How to start a fire

Original photo by Dirk Beyer

Starting a fire in the woods, or during any camping trip is not complicated, but many people have no idea how to get started. You can use chemical fire starters, but even if you usually use lighter fluid, it is still a good idea to know how to start a fire if you are ever without that can of lighter fluid! A naturally-started fire is also healthier than a chemically-started fire (and if you’ve smelled the fumes from a fire started with chemicals you understand this). If you follow these basic steps, you will be well on your way to becoming an expert fire starter under any conditions.

Starting a Campfire: Choose a Location First

The location of your fire is important. Choose an area free of overhanging brush, and make sure it is downwind from your other camping equipment, since you don’t want sparks or coals blowing onto your tent. The fire should be in an open area, and several feet away from any other objects.

Now that you’re ready to get started, here are the basic steps:

  • Prepare the Fire Space: Clean your fire area of any potential burning hazards, like leaves, grass, and twigs, and build a circle of stones around the fire area to help contain the blaze.
  • Gather Suitable Wood: Look for wood for your fire, so you can get it started, and keep it going for more than a moment. You will need an assortment of dry kindling pieces, like strips of bark, twigs, pine needles, and pinecones; some small sticks and twigs for the initial blaze; medium-sized wood pieces for sustaining the fire; and larger pieces for long-term burning. Evergreen wood is ideal for campfires, and even smells pretty while it’s burning! Oaks and other heavy woods burn longer, but take much longer to catch on fire. Gather about three time as much wood as you think you might need. If you find only green wood or damp wood, try to find small, dry pieces that will catch fire better. Usually, there are at least a few pieces of dry wood near any wooded area.
  • Start Your Fire Foundation: Lay one stick in the center of the fire pit, and then pile some kindling pieces along one side of the stick. Make sure there is plenty of air flowing between the kindling pieces. Ignite the kindling pieces with matches or another lighter. Gradually add on more pine needles, small pieces of dry wood, dry wood shavings, and pinecones until the stick catches fire.
  • Build Up the Fire: Add larger twigs and sticks about the same width of a pencil stacked like a teepee around the first burning stick. When the sticks are alight, you can continue to add larger pieces of wood gradually until the medium or large pieces of wood start to burn. Leave plenty of room between each new wood addition for air to flow, since smothering the fire will put it out.
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Troubleshooting Your Fire

These handy devices can get a charcoal fire going in just a few minutes, no matter the weather! Image from Amazon (Outset QS10, Chimney Grill Starter)

If you are working primarily with green or damp wood, you can still get a fire going – it just takes longer. Spend longer at the kindling stage, using materials like paper and pocket lint to coax the fire to life. You can also use materials like stove fuel, or any other oil you may have on hand to help start the initial burning process. (Please be cautious when using oil or other fast-burning fuel, since your hands and clothes will burn too if you set them on fire.) You can also try using a chimney fire starter, which quickly ignites charcoal bricks or even sticks/logs for cooking without the need for lighter fluid or other chemical aides.

Once your fire is burning, place green or damp wood about 2 feet away from the fire in a circle, which will help the wet wood dry faster and become easier to burn when it’s time to put more fuel on the fire.

*Note – there’s a drought on, in many areas of the U.S. – please make sure there are no fire warnings or advisories in your area before practicing your firestarting skills!

What tricks do you use for starting a campfire?

Starting a fire with birch bark

Lighting a fire with a fire steel

Widely found in woodland across the Northern Hemisphere, birch bark is a very useful material when it comes to making fires. You’ll find it all over the UK and you’ll notice that often the bark is peeling off. Try not to be tempted to take it from live trees and stick to using bark from dead trees.

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Once you have your birch bark, you’ll want to take a knife and rub it against the bark in order to generate a bunch of small shavings. This is what will take the initial spark. With your remaining bark you’ll need to tear it up into thin strips. You’ll want to first use your fire steel (or whichever method you have chosen) to generate a spark into the shavings. Once they have caught you’ll need to add the thin strips of bark, which will also light up. You’ll then be ready to start adding your thin sticks/pieces of wood.

Starting a fire using old man’s beard

Lighting fireNo, not any random old man’s beard… We’re talking about the lichen that is often found on old spruce, birch and fir trees. It looks like an old man’s beard (obviously!) and is usually a grey-green colour. The less colour it has, the dryer it is and the more likely it will take a spark. You’ll want to gather a big handful of it and, if possible, keep it in a pocket for a while to dry it out some more. When you’re ready, it should take a spark very well if it is dry enough, but be aware that it does burn through quicker than other tinders, so you’ll need to get your dry grass or extra bark onto it as soon as you can.

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