water, cook food, keep warm, and even close and sanitize wounds (if worst comes to worst). And – even if you’re just having a casual night at the campsite, beach, or backyard – a fire can be a welcome addition. However, as with every important skill, there are right and wrong ways to get the job done. So instead of doing something dangerous (like soaking a pile of wood in gasoline and tossing a match) or wasteful (like trying to ignite wet wood in high-winds), you should learn the proper way to build, start, and maintain a campfire. Lucky for you, we’ve put together the following guide to teach just that.

Location Is Key

Pick a Spot

Before you ever try to create a spark, you have to consider where you plan to build your fire. You could say we’re overthinking it, but this step is actually much more important than you might think. In fact, picking the right spot for your fire can sometimes be as crucial as actually being able to make one. And the reason for this is several-fold.

For starters, you want to make sure the surface on which you are building your fire is both relatively flat and as dry as possible. Tilted and damp ground does not a good fire make, for obvious reasons: moisture is enemy number one to flame and damp ground can easily extinguish any sparks you might rest upon it and an uneven surface could cause your kindling and wood to shift, fall, and/or roll away –Picking the right spot for your fire can sometimes be as crucial as actually being able to make one. which can result in you having no campfire at all. And that’s the best case scenario.

Secondly, since you’ll likely be staying near your fire, you should expect to spend a bit of time there. And that will be rather hard to manage if you’ve built your fire on a floodplain or in the path of large wild animals. If you’re not building your fire on damp ground, you might think you have avoided potential flooding, but – in the desert – the ground might seem bone-dry just before the water hits you. As a rule, stay away from anything that looks like a riverbed. Similarly, animal droppings – especially fresh ones – are a sure sign that you’ve stumbled upon some manner of beast’s territory. And even herbivores can be aggressive and dangerous if they think you’ve infringed upon their space, so steer clear if you can help it.

Lastly, You’ll want to make sure you pay very close attention to the plants that surround your chosen campfire area. Build a fire too close to dead brush and, as has happened time and time again in recent years, you could be responsible for causing an out-of-control wildfire that will put both you and the greater area around you at serious risk. Pick a spot without dry grass, weeds, or dead wood around. This is especially important considering how dry so much of our forests and National Parks have been lately. Alternatively, you can build a protective ring around your fire pit with stones. This will help in keeping both your fire and your ashes contained and it acts as a subconscious reminder not to accidentally walk through the burning embers.

Material Necessities

Fuel for the Flame

Once you’ve picked out your ideal location for your campfire, it’s time to get to building your fire. This, however, is going to first require that you have the right materials to get the flame going. And, since you’re hopefully not going to make a fire using highly-dangerous explosives, Start small and feed your flames until you get a roaring campfire’ll want to start small and feed your flames until you get a roaring campfire going. Typically, firewood – or fire fuel – can be broken down into three distinct parts: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood. Each is important in its own unique way and, in order to build a proper fire, all three elements are necessary. Just remember: the drier the better. If you’re unsure as to whether your firewood is dry enough, try snapping a few branches. If the wood breaks easily, it’s plenty dry. If it bends rather than breaking, it likely has too much moisture to burn.


Comprised primarily of dried grass, leaves, brush, moss, and other very small bits of flammable flora, tinder is kind of like baby food for a campfire – in that it feeds your initial sparks. It does, however, burn out very quickly, so you’ll want to act quickly with your tinder in order to get your fire going. If you’d rather be prepared going into your fire-starting endeavor, you can also bring your own kindling in the form of char cloth, newspaper, or even pick up some Easy Spark Tinders or some Tinder Shreds from Zippo that can actually burn for up to several minutes without worry. Fun fact: steel wool can also act as a form of tinder if you use a battery as your fire starter (as outlined in our guide on how to start a fire without matches).


The next step up from tinder, kindling is comprised primarily of sticks, twigs, and small branches. A good way to measure whether a stick is small enough to be considered kindling: compare it to the width of your pinkie. If it’s wider than your pinkie, it is likely too thick to be effective kindling. This secondary class of wood fuel is important because it acts as a go-between or intermediary between your baseline tinder and your larger “roaring fire” logs. If you try to get a campfire going without kindling, you might end up just smothering your smoking tinder before you even get the beginnings of a flame going.

Fuel Wood

The largest of the three necessary elements to building a good fire, fuel wood is what most people think of when they hear the term ‘firewood.’ Just remember, if you’re out at a campsite, you don’t necessarily need massive logs to act as the primary fuel for your fire. Rather, you can do just fine with branches that are about the width of your wrist or forearm. Similarly – if large logs are your only option – keeping an axe with you in your endeavors is a pretty great way to maximize your fire’s potential. Chop up those larger logs and you can control how you feed your fire, giving it the potential to burn for a much longer span of time.

Zippo Classic Windproof Lighter

Unless you want to spend a lot of unnecessary time trying to creating a spark by-hand, a lighter is an incredibly useful and indispensable fire-starting tool. And this American-made one, from legendary lighter brand Zippo, is about as good as they come – offering a windproof flame, an all-metal construction, a refillable fuel reservoir, and the brand’s lifetime guarantee. ($20)

Form Is Function

Common Campfire Structures

Though they all function in basically the same manner, there are actually a few different ways to structure your firewood in the creation of a campfire. Similarly, each has their own benefits and drawbacks which could make or break their use in a given situation. For the record, these are not the only ways to build a fire, but they are the most common and most easy to make effective in the widest variety of situations. The type of fire you choose to build will certainly rely upon how much time you have, the availability of materials, and even how much work you are willing to do to make it happen.

Method: Tipi

By far the most commonly portrayed in pop culture and media, the tipi-style fire structure is easy, relatively quick to build, and stays self-contained. To build one, follow these steps:

  1. Clear your chosen area of any debris, then place a handful of tinder at the center of the empty space. Remember: you’ll need to be able to reach this tinder in order to get your fire started, so leave enough space to get your hand through to when building your fire.

  2. Form a standing cone (or tipi) around your tinder with some kindling wood. Lean the sticks against one another to keep them standing – this will keep them from falling over and will allow the fire to rise from the tinder to the kindling and, subsequently, to your fuel wood.

  3. Repeat step 2, but with fuel wood around the kindling. This is the level at which your fire will really get going, so you’ll want to be sure you use a good amount of wood in the structure – but not so much that you are cutting off the internal structure from oxygen. Remember: fire needs air in order to grow.

  4. Take your lighter or matches and put the flame to the tinder at the base of your campfire structure. If you’ve built it correctly, the tinder should catch and, shortly after, so will the kindling and then the fuel wood. Eventually, the teepee will collapse, but the fire will continue to burn. If you want to keep the fire going as the logs burn, simply add new logs on top of the existing fire – just not so many that you suffocate the flames.

Method: Lean-To

Easier than the tipi, but perhaps a bit less easy to keep contained, the lean-to is by far the quickest fire-building option of the three most common fire structures. The steps are as follows:

  1. Find a large rock or log lying in a relatively empty area of the wilds and clear out as much debris as possible. At the corner where the rock or log and the ground meet, put a handful of tinder.

  2. Grab a bundle of kindling and lean it up against the log or rock over the tinder (like with a lean-to survival structure). This way, when you ignite your tinder, the kindling leaned over the top of it should catch as the flames lick the wood.

  3. Again, repeat step 2, but with fuel wood, leaving enough space for your hand to get through to the tinder and not bunching up the wood so much that air cannot get through. What you will also notice is that the log or rock will act as a shield, blocking any wind from that might otherwise put out your tinder and/or kindling before your fire is raging.

  4. As with the tipi, reach your lighter or matches underneath the structure and ignite the tinder. You can also ignite the tinder from the other side of the lean-to if you see fit. You might also notice that, if your lean-to is built on an old log, the flames might catch said log on fire – turning it from a crutch into fuel wood for your fire. Just make sure the log you choose isn’t too large – as it could result in a wildfire if you lose control.

Method: Log Cabin

Though it requires the most time and effort to build, a log cabin campfire structure allows for the best airflow when getting a fire started. This is especially helpful if you find yourself trying to light a campfire in dead calm air. Building a log cabin style campfire can also be a fun challenge.

  1. In the center of your fire pit, place a handful of tinder. It may also help to dig a slight trough away from the tinder, as it will be difficult to reach the tinder once the rest of the campfire structure is built.

  2. Take some kindling and, as with the tipi structure, build a standing cone around your tinder. This will act as a good base to get your flames stokes and burning well.

  3. Rather than building a secondary standing cone around the kindling, take two pieces of your fuel wood and place them parallel to one another on either side of the kindling cone. Then, take two more pieces and place them parallel to one another and perpendicular to your original two pieces – with their ends lying atop the first two pieces of fuel wood. Repeat this process with increasingly shorter pieces of fuel wood until you have built what looks like a makeshift pyramid or hut. Then, take your lighter or matches, reach through the trough you dug, and ignite the tinder. As mentioned, it takes much longer, but is satisfying and offers the best air flow.

Extinguish The Fire

What Would Smokey Do?

Whether you’re heading home or just going to bed, putting out your fire is of paramount importance – both for your own personal safety and for the safety of everyone and everything in the environment around you. The easiest way to extinguish a fire is to let it go out completely on its own. But, with smoldering ashes that will seemingly never die, this can literally take hours (if not longer). If available, sand is an effective means by which to put out ashes, as it will smother the embers and keep them from feeding on the surrounding oxygen. It’s also fairly easy to clean up along with your ashes. If you’re going to use water – which would be the next logical thing – The worst thing you can do is leave a still-burning fire when you vacate.remember to be very careful not to pour buckets onto your fire, because (if the fire is hot enough) this can create a scalding steam that can burn you or the people around you and it will soak the fire pit – making it unusable until all the water has evaporated or drained away. Whatever the case, the worst thing you can do is leave a still-burning fire when you vacate. It’s dangerous, inconsiderate, and could end up causing a great amount of harm. Don’t do it under any circumstance. The last thing you’ll want to do before leaving your campsite is take a stick and sift through whatever is left of your fire, making sure that all the embers are completely extinguished.