Seven Tips for Starting a Campfire

Fire making is an essential survival and backcountry skill.  A campfire provides a means to cook food and purify water, but most importantly provides warmth and comfort.  Your mental state is extremely important in a survival situation and you should never underestimate the emotional power of a fire!  Fire is the most basic, deep seated symbol of our control over our environment and your ability to build a fire is an incredible confidence booster.  Under good conditions it is incredibly easy to start a campfire, but throw a little moisture and wind into the mix and it can be damn near impossible.  Like any skill, you need some basic knowledge and lots of practice!

First the theory.  You need three things to start your campfire:  heat, fuel, and oxygen.  Take away one or screw up the balance and no fire.  When you heat wood, the cells break down and release volatile gases (at around 300 F) which ignite and provide much of the flame, heat, and smoke.  These burning gases in turn heat the remaining material, or char, which burns much slower and with less open flame.  The first mistake most people make is to start with fuel that is too large for the heat source.  The second is that they pile too much material on the fire too soon, robbing it of oxygen.

Here are a few tips for starting a campfire:

1.  Add a Spark to Your Pack:  Matches, a lighter, or some other fire starter should be part of your first line survival gear (on your body at all times).  Paper matches suck.  Get some good wooden matches.  The waterproof kind aren’t absolutely necessary if they are packed in a watertight container.  Oddly enough, most problems don’t come from the matches but from the striker.  I’ve seen strikers on the box that wouldn’t light a single match and all of them are worthless once they get wet.  If you favor matches try to find the “strike anywhere” variety and bring more than you think you need.  A quality lighter can be a good alternative, but butane has issues at high altitudes and low temperatures.  Forget about the Bic and buy a good “storm” lighter that will work in strong winds.

2.  Hope for the Best, but Plan for the Worst:  Sooner or later you’ll forget to refill your lighter or you’ll run out of matches.  Just when you need a fire the most there will be no dry tinder for miles around.  Not a big deal if you are prepared, but deadly if you aren’t!  I always carry a metal match and tinder.  There are several varieties of metal matches, but I like the style with the flint embedded in a block of magnesium (see the video for a demo).  For tinder it is hard to beat dryer lint.  You know, the fluffy stuff you clean from the filter.  It is dry, fluffy, lights easily, and burns well.  Pack a ziplock full of this stuff and you have enough tinder for a dozen fires with virtually no weight or space penalty.  I also collect pine pitch (the sticky sap) and pitch wood.  This is a little harder to light, but once it gets going it burns hot and strong.  If you forget your tinder then collect dry grass or weeds as you hike and shove it in a plastic bag.  The grass bundles I demonstrate in the video are easy to make and even easier to use.

3.  Look to the Sky:  Wood on the ground is easy to collect but not so good for the fire.  Ground wood tends to be wetter, so it’s harder to light, and rotten, so it doesn’t burn well.  Look for dead trees or bushes that are still standing or leaning and branches that are hung up off the ground.  Even in the rain, these will be drier.

4.  Be Prepared:  Collect all the wood you will need BEFORE you start your campfire.  A young fire is fragile and requires tending.  The last thing you want to do is to finally get the fire started in a pelting rain with your last bit of dry tinder and then realize that you don’t have enough wood to keep it going.  Sort your wood according to size:  toothpick thick twigs, then pencil sized, finger sized, and so on.  Cut it or break it into 12-18″ lengths so you don’t have burning brands sticking out from your fire pit everywhere.  If the wood is wet then split some of the smaller stuff with a knife or hatchet to expose the dry wood inside.

5.  Start Small:  Once you get your tinder burning add the presorted wood slowly starting with the smallest.  If you go too big too fast it won’t ignite.

6.  Let it Breathe:  I’ve seen a lot of guys kill fires by dumping handfuls of twigs on the tinder.  The fire needs air to burn, so add the wood slowly in a crisscross pattern to let the air circulate.  Too much air can kill the fire as well, so if it is windy you may want to use a larger stick or rock as a wind break.

7.  Too Much of a Good Thing Can Kill You:  I’m pretty paranoid about fires in the backcountry.  The thought of being responsible for the destruction of thousands of acres (and probably killing myself in the process) doesn’t thrill me.  Clear the ground of debris for a couple of feet around your fire pit.  Keep the fire as small as possible, especially if it is windy.  Don’t leave a fire unattended, and for goodness sakes make sure it is out before you leave camp.  That means the fire pit has to be cold to the touch.  You’re dirty anyway so stick your hand in there.  Douse it with water or smother it with dirt well before you leave camp and then check again before you depart to make sure it is out.

So that’s it.  You are now a fire building expert.  However, as with all backcountry skills, it’s probably a good idea to practice your fire craft before you hit the trail.

© 2009, The Desert Dog Journal. All rights reserved.

Filed Under: FeaturedField CraftSurvival

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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!

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  1. Skot Looney says:

    You should probably include some “Leave no Trace” information about how to make a fire without making a fire ring; also, Leave no Trace teaches that you should use wood found on the ground instead of cutting down old trees, as it makes less of an impact on the wild life.

    • Desert Dog says:

      Thanks, Skot. I agree about the fire ring. From a Leave no Trace perspective, the best is to have no fire at all, next is to use an existing fire pit. With respect to wood, I did not mean to advocate cutting down dead trees. I normally try to use dead wood that is caught up in trees or bushes. Usually there is enough of that stuff around that you don’t need to cut down anything. The backwoods is no place for a huge bonfire so you usually don’t need that much wood. If it is a true survival situation then Leave no Trace kind of takes a back seat staying alive.

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