6 Great Tips for Building and Lighting a Campfire

Lighting a campfire

What’s the point of camping if you can’t have a campfire? Knowing how to build a fire is an important skill to have, whether you’re sticking to a well-populated campground or you’re hiking in the wilderness. Here is everything you need to know about building and lighting a campfire.

How to Pick a Good Spot

If you’re renting a campsite, there will usually be a designated area for campfires. Make sure you follow all of the campground’s rules and use the fire pit or fire bed that’s been provided.

If you’re not in a formal campsite, you’ll need to create your own space. Make sure there isn’t any vegetation nearby, including overhanging branches and grass. If there aren’t any spots of bare earth, you should rake away them away first. High heat can sterilize the soil, so take care when choosing a location.

How to Build a Fire Pit

If you don’t have a pre-built fire pit to use, you’ll need to build your own. There are a few different methods you can use, depending on what you have available.

The easiest way to build a fire pit is to dig a hole in the general shape and size of the fire you want to build. Use rocks to create a ring around the hole, to prevent it from spreading. If you can, line the inside of the hole with rocks, sand or gravel to prevent it from sterilizing the soil.

If you’re looking to minimize your fire’s impact on the environment, you could try building a fire mound instead of a fire pit. Once you’ve found a spot for your fire, lay down a tarp or other type of sheeting that’s at least twice as big as the fire you plan to build.

Using sand or mineral soil, create a mound of dirt on top of the tarp. The size will depend on how big of a fire you want to make, but a good standard size is 6-8 inches tall and 12-24 inches diameter. Create an indentation in the top of the mound, so there’s a raised edge around it. The resulting shape will look a little like a volcano. Build your fire inside that indentation.

How to Choose Your Wood

You’ll never be able to build and sustain a fire if you don’t have the right fuel. There are several different types of wood you’ll need to use to create the perfect campfire.

Tinder

You’ll need tinder to start your fire. There are many different types of materials that you can use as for it. If you plan ahead, you can bring your own fire starters such as newspaper, dryer lint or char cloth.

If you haven’t brought any along, you will need to collect it from your environment. Dry leaves, bark, dead grass or wood shavings can work well. Make sure your tinder is bone-dry because it won’t catch fire if it’s even the slightest bit damp.

Kindling

Once your tinder is lit, you’ll need to add kindling to keep the fire going and ramp up the heat. If you add big logs right away, you’ll smother your flame, so make sure what you use is small. Look for thin twigs and branches about the width of a pencil.

Kindling also needs to be dry, so keep that in mind too. If you’re able to snap it easily, it’s dry enough to use. But if it bends and tears, it’s too wet. Gather twice as much as you think you’ll need because you’ll go through it surprisingly fast.

Fuelwood

Fuelwood is the meat of your campfire. Just like kindling, you should gather twice as much as you think you’ll need because nothing’s worse than having to venture back into the woods at night to collect more. Your fuel wood doesn’t need to be as dry as tinder or kindling, but if it’s too wet, it’ll create a lot of smoke.

How to Build a Fire

Once you’ve gathered your tinder, kindling, and fuel, you need to build or “lay” your fire. There are a few different methods you can use, but they’re all equally effective.

Lean-To Fire Lay

Figure out which direction the wind is blowing, then stick a long piece of kindling into the ground at a 30-degree angle, with the end pointing against the wind. Place your tinder under that stick, then surround the tinder with small pieces of kindling.

Take larger pieces of kindling and lean them against the support stick, with an equal amount on either side. That will create a little shelter for your tinder. The side that the wind is blowing into should be open. Light the tinder, then add your fuel logs after the kindling has caught and your fire has grown.

An alternate way to use this method is to forgo the support stick, and instead use a large log. Lean your kindling sticks against that log to build a shelter for your tinder. This method makes it easier to build a fire in windy conditions.

Tee-Pee Fire Lay

When you think of a cartoon campfire, you imagine a tee-pee fire lay. Place your bundle of tinder in the center of your fire pit. Use small kindling to form a tee-pee around it with an opening in the side in the direction from which the wind is coming.

Add some layers of larger kindling around that, working your way up to the largest pieces. Create a bigger tee-pee around that with your fuel wood. Light your tinder, and then the flame should rise to catch the kindling and then the fuel wood. The tee-pee will eventually collapse, at which point you can keep adding fuel wood until you’re ready to put the fire out.

This method is the easiest and most efficient, and it will work with even slightly damp wood.

Cross-Ditch Fire Lay

If you’re building a fire in a wide-open area with some wind, the cross-ditch method could make it easier. Just scratch a cross into the dirt, about 12 inches long and 3 inches deep. Place your tinder in the center of the cross, then build a tee-pee with your kindling and fuel (but don’t leave one side open for the wind).

The ditches create little tunnels for air to move through, while the closed tee-pee prevents the wind from blowing out the fire.

Log Cabin Fire Lay

If you need a cooking fire, the log cabin shape is the most stable and will burn the longest and lowest.

Create your tinder pile in the center, then create a tee-pee with kindling. Then place two thick pieces of fuel wood next to it, one on each side. Take two more thick pieces of wood and lay them on top of the other two, perpendicular. This should create a square shape. Continue laying wood this way, building it up to the height you want, with the pieces of fuel wood getting progressively thinner towards the top.

How to Start a Campfire

Now that you’ve built your fire lay, you’ll need to light the fire. If you have matches, the process is relatively easy, but you can also start your fire without matches or a lighter.

With Matches

Using your body to temporarily shelter it from the wind, place your lit match in the pile of tinder. Once it catches, move away to allow air flow. Assuming you’ve laid your wood correctly, the fire should grow on its own.

If the kindling doesn’t catch right away, you can add more tinder to create a larger flame, and do the same with your kindling if the fuel wood doesn’t catch.  Within a few minutes, you should have a roaring campfire.

Without Matches

If you get lost in the wilderness without matches, or you’re just trying to rough it, you can build and light a campfire without matches. It won’t be easy, but it is possible with some work and patience.

There are two primary methods for lighting a fire without matches, friction-based, and lens-based. Each of these methods can be approached in several different ways, depending on what tools you have available.

Friction-based fire making is the most difficult method, but you can do it with very little in the way of tools. All you should need is a knife, wood, and some elbow grease. There are two main components of a friction-based fire: a fireboard, which is a flat piece of wood that will act as the base of your fire, and a spindle, which is the long stick you’ll be spinning to create friction.

Lens-based fire making is easier and less labor-intensive, but you will need a clear object to act as a lens, and you can only do it during daylight. Eyeglasses, a magnifying glass, or binocular lenses work best, but there are other items you can use as well.

A balloon or condom can be filled with water and then squeezed until you have a little sphere that will give you a sharp circle of light. A piece of ice or glass can be polished until it’s able to focus light, or you could even use an empty coke can as a reflective surface.

How to Put Out a Fire

Now that you know how to build and start a fire, you need to be able to put it out. This may sound simple, but it takes longer than you’d expect, plus you want to leave the area looking the same as it did when you arrived.

First, it takes about 20 minutes to fully extinguish an average-sized campfire, so you need to allow yourself enough time. You should always have a bucket of water handy when you’ve got a campfire, just in case it gets out of control, but you’ll also use it to extinguish your fire before leaving or going to bed.

Sprinkle the water on the fire or embers, don’t pour it on all at once. Use a stick or shovel to stir the ashes around to make sure they all get wet. Once the hissing noises stop, you’re getting close to a fully extinguished fire. Hold the back of your hand above the embers to check for heat. If you feel any warmth at all, add more water and keep stirring.

When the fire is completely out, and the embers are cold to the touch, you’ll need to dispose of the ashes. The easiest way to do that is to scoop up the ashes with a shovel and disperse them evenly around the campsite—as long as you don’t pile them up, the ashes will help fertilize the soil.

Check with your campground’s rules though. They may want you to dispose of the ashes in a trashcan or other receptacle.  If you were using a pre-made firepit, you’re all done. If you made your own or you’re out in the wilderness, you should thoroughly dismantle the firepit and return the area to as close to its original state as possible.

Move or dispose of any gravel, sand, or rocks you used, and fill in the hole with the original soil. If you dug up grass to clear your fire bed, then you should try to replace it as much as possible so it can grow back. It’s essential that you respect the environment you enjoyed on your camping trip so that others can take advantage of it in the future.

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