Fire is what brought man out of the darkness and into the light. Before we had access to fire, our primitive selves huddled together in the evening and hoped a predator didn’t wander into our camp. Fire changed everything for humankind, keeping animals away at night, providing us with warmth, and helping us cook food.
Today, we take fire for granted. A flick of a BIC lighter brings a flame dancing to life, and a spark on the gas stove allows us to cook our meals. However, if you take the capacity to create fire away from us, then we’re in big trouble, and most of us have no clue on how to start a fire from scratch.
Unless you’re Bear Grylls, chances are you’re going to have the necessary fire-starting tools and fuel available in your yard or campsite when you want to start a fire.
Learning how to build and start a fire is an essential life skill, and there are several ways to do it.
In this guide, we’ll give you everything you need to know to build a fire for your campsite.
Build the Fire Bed
When you arrive at your campsite and want to build a fire – remember to think about safety first. The last thing you want is to be the guy that burns down half of the forest thanks to your sloppy fire handling skills.
If your campsite has a designated fire pit or fireplace, make sure you use it. However, if you’re roughing it deep into public land, you’ll need to build a fire bed before you start laying and lighting your fire.
Select your fire site away from trees and overhanging branches. Choose a place with bare earth, and no shrubs of fuel sources nearby. Clear the area of any leaves or other flammable materials and move away from any flammable plant materials that may cause the fire to spread from the firepit.
Take a spade or shovel and dig up some soil from outside the fire area. Bring it to your fire pit to build a 2-inch platform of dirt above the ground’s surface level.
Make a three-foot diameter to your platform and surround the edges with rocks you find in the local area – the stones act as a firebreak, and the raised platform makes it easy to kill the fire when you leave.
Now that the base is ready, it’s time to start gathering fuel for the fire. In bushcraft, there are three types of wood we use for staring fires, all with an intended purpose. The three types are the following.
Put your cellphone app down, and look for campfire tinder. Tinder catches the spark from your lighter or Ferro-rod easily, but it burns very quickly. Look for materials like dry grass, wood shavings, dry leaves, and even some forms of fungi growing on logs will do for tinder.
As the tinder ignites, you need it to catch on some small pieces of wood to start the fire. Trying to throw your wood directly onto the tinder will result in the flame not catching the wood – and plenty of frustration on your part.
Kindling helps to build a flame, helping the wood to catch alight. Small twigs and branches are ideal kindling for your campfire.
Wood is the primary fuel source for your fire. After the kindling lights, it helps the wood catch the flame, starting the fire. We recommend that you use smaller logs than larger logs. Small pieces of wood and branches are easier to manage in a fire, preventing the accidental spread of the fire.
Larger logs are harder to move around in the fire. Large logs may also continue burning long after you leave the campsite, creating a fire risk.
Tips for Collecting Firewood
- Look for dry wood that snaps easy
- If the wood bends, it’s “green” and not suitable for burning
- If you live more than 50-miles away from the campsite, don’t bring firewood with you
- Use local sources of wood available nearby
- You can purchase firewood at most campsites
- Bringing in your wood may bring pests into the campsite
- If foraging, look for felled timber, never cut down a tree
- Look for branches that are thinner than your wrist
- Collect twice as much kindling as you think you’ll need
Lay and Light the Fire
There are several ways to make a fire. However, if you’re a newbie, we suggest following one of these three tried-and-tested methods for building a campfire.
The Teepee Fire
Place the tinder in the middle of the fire bed and stack it high. On top of the tinder, stack the kindling in a teepee or pyramid-style, and leave an opening on the side of the teepee that’s facing into the wind. When you light the tinder, the wind will help to ignite the kindling.
Use pencil-sized twigs to build your teepee and give it two layers. Build a layer of logs around the teepee, using the same strategy as you did with the kindling.
As you light the fire, the tinder will catch the kindling, which fires up the wood. Eventually, it collapses on itself, and you can keep adding logs or fuelwood, in a circular, teepee fashion as the wood burns.
The Leaning-to Fire Lay
With this method, you stick a long piece of your kindling into the ground at a 30-degree angle. Make sure that the stick is facing into the wind.
Place a bundle of your tinder under the lean, and cover it in your kindling, leaning it against the other center stick. Add two layers of kindling, and then build the wood on top in the same fashion.
Log-Cabin Fire Lay
This method involves creating a log-cabin frame using your fuelwood. For this build, you’ll lay two pieces of fuelwood in the center of the fire bed. Then, you lay another two logs on top of and perpendicular to the first two.
Repeat this pattern until you have a stack around a foot high. Fill the center of the structure with tinder and kindling.
Tips for Lighting the Campfire
- Remember to carry a BIC lighter or gas-powered windproof lighter in your gear. Lighters are critical kit, and unless you want to use a bow and sticks, remember you lighter.
- A Ferro-rod is an excellent alternative to a lighter and another indispensable piece of survival gear for bushcraft.
- After you light the tinder, blow gently at the base unless you are lighting into the wind. In this case, let the wind do the work for you. Windproof lighters are advantageous in these situations.
- As the tinder lights, make sure to monitor the fire, so the kindling catches. Ensure you keep your eye on the fire until the kindling starts to catch the fuelwood.
Put Out the Fire
The following morning after rising and completing your breakfast, it’s time to put out the fire before moving on. Never leave a fire ongoing, it’s a tremendous fire hazard that can destroy forest quickly. Even if you think the fire is out, always ensure that you douse it and complete your shut down process every time. Never leave things to chance as this could result in a huge disaster.
Before you leave the campsite, follow these guidelines for putting out your fire.
Putting out a fire takes longer than you think, so make sure you account for the time on your schedule. You’ll need at least 20-minutes to ensure that your fire is out entirely.
Always keep a bucket or container of water near your fire at night for safety reasons. Pick up the water and douse the fire. Make sure you sprinkle, don’t just throw it onto the fire to extinguish it. That results in hot ash flying everywhere.
After emptying in the water over the embers, make sure you stir them using a stick or shovel to ensure that the water gets through to all the leftover wood and coals that are still burning.
When the steam starts to rise, and you don’t hear anymore hissing coming from the fire when you pour water, you know there is almost out.
Use the touch test to tell if the fire is out. Place the back of your hand a few inches from the fire. You should not feel any heat emanating from the embers.
If you feel the heat on your hand, continue with the dousing and stirring until it’s dead. When the fire feels cool to the touch, it’s safe to leave the campsite.
Scoop up the ashes, spread them over the campsite, and lay the base of trees for fertilizer. Finally, turn over the sand platform you built, and scatter the rocks if you created a firebreak. Leave no signs that you were ever there in the first place.
Final Tip for Building a Fire
Never, under any circumstances, soak your tinder, kindling, or wood in a flammable substance like gasoline. You’ll underestimate the size of the flame ball this method creates, potentially injuring yourself and starting a forest fire.