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How to Start a Campfire: Basic Knowledge That Can Save Your Life

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Dennis Owens
Written by Dennis Owens

Although a fire still remains one of the most important things to have when out on a trip, knowing how to start a campfire is something that is slowly being forgotten.

It’s easy to understand why, with all the modern conveniences that are well within our reach as well as small enough to carry in that little pocket in our jeans that nobody really knows what it is for, we tend to forget and not care about the old ways.

At the same time, though, starting a campfire without any modern solution is a skill that can prove invaluable, especially if things go wrong.Even when in a survival situation, the 3 most important things to cover are fire, shelter, and water, in that order.

The importance of a fire

While we are all used to taking a campfire for granted, very few actually understand how valuable it actually is to us. We’re used to associating it with telling stories after a day of frolicking in the woods or hiking to the camping grounds, relaxing and enjoying our time.

friends gathered around campfire

While there is nothing wrong with that, because of the modern quality of life improvements that we take for granted, we fail to think about the true purposes that it can serve and why it was such a big deal until the last 100 – 150 years.

Indeed most of these aspects were made redundant by modern day gadgets and gear, however, these things tend to break and give out, a basic fire does not.

It is a source of light

This is pretty handy considering the fact that nights tend to be pitch black. Even on a full moon, which theoretically should provide a lot more lighting, it is still not enough for you to even make out your surroundings. A properly made fire will illuminate your surrounding area and help you see everything around you without any guesswork involved.

It is a source of heat

Regardless of the time of year, temperatures go down during the night, and depending on where you are in the world they can drop to some staggering lows. The campfire can help out a lot when dealing with this issue because it radiates heat around it.

campfire in the woods

This helps us cook our food, dry our clothes if we get wet, boil our water to make it safe for drinking, even sterilize and overheat instruments that we can use to cauterize and close up wounds that we might of have suffered along the way.

It keeps predators at bay

A well-known fact is that animals can be scared away by fire, especially if made with wood that is a little on the moist side because of all the popping that it does. Predatory animals are most active at night, their bodies being adapted for that special condition, meaning that most of the time they have an unfair advantage over you.

A fire, however, can tip the scales in your favor by providing the light to see them as well as the option of grabbing a long stick or branch, setting it on fire and waving it at them, driving them away. This tactic works best against wolves, mountain lions, cougars, and other medium size predators. For bigger predators like bears, you will have to be a bit more creative.

It’s a morale booster

This is especially true in the case of a survival situation where you have to make due with the clothes on your back, whatever is in your pockets and whatever you can find on the ground. Because of its soothing nature, it gives you the feeling of safety that you need in order to calm down.

firewood gatherer

Take a breath and assess both your situation and your next few steps. It also helps out a lot with your mental sanity if you are a lone survivor, giving you the comfort to reflect on things and stay sane even though you are essentially alone.

These are only a few of the reasons why fire is always number one on your “to do” list when out on a long trip, camping or facing a survival situation.

Setting up for a fire

Before moving on to lighting the fire, we must first know how to set everything up for one. The very first thing that you will have to do is clear out a small area for the fire. There should be no sticks, foliage, plants, anything other than the ground itself both in the actual area where the fire will be as well as about 1 foot around it.

beautiful campfire

This is so that you don’t accidentally light your surroundings on fire, inadvertently causing an environmental disaster like a forest fire. As the wood burns, embers tend to pop out, which can easily light dry sticks and leaves on fire without you even knowing about it until it’s too late.

The second thing you will need to do is gather small rocks and set up the actual perimeter of the fire by arranging them in a circular shape on the ground where the fire will be.

This serves a number of purposes ranging from preventing ash and embers from rolling away to providing a heated surface to cook on if need be, the latter depending on the proximity of the rocks to the actual fire.

A small tip here, if you want a more intense burning fire, what you can do is grab a stick and carve out a half inch wide half inch deep ditch across the perimeter of the fire. What it will do is allow more air to come up underneath the fire while at the same time acting more or less like an ash tray.

Keep in mind though that a more intense fire, while providing more light and more heat, will burn wood at a much faster speed. The third thing that you will be doing here is going off and gathering wood for the fire.

Here is what you will need to get

Tinder

This is what you will be initially lighting in order to get the fire going. It needs to be small, dry and rather solid. A bit of dry bark or wooden fibers usually does the trick just fine, anything to get that first ember going.

Kindling

You will need this as a fast fire starter and it is actually the very first thing that gets lit on fire by the first ember. You will need quite a bit of it, though, so make sure to take your time and gather as much of it as you can.

leaves in fire

Look for dry leafs, strips of dry bark, dry plant fibers, wood shavings, twigs, even an abandoned bird’s nest if you get lucky.

Small thin dry sticks

You don’t really need many of them, just enough to make a small bed on which to build up the flame. Usually, 8 or 9 will suffice, however, feel free to grab more if you so desire.

Small thick sticks

These are what keep the fire burning properly after it has been lit and stabilized. It is strongly preferred that the sticks should be dry, however, green ones can also do the trick as long as they have a cracked bark.

starting campfire with sticks

Do be careful though because a moist green stick will cause the fire to pop and embers to shoot out of it. If it is a short-term fire, like a couple of hours or so then you can stop here.

Large thick chunks of wood

This is for fires that are supposed to last longer, like through the night, as well as fires that are supposed to be strong enough to cook and boil water on. It is recommended that these chunks of wood should be dry, however slightly moist ones can work as well drying up, cracking and shooting embers in the process.

Stay away from damp and wet wood because you are running the chance of actually extinguishing the fire itself. What you will be looking for is small logs, thick sturdy branches, random solid blocks and chunks of wood that you can find.

A small tip, if you happen to be in an area teeming with caves and general rocky formations like the mountains or areas that are heavily eroded like lower marshlands, you might want to venture out a bit and search around for coal beds and small deposits.

hiker in coal bed

You are more likely to find them in caves and in exposed rock faces, however, don’t delve in too deep for them, it is not worth putting your life at risk. If you do manage to find a bit, though, chip a bit away and use it as fuel for your fire, it will burn longer and stronger than wood.

Building the pyre

This is the actual simple structure that will be lit on fire. It follows a basic principle that facilitates air traveling through and underneath it which fans the flames, keeping the fire lit and strong.

The basic campfire, also known as tepee

Start off with the lightest materials, in this case, the twigs and a bit of kindling. Place them neatly on the ground making sure that they are not compressed in any way.

Grab the thin dry sticks and place them in a conical configuration over the base layer. Make sure that there is ample room in between them. Continue by placing the thick sticks over the thin ones in the same fashion

Pyramid fire, also known as the criss-cross configuration

It is worth noting that the sticks should not rely on the layer underneath for support but rather on each other, the main support point being at the top where they all meet.

After the sticks have been placed you can either add the large thick chunks of wood into the mix in the same manner or you can leave them aside and add them later. The latter is often times recommended.

Most other layouts follow the same principle with a few exceptions like the pyramid fire, also known as the criss-cross configuration, where you lay the wood layers perpendicular, on top of each other, with the thickest layer on the bottom and the thinnest at the top.

tepee fire

Another such exception is the ladder fire, which is often used by military forces when in forest areas. It involves digging a hole approximately 1 foot deep and 10-15 inches across in which you build a base layer of kindling and thin dry sticks.

On that layer, you build small improvised tilted ladder made out of wood that goes all the way to the top of the hole. The thick sticks and solid chunks of wood are placed vertically and positioned as for support beams while the thin sticks are positioned across them like the steps on the ladder.

The fire is ignited at the base, climbing up the ladder and burning the wood as it goes along. The main advantage of the ladder fire is its ability to direct a lot of heat upwards which when combined with stones placed at the edge of the hole makes cooking as easy as doing it on a hotplate.

tepee kind of fire

While air flow can be a bit of an issue, as long as the wood is not crammed into the hole too much you have nothing to worry about. Once you are done or the fire runs out, just fill in the hole with the dirt you excavated and it’s like you were never there.

Types of fire

There are different types of fires out there that can serve specific purposes a lot better than the average campfire. While there’s not many of them, they deviate slightly from the norm, however, it is easy to understand why,

The cooking fire

This type of fire is meant to cook meat and vegetables on as well as boil your water and dry your clothes if need be. In order to build such a fire, you have to keep the wood pieces used to fuel the fire as crammed together as possible while still allowing for as much air to pass through and underneath it as possible.

cooking campfire

The more intense the flame, the higher the temperature, the better the cooking fire. It is usually of small dimensions, usually to allow for spits to be built on which you cook meat from animals and fish.

Another thing you can do is build 2 or 3 layers of stone around the fire in order to allow them to heat up enough to boil water and dry up vegetables like on a hotplate.

The illumination fire

This kind of fire is aimed at providing light for as much as possible. While it still provides a fair beat of heat, it pales in comparison to the cooking fire in that regard.

The illumination fire takes up a lot more space, often times the width exceeding the height of the fire and is primarily focused on burning large chunks of wood over a long period of time.

illumination campfire

It’s great for improvised camps and shelters, especially in survival situations, a properly made illumination fire lasting an entire night without requiring any attention.

The signal fire

It goes without saying that this fire is used in survival situations in order to be spotted from long distances as well as from the air regardless of the environment you are in.

The idea is to make a fire as big as possible and generate as much smoke as you can. This is achieved by building a tall pyre, usually as tall as the person building it, focusing mainly on thick sticks and small logs, and using moist green wood as well as tossing green leaves into the fire in order to make the smoke as dense as possible.

If the situation calls for it, consider slicing some rubber off the soles of your boots and throwing it into the fire in order to make thick black smoke which increases the chance of being spotted by aircraft and rangers.

Ways in which to start a fire

There are quite a lot of ways in which to start a fire without using a lighter or matches if you ever find yourself in that situation, however, they require a bit of work and a lot of elbow grease.

The Spindle or Hand Drill

First of all, grab a large flat piece of wood, like a plank, carve out a notch on the side and place a bit of tinder in it. Make sure that the notch is narrow but at the same time goes all the way to the underside of the plank.

The Spindle or Hand Drill

Next, grab a slightly curved stick, preferably some around 15 – 20 and attach a piece of string to both ends, effectively creating a very small bow. Shoelaces are usually your best bet here.

Once the bow is made, grab a straight 10 – 15 inches long straight stick and wrap the string of the bow around it once. The more times you wrap the string around it the more resistance you encounter when spinning it and the greater of snapping the string.

Place one end of the straight stick onto the notch and the tinder inside it, the bow being parallel to the plank, and place a rock or another piece of wood on the other end, pressing down on it in order to create more downward force.

Start moving the bow side to side, spinning the stick into the notch, while at the same time keeping the same amount of downward force at the top of the stick. The harder and the faster you spin the stick, the more friction the notch is subjected to which causes the temperature to rise eventually igniting the tinder.

The notch is subjected to which causes the temperature to rise

Keep doing this until you start seeing thin white smoke coming out of the notch and tinder, at which point you need to grab a bit of kindling, place the ember into it and gently blow from the side, slowly igniting it.

The Fire Plow

It works on pretty much the same principle as the spindle however with a different design. The things that you will need are a plank, a stick and some tinder.

Carve out a notch on one end of the plank and a small ditch along the length of the plank leading up to the notch. Grab a long thick stick and start dragging one end along the ditch, towards and from the notch.

fire plow ignite method

This one is a lot more labor intensive however it works on more or less the same principle of using friction to build up the temperature to the point in which the tinder ignites. Again, don’t stop until you see thin white smoke coming out of the tinder.

Flint and Tinder

This only works if you have some flint lying around, or if you are in close proximity to a pebble beach or calcareous formations where you might find some flint.

This one is by far the easiest method and the most reusable one of them all. Either strike 2 bits of flint together or one piece of flint and a pocketknife in order to get a spark.

Small thick sticks starting fire

If you do this enough times and with enough force, over some kindling, a small fragment of superheated flint will fly off, acting as your ember and setting the kindling on fire.

Shorting out a battery

This works best with square 3-volt and 9-volt batteries and involves shorting them out, destroying the battery in the process but starting a fire. While this is not your average survivalist method of lighting a fire, it’s great for survival situations where you stumble across some trash or gear and find a battery with a bit of power left.

What you will need, besides the battery, is a connector, like a piece of wire or some steel wool. If you manage to find a wire, fold it 2 or 3 times and put it over the terminals. This causes the electric charge to be discharged chaotically through the connector and back into the battery which overheats the battery, causing it to catch fire.

If done with steel wool, you will get a series of flashes and sparks which will set the steel wool on fire. The battery itself is rendered useless and destroyed in the process. Whatever you do, make sure that the battery does not have more than half charge otherwise you run the risk of having it explode.

Shorting out a battery to stat fire

Also, do not try this with a car battery even if you manage to stumble across one. They are known to explode when shorted out this way, flinging battery acid everywhere.

Using water (the lens effect)

This might sound weird at first but bare with me because you can, in fact, use water to start a fire. What you are essentially doing is using its refraction capabilities and making it act more or less like a lens or a magnifying glass.

Grab a plastic bottle that has a rounded or bulbous shape, fill it with water and put it between your kindling and the sun. Move it around until you find the focal point, and give it a couple of seconds. The kindling should start to smoke and a minute later the embers should start appearing.

Whit this same principle you can use a clear plastic foil, fill it with water, wrap it tight forming a water pouch and use the bubble of water as a lens in the same way.

lens effect fire

As a side note, if you have a pair of binoculars on hand, you can take out one of the eye pieces, which in essence is a miniature magnifying glass, and use it to magnify the sun’s rays onto the kindling. Because of its reduced size, you will have a slightly harder time finding the focal point and starting the first ember off.

In conclusion

Starting a fire, while not as practiced as in the past, is not exactly a demanding and stressful thing to do. All you need is wood that the environment will provide, some basic knowledge, patience and a lot of elbow grease.

Regardless of the situation, you are in, from a peaceful and relaxing setting like a camp to an uncomfortable and unforgiving survival situation, knowing how to start your own fire can keep you warm, safe, comfortable, sane and at the same time increase tour chances of being found and rescued.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis Owens
Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.

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