We humans discovered how to build a fire during the stone age (or earlier) and still use this “technology” to this day. Regardless of whether a fire is indoors (in a fireplace) or outdoors (in a fire pit or an open BBQ), fire can create light and warmth, assist in cooking and really, no camping trip is complete with out a campfire.
There is something very masculine about igniting something and creating flames, so even though there may be quick and easy methods of lighting a fire available (such as a cigarette lighter), there is something satisfying about using tools such as flint or a magnifying glass.
Or sometimes, it is just a matter of survival and necessity to learn this old fire building methods. Imagine getting stuck somewhere in the wilderness with no matchboxes.
There is actually a difference between building a fire and simply starting one. If you are camping in a remote location (as opposed to a campsite), then chances are you will need to build a fire from scratch. This includes building the fire pit, which is actually critical to the fire starting process.
Alternatively, if you are staying in an actual campsite or starting a fire at home, then chances are that the first step will already be done, and all you will need to do is actually start the fire.
Building a fire requires additional steps to simply starting it, and the distinction is important. Whether you are building a fire from scratch or simply starting one in an existing fire pit, there are many considerations to take. There are so many different types of fire and all depending on who you are, where you are and what type of fire you desire.
How to Build A Fire
Unless you are starting a fire inside or using a campsite with an existing fire pit, then building it will be the first step. There are tools that you will need no matter what type of fire you plan on building. These are all freely available and thankfully, if you are resourceful, then all of these tools can be acquired with no previous purchase necessary.
These are outlined below:
Basic tools for building a fire
- Base – You cannot just build a fire anywhere, some preparation is needed. There needs to be some sort of base. Whether it be a fire pit built into or above the ground, or simply a ring of rocks. Location of the base is also important for safety – ensure your fire pit is away from trees and long grass, and if the fire is indoors then it is critical that there is a fire grate and a working flute. Tip: To stop the wind from extinguishing the fire, dig into the ground about 3 inches.
- Matches or a fire starter – This is to actually start the fire. You will need something that will create a spark. If you have watched Cast Away starring Tom Hanks you will know that a spark can be created from simply two pieces of wood, but there are many easier methods available with some pre-planning. For tips on how to choose the best fire starter stick, see our article on this topic.
- Tinder and kindling – The tinder and kindling is needed to help the fire grow. You will not be able to start a fire on a thick log of wood – thick wood takes a long time to burn, so start really small (the smaller the better) and build up.
- Wood – Tinder and kindling will only get you so far, and will burn out very quickly. So unless you have an endless supply of kindling (which is unreasonable and unlikely), you will want some thicker chunks of wood to burn. Hard wood, such as maple or oak, is preferred as it burns much better (hotter and slower) than softer wood, such as pine. Of course, if pine is all that is available then it will certainly work.
- Water – the fire burning process does not end at the successful creation of the fire. Effectively putting out a fire is just as important as starting it (if not more so), and will ensure that your house and the environment is kept safe and free of unwanted and uncontained fires. If there really is no water at all to put the fire out, dirt and sand will do, but make sure that there are no embers left burning.
Types of Fire
A fire is not just a fire. There are two main types of standard, above-ground, outdoor fires – the teepee style and the log cabin style. And then there is the Dakota style fire, which is a bit different, but even more effective when done correctly.
Indoor fires will be different again and are more straight forward and closer to the Teepee style (with kindling underneath the wood).
- Teepee – The teepee fire is exactly as it sounds – the wood is stacked to resemble a pointy tent with the kindling at the base and the bigger pieces of wood in a cone shape above. This type of fire is best if you do not plan on cooking, and if height of the flames is what you desire.
- Log Cabin – The log cabin style basically involves a smaller version of the teepee but with logs stacked in an alternating pattern around the teepee (the alternating is important to ensure that air can be circulated between the logs). There are no rules as to how this is to be built – as long as you have the kindling in the middle (under the mini teepee) and allow for air circulation, then you will have a fire. Alternatively, you can simply place kindling on the ground, then stack smaller logs above and around in a square shape. It offers more structural support but requires the wood to be of more standard sizes.
- Dakota – The Dakota style of fire requires more work than the others, but is best in windy conditions and will result in a warmer and longer burning fire. This is the type of fire that will be taught in survival classes.
Basically the fire is built in a pit in the ground. It is actually nicknamed the fire hole because it is literally a fire in a hole. It is also great for cooking.
To make one you need to dig two holes next to each other – one for the wood and one which supply air to the fire. These two holes need to be joined (via a tunnel of sorts) and there needs to be a small bridge of land on the top.
How to Start Your Fire
Building the fire is only the first step. You cannot start a fire without having first built the foundation, but until you actually have embers, flames and smoke all you have is effectively a pile of wood and tinder. There are many very straightforward methods of starting a fire – after all, that is why lighters were invented.
However, there will be times when you will want (or need) to start a fire outside of the traditional means. There are different fire starters and different types of tinder depending on what you have available and where you are.
There are three basic steps to starting a fire. First, there needs to be a spark. This spark will need to set light to tinder, which is a dry flammable material. The tinder will catch fire, which will then make the larger, flammable kindling set fire. Once the kindling is alight, then the flames can move to the main wood, which will make the fire grow and grow.
There are many different fire starting techniques – matches and lighters are the obvious choice for lighting a fire. However not everyone has the convenience of being around fresh matches or working lighters at all times. You might be completely out of matches, or your matches may have gotten wet (making them completely useless).
So having alternatives to just matches is always a good idea. There might be times when you find yourself needing to light a fire unexpectedly so you need to use whatever is on hand.
Types of Fire Starters
- Lighter – A lighter is arguably the easiest and most fuss proof way of starting a fire, after all that is what they are designed to do. A small cigarette lighter will do the trick, as will specially made fire lighters (which can also be used to light gas stoves). These lighters are preferred to light indoor fires as they generally offer more control and are safer. The risk of lighters is that they can be temperamental, can stop working if they get crushed or wet and they require fuel (so can get empty).
- Matches – Matches are also extremely temperamental – they will only work in perfect conditions and any moisture or wind will make them effectively useless. They are very cheap and handy however and do not require fuel.
- Flint – Flints are preferred by many campers and trekkers as they are safe, cheap, have no moving parts and are small enough to be kept in a pocket. They are also not affected by moisture or wind. They basically work by creating a spark with friction. Different sizes are available for purchase.
- Lens – You will have seen the movies where someone starts a fire using a magnifying glasses or even a pair of glasses. Any glass or lens will be able to start a fire as long as there is a ray of sunlight. So this method will not work at night or on an overcast day.
- Steel wool and a 9V battery – A very MacGyver way of starting a fire is using steel wool and a 9V battery. Steel wool is great because it will start a fire even when drenched with water. Simply separate the steel wool to make it finer, and touch the end of the battery to it, and it will almost magically burst into flames.
Tinder and Kindling
Creating the spark and flame is great, but you will need some sort of tinder so that the spark can actually burn and turn into a proper fire. Using twigs and leaves is the most basic form of tinder, but there are other alternatives that will work just as well.
Kindling is basically bigger versions of tinder, and this will be smaller pieces of wood which take more to burn than tinder, but which catch alight easier than the main logs of wood. The tinder will be used to turn the spark into a flame.
Different Types of Tinder
- Firestarters – These can be made at home or purchased from a hardware store. They are basically a mixture of sandpaper (or very finely grated pieces of wood) and wax. They catch alight very easily and will burn for longer than sandpaper on its own.
- Paper / twigs / bark – Paper, small twigs and bark are all very effective tinder as they catch alight very easily. They will burn very quickly though so you will need a fair bit of it to start a healthy fire.
- Dryer lint – Dryer lint is unexpectedly effective as tinder as it will catch fire very easily. Simply spread out the lint as much as possible before setting a spark onto it. Try to avoid lint with human hair in it as the smell of burning hair is very unpleasant, however it will only be momentary.
- Cotton balls swabbed in Vaseline – Cotton balls are clearly very good tinder but because they are so airy they burn very very quickly. So lathering them with Vaseline will ensure that they burn long enough to set alight the kindling.
- Dry grass / moss – Dry grass or even moss will be very good tinder as long as it is completely dry. Ensure the grass is spread out and thin as the oxygen will help it burn.
Tips for Outdoor Fires
Structure is especially important for outdoor fires, and oftentimes the fire will need to be built. There is also the added complication of the weather – rarely will the sun be shining and the wind nonexistent.
So below are some tips for building and lighting a fire outdoors.
- Ensure fire is permitted and that you choose a safe place. Being oblivious is not an excuse for breaking fire laws.
- Build up slowly – start with a type of tinder, then build kindling then go for bigger and thicker logs.
- Start small – you can always build up and make the fire bigger. However if you start with a fire that is too big and out of control, it is hard to contain and make smaller.
- Light the tinder in multiple places to get it going faster. Add more tinder and kindling as you go if necessary
Tips for Indoor Fires
There is no denying that indoor fires are easier than outdoor ones as there is already an existing fire pit, and it is unlikely that you are going to have the elements such as rain and wind against you.
However there are still some considerations that you need to look at to ensure success and safety
- Check the flute is clear and ensure it is open.
- Build-up is the same as with outside fires (although likely on a smaller scale) – start with a type of tinder, then build kindling then go for bigger and thicker logs.
- Light the tinder and add wood as the fire grows. Remember you need to leave some room around the fire and the grate for oxygen to flow – if you pack it too tightly then it will suffocate.
Fires no longer need to result in smelling like roasted meat for days, and stinging eyes are no longer an unavoidable part of having a fire.
Thanks to greater understanding of the science behind fires, there are many ways of creating what is called a smokeless fire – which is essentially a fire with maximum heat and brightness but without the painful and unnecessary smoke. See our earlier piece on how to build a smokeless fire for more details.
Benefits of a smokeless fire
- Comfort – smoke can be downright painful when it gets into your eyes, and can make breathing difficult if you are unlucky to have your seat in the direction of the smoke.
- Secrecy – Smokeless fires are a lot less obvious than ones that create a large mushroom cloud. If stealth is your priority, then you will need to minimize smoke.
- Pollution – Smoke is a pollutant, so even if you cannot think of any other reason to create a smokeless fire, then think of the environment!
- Long lasting – Smokeless fires produce more heat so cooking time is lowered, and the fire will last longer without the need to add more fuel.
Smokeless Fire Tips
- Leave an opening in the fire pit – If possible, do not have the rock circle go all the way around. This allows extra oxygen to get in – and more oxygen leads to a hotter fire, and hotter fires have less smoke.
- Build a back wall using a large rock – This is a trick to help guide the oxygen – build a back wall directly across from where you have the gap in the fire pit. Use a large rock which is around 12 inches high and is nice and stable.
- Build the fire slowly – smoke in a fire is a sign of inefficiency – if the wood isn’t burning properly then excess is let off as smoke. So make sure that you only burn smaller pieces of wood and do not add too much at one time.
Well, that’s all we have for now. So what’s your favorite way to build or start a fire? What tools do you use to make sure you’re ready to go?
For more tips and cool camping ideas, check out our must-read article to find out.