How to Build a Fire

Outdoor Fire Theory

Let's start with an overview: Fire thrives on two things: fuel and oxygen. Many novice fire-starters go heavy with the fuel but neglect the oxygen. They pack tinder too tightly or lay sticks and logs too close together. If you've ever blown on a wood or charcoal fire, you know that it really excites the flames, and that's because more air flow equals better fuel consumption. So the more space (airflow potential) you can create between sticks and logs, the faster your fire will take off, and the more evenly it will burn.

Size matters, a lot

You can't light a log with a match because the match doesn't put off enough sustained heat to significantly change the temperature of something so large. So you have to begin by setting the match to very small materials, called tinder. Not "Tinder," like the dating hook-up website. (Well, it kind of is.) Tinder can be paper, cottontail fluff, pine needles, dried leaves, wood and bark shavings, or anything else that can be lit with a match, as long as it's dry.

The tinder goes on the ground at the center of your fireplace. If you're using paper towels, newspapers, or something similar, make a very loose ball--with plenty of room for air-flow inside. Make it a little bigger than a softball. If you're using natural fuel materials, put the very smallest pieces at the bottom center and build a very loose mound up around it with increasingly larger tinder until it's a least six inches in diameter and six inches high.


A tinder mound made with paper bags and dried leaves.

Now sift through your larger wood for kindling--sticks from a half inch to about two inches in diameter. Separate this kindling into piles: from small to large. Break your small kindling into various lengths, from a few inches up to one foot. Build a small teepee over your tinder mound with the shorter pieces. Build a second teepee over that with the longer pieces. IMPORTANT: leave a side opening through to the center of the mound. This is where you'll insert the starter flame.

Separate the wood into different sizes to build gradually larger teepees over the tinder pile.

Break the large kindling into pieces one to two feet in length. Build more teepees, each larger than the one before it. Over this, add three or four small logs, teepeed together as best you can. It's okay if they slightly lean against the kindling teepee. The important thing is to keep them as vertical as possible when you light the fire because heat rises, forming currents around the fuel, so a vertical log will take off quickly, once there is flame anywhere along its length. These starter logs will need to put off a lot of heat to get your larger logs going later, so you want them burning all over, as quickly as possible.

Smaller teepees inside gradually larger teepees, with tinder at the bottom.

Light that sucker. It's easiest to roll up a piece of paper or strip off a sliver of wood or bark, light this with a match, then insert it through your opening to light the small tinder at the center of the teepees. Let the party begin.

Light the tinder through the small opening left in the wood teepees.

By the way, this technique works really well in a chiminea or fire pit, but in a chiminea, you don't have to be nearly so painstaking. Just put the tinder on the bottom, some kindling on top, and when that starts to develop a few red coals, throw a log on. Additional logs should be crisscrossed or leaned on top of burning logs. The chiminea contains heat so well, that you can get away with "sloppy" work and still have an excellent fire, but the same laws of physics apply.

Fire Maintenance

If you've done everything even halfway according to these instructions, it should only take one match to get the conflagration going on a calm day. This is not rocket surgery. You can do it.

Your teepees will collapse soon after you have a blaze going. Let that happen, poke at the kindling and logs to keep them layered and crisscrossed wherever possible. When the larger kindling is putting off flames and has become well-charred on one side, add three or four smallish logs on top of them. Crisscross these on top of the burning kindling in a couple of layers. Or place them in a teepee configuration atop the burning kindling. Again, the keys are to allow plenty of air-flow and to take advantage of the fact that heat rises.

When the smaller logs are charred all over, start adding larger logs. You're there. When you reach this stage, there is enough heat from the bed of coals to keep everything burning. Just be sure to add more logs in crisscrossed and lean-to patterns. Air flow is important, if I haven't already mentioned that.

Add more logs after the starter logs are cooking well and charred all over.

Campfire Discipline

Now we have to do the grown-up part of the article. Pop quiz: Why is fire so much fun? Answer: Because it's beautiful and dangerous. But it's not just dangerous to you; it's a real hazard for every living thing around your campsite, from trees to the animals that live among them. A few rules are in order:

  • Clear away leaves, sticks and other dried materials in a small radius around your fire. These can act like dynamite fuses when conditions are right, setting off unintended fires outside the campfire location.
  • Keep the fire contained in the fireplace. Whenever possible, make a circle of stones around the fire, or use a fireplace left behind by another camper.
  • Burn only burnable materials. A campfire is not a wastebasket or plastic recycling center. Burning materials other than wood and paper hurts the environment, and the melted remains of your refuse are not something future campers should have to look at.
  • When it's time to leave the site, put out the fire. Do not leave the campfire site until the very last whisper of smoke is extinguished. This is easy to do with very basic equipment, which we'll cover next.

Fully extinguish the fire before leaving the site.

A Few Words on Fire Tending Tools

Here's the must-have list of fire tending tools:

  • Shovel
  • Poker stick (or better yet, Apocalypse Tongs)
  • Lots of water (or an empty bucket, if water can be retrieved near the camp site)

Basic campfire tools: water bucket, shovel and Apocalypse Tongs or a poker stick.

Technically, you can use a shovel to extinguish a campfire with dirt, but I try to avoid it because it gradually fills in the rock fireplace, making it useless. Also, it's more work and takes a lot longer than toting water from a lake or stream. But keep a shovel on-hand. Many state and national parks strongly recommend that campers have one handy if they plan to build a fire.

A shovel is also a great for moving coals around, as long as you don't leave it in the flames for more than a few seconds. Apocalypse Tongs, discussed in the last paragraph below, are by far the best tool for moving coals and logs. They serve the same purposes as both poker stick and shovel--and do a better job.

A poker is a stick. After you've built a few fires, you'll get in the habit of watching the kindling pile for likely poker sticks--about an inch in diameter and three or four feet long. You'll have to guard your poker stick if you're camping with friends. It's not always easy to find a poker with just the right heft and balance among your fire wood, and they have a bad habit of getting tossed into the fire by someone who didn't know it was your poker stick. Keep it secret. Keep it safe.

If you want maximum control over how your fire burns, pick up a pair of Apocalypse Tongs--they're a game-changer for fire tending. It's basically a poker stick on steroids. If you spend enough time around campfires, chimineas or even charcoal grills, you'll eventually decide you need a pair. They make fire jobs that much easier.

In the meantime, may you have happy camping and safe fire building.

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See ya outdoors!

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