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How to Start a Campfire: A Step-by-Step Guide

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If the kitchen is the center of the home, what would be the campsite’s center?

It would be the warm, glowing campfire you’ve built, with chairs and drinks sitting around a roundabout.

A good campfire doesn’t happen; there is an art to building a campfire correctly. It takes the right tools, the right fuel, and a bit of practice to build a campfire correctly.

Learning how to start a campfire will help you stay warm, cook a meal, or simply enjoy the ambiance of a crackling fire.

What You Need to Build a Campfire

survival kit for camping

Gather all your needed items before you begin building your fire. All good fires start with the right combination of heat, fuel, and oxygen.

Here’s what you’ll need to create an easy campfire:

  • Cardboard, Some people would use dead leaves, twigs, and moss, but I think the cardboard is easier. Just bring a few from home. Easy is what we’re aiming for here.
  • Several twigs from trees or shrubs have dried and are no longer fresh.
  • Sticks of a larger size, also dried, should not come from live trees or shrubs. It may be illegal to remove live trees.
  • You can find small, dried logs on the ground, preferably not damp, or buy them from the campground.
  • Dried, regular-sized logs. You will need enough of each item to allow the next larger fuel source time to start burning steadily.

Alternative solutions may include fire starters that are safe for campfires and can burn to a full-size campfire in fifteen minutes. These fire starters are handy for damp wood.

Verify the instant fire starter’s suitability for outdoor use before purchasing. There are not many firestarter logs. Sawdust, vegetable wax, and other recycled materials frequently form firestarter logs.

As such, they are often considered environmentally friendly. Place these logs on a grate or in a position that allows air flow to ignite them instantly, eliminating the need for smaller fuels like twigs and cardboard.

If you are collecting rather than buying your fuel, you may also need other tools, such as a handsaw or hatchet and gloves.

Alternatives to Lighters and Matches

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Perhaps we should also mention that there are alternatives to using matches or a lighter to light a fire. Many campers recommend carrying a magnesium fire starter.

Survivalists, who possess skills beyond the scope of this article, may include many of these campers. The magnesium firestarter can come in handy if your lighter quits working or your matches get wet.

However, striking a spark into damp tinder requires skill and practice. Our preference would be to simply carry an extra lighter or keep my matches in a sealed plastic bag.

This method requires no additional skill and simplifies the process of starting a campfire. And if anyone mentions starting a fire with sticks and friction, like a bow drill, fire plow, or hand drill, just chuckle under your breath and whip out your lighter and matches.

Dare them to a race. Your friends may be more skilled, but time will be on your side. Such skills are admirable, but even their practitioners admit they’re difficult.

Campfire Safety

Fire safety starts with making sure you have permission to burn and it ends with properly extinguishing the fire before you leave.

This means making sure it is completely out, so make sure you have plenty of water handy to extinguish the fire.

Hera are some safety tips we’d recommend you to follow:

  1. Make sure the area is clear of brush, dead leaves, or litter.
  2. Preferably, build your campfire in a campfire ring. In national parks, this may be the only legal area to build your campfire. During a dry spell, the season may prohibit campfires.
  3. Store extra firewood away from the fire, as well as other items.
  4. Avoid using flammables, such as gasoline, to build or maintain your campfire. Although the National Park Service mentions using lighter fluid on your wood before you light it, it can leave a strange taste in food or s’mores. For safety reasons, we never recommend using lighter fluid after lighting a fire.
  5. Never leave your fire unattended. Sparks may fly, and the wind may blow. Only seconds can turn an unattended fire out of control.
  6. Be sure to supervise children and teach them to stop, drop, and roll.
  7. Always keep a fire extinguisher and a bucket of water nearby for emergencies, or in case the wind blows the fire out of the firepit.
  8. Keep a first-aid kit available on camping trips.
  9. Extinguish your campfire completely before going to bed for the night. If a bucket of water is not available, spread the coals from the fire into an even layer.
  10. Cover the embers with dirt and sand until they extinguish. Simply dumping dirt on the embers may “bank” them and actually cause them to remain hot longer.

Preparing Your Fire

starting a campfire

You will need a dedicated fire pit with a ring, either at a commercial campsite or created in the wilderness.

It requires at least ten feet of clearance around it. Among other things, this means you tend to need to be at least ten feet away.

Before you start, you will need to either purchase or gather wood fuel. If you gather it, look for dead branches on the ground.

In many places, cutting dead branches from a tree is illegal. It can also kill the tree if done wrong.

Building Your Campfire

  1. Start Small with Fuel Using Cardboard: Tear up the cardboard into various shapes and sizes. Center them, propping them up without letting them lie down flat to allow for that necessary air flow. Light the cardboard.
  2. Increase Fuel to Include Small Twigs: Immediately begin adding light twigs. Wait until the twigs are well caught.
  3. The next step is to add the larger sticks.
  4. Gently prop the larger sticks over the small flames. The items must always leave room for air to draw up from the bottom to the top of the campfire. Wait until the larger sticks have begun to burn steadily.
  5. Carefully add small logs. Firewood is the last step in starting your campfire. If it’s available, seasoning is better. Gently prop small logs over the fire, taking care not to let the campfire flatten. Restarting is likely if you lose air flow. Once the small logs are burning steadily, you can begin the final step.
  6. The final step involves adding regular-sized logs to the fire. Add the regular-sized logs to the fire. There you have it! Your cozy campfire is consistently burning. Use another log to arrange the logs in the desired order. Everyone can relish the warmth and success of the campfire.

Campfire Structure

starting a campfire

There are various methods to structure your campfire. However, they all require tinder to start the fire, kindling to grow the fire, and wood fuel to make it a long-lasting fire.

There are five basic styles of campfire. You build a campfire by laying out wood in one of the following patterns before you light the tinder.

  • Teepee Campfire: Shaped like a teepee.
  • Lean-to Campfire: Uses a large log as a windbreak, then creates a lean-to by angling kindling up against it on one side.
  • Log Cabin Campfire: Shaped much like a small log cabin. It’s a square of wood, at least six inches
    high.
  • Pyramid (Upside Down) Campfire: Stacks wood up from large pieces to increasingly small ones. The tinder goes on top instead of underneath. Hence the name.
  • Star Campfire: Your stereotypical Western movie campfire with large logs laid out like the spokes of a wheel.

If you are camped in a very wet area and cannot find dry fuel, a pyramid campfire is going to be the best solution.

As the tinder on top burns, it dries out the layers below until they are suitable to use as firewood. It is also a long-lasting fire. It can burn for up to seven hours.

The Lean-to Campfire is well suited to inclement weather. It helps shelter the fire from the wind. The Star Campfire and Teepee Campfire are both well suited to do a little cooking.

The log cabin campfire is more fuel-intensive than the others.

Remember

There are some more advanced methods of starting a campfire by using bow drill, hand drill, or fire plow.

For those less inclined to try these challenging campfire methods, perhaps a magnesium fire starter as mentioned will be of some interest.

Do not start a fire if you aren’t prepared to fully extinguish it before you leave. Do not ever leave a fire unattended. Always put safety first.

A good campfire doesn't happen; there is an art to building a campfire correctly. It takes the right tools, the right fuel and a bit of practice to build a campfire correctly.