In the U.S., about 40 million people will go camping this year. If you plan to be one of them, you’ll need to know how to start a campfire.
Whether you haven’t started a campfire before, or it’s just been a long time, you might be surprised by how hard it can be. In the movies, it looks easy: a spark flickers, and there’s a roaring flame in a matter of minutes. But the realities of damp wood, gusting wind, and a lack of kindling often make things play out differently.
Even if you’re a seasoned campfire professional, it can be helpful to know a few tips, just in case things go awry. These tips will help you get a fire going in nearly any situation.
How to Start a Campfire: The Basics
First, let’s look at the best-case scenario.
You’ve got your campsite, and have (or can easily access) firewood, kindling, and everything else you need. Even in this easy mode, figuring out how to start a campfire can pose some challenges. Here’s what to do.
Check the rules
Before starting a fire, you should always check the rules of the campsite and area to make sure it’s allowed.
Camping without a fire might sound ridiculous, but the rules are actually there for a reason. Some campsites have to ban fires at certain times of the year to prevent forest fires from starting.
If your campfire turns into a forest fire, you could be responsible for acres of damage -- and you might even face legal consequences. It’s much better to know and follow the rules of your campsite.
Pick the location
Your next step is to find the best place to build your campfire.
Chances are, your campground will have a pit or ring in place for you to use. Don’t build the fire outside of that space. Building in a contained area prevents your fire from spreading.
If there is no designated area, this step will take a little longer. You’ll need to pick the best place to build a fire bed.
Make sure to clear any dry brush or branches away from the area where you’ll start the fire, so a spark can’t ignite the woods around you. If there's no fire pit, build your fire on a bare patch of earth, where nothing is growing, not even grass. If you need to, you can dig up a patch of dirt for this purpose.
Build the earth in your chosen area into a raised platform a few inches above the ground. If you can find a flat rock to put this fire bed on, even better.
Collect the wood
Even if you don’t yet know how to start a campfire, you know that wood is essential. But you’ll need certain types of wood, arranged in a certain way if you want your fire to succeed.
Basically, you’ll need three types of wood: firewood, kindling, and tinder. If you’re car camping, you can easily buy all of these things. Otherwise, you’ll need to gather them.
For the firewood, you can use big pieces, starting at about the thickness of your arm. The larger the wood, the longer it will take for it to catch, so it’s good to gather a range of sizes.
Kindling is the smaller twigs and sticks that will help transfer the flames from tinder to firewood. Look for pieces about the size of a pen.
Finally, tinder gets your fire going. Look for bits of small, dry plant matter, like leaves, grass, bark, and shavings. You can also bring your own -- did you know that you can use dryer lint as tinder?
The most important thing is that the tinder is dry. If your firewood is damp, it will take a while to catch. But without dry tinder to start with, nothing will catch at all.
Arrange the fire
Don’t just dump all these materials in a pile and hope for the best. Knowing how to start a campfire means knowing how to arrange the wood for the best results.
Start with a pile of tinder in the middle. Then, place two large, parallel pieces of firewood on either side of it. Put two smaller pieces of wood perpendicularly on top of these pieces, so you have a square.
Layer progressively smaller pieces of wood on top of the square in the same pattern. The goal is to have air between the pieces, to encourage the fire to start. On top, spread a full layer of kindling across the square, with more tinder on top.
You can also build a cone-shaped fire, instead of a square one. Again, start with tinder in the middle. Use kindling to form a cone shape around it, with the ends of the wood coming together at the top. Start the fire with this cone, then add larger logs to it as the wood catches.
Just add flame
Now that you’ve arranged your materials in one of these two ways, you’re ready to add the spark.
Use your lighter or a match to get the tinder going. If you brought a fire starter, place it with the tinder and light it, so the tinder gets going faster.
When you see the tinder burst into flames, you can gently fan it or blow on it to encourage the fire to spread. Fire needs oxygen to thrive. If you notice that your wood pieces are too close together to catch, space them out so air can flow.
With these basic steps, you now know how to start a campfire. But you’re not done yet: you also need to put the fire out when the time comes.
Putting your fire out completely will take time, so make sure to leave about half an hour to do it. If you leave it smoldering, you could start a forest fire.
Water is always the best way to put a fire out, although dirt will work too. Start by sprinkling the water on, instead of dumping it all at once. This helps keep the ground dry for future fires in the same spot.
Use a stick to stir the water into the ashes. The fire is out, or nearly out, when you don’t see or hear steam evaporating from it anymore.
To check that the fire is out, put your hand near the ashes (without actually touching them). If you still feel the heat, you need to add more water.
Remember to leave the whole area as clean as you can. If your fire wasn’t in a designated fire pit, spread the cold ashes around, and level out the ground where your fire bed was before leaving.
How to Start a Campfire in the Rain
You can also start a campfire in the rain -- but it will take a little more work.
Start by creating a dry place to start your fire. Hang up a tarp, or look for a protected area under a tree.
Now, elevate the area for the fire so it’s above the damp ground. You can use rocks or logs to do this. Try to arrange the fire so it’s protected from the wind. You can block the wind with trees, the tarp, your tent, or anything else you have to work with.
Keep your tinder, kindling, and firewood in the dryest place you can, like your tent. Remember, the tinder must be dry to start the fire. To find dry tinder in the rain, look for twigs and needles on the undersides of evergreen trees. Check for bits of paper, dryer lint, and other possible sources of tinder you might have with you, too.
Crack open sticks to see if they’re dry enough to use for kindling. If you find firewood pieces that are dry only on one side, you can use the dry side to start with and push the wet side into the flames as it dries.
Once you have your material, you can start your fire using the same methods as above. If you’re wet and stranded, and the fire is your only source of heat for the night, make sure to gather lots more wood than you think you’ll need. Even in the rain, it is possible to get hypothermia when you don’t have a fire.
The Best Fire-Starting Tools to Pack
Whether you’re camping, backpacking, or even just hiking, it’s a good idea to have some basic fire-starting equipment on hand. Here’s what you should pack every time.
A source of flames is essential. Leave the challenging friction-based fire-starting methods to Hollywood and just bring a lighter with you whenever you venture into the wilderness. A lighter is better than matches, which run out faster and won’t work when they’re wet.
Tinder is one of the hardest things to find in the wild. Pack a fire-starter to assist your kindling, bring your extra dryer lint, or gather up some scrap paper to use.
A shovel, or at least a trowel, makes things much easier if you need to build a fire bed, and when you need to put the fire out. This tool can also help you scatter the cold ashes afterward, so you leave your campsite better than you found it.
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Ready to Start Your Campfire in the Wilderness?
Now that you know how to start a campfire anywhere (even in the rain) you’re ready for all the outdoor fun summer can bring.
A beautiful fire adds that special something to a camping trip. Whether you plan to roast marshmallows, tell stories, or just keep warm, make sure you follow these tips for a successful fire every time.
Looking for more ways to prepare for outdoor fun this year? Don’t miss this guide to the best hiking boots and shoes to try!
So you have any fire starter tips? Tell us all about them in the comments!