Learning how to start a fire is one of the most fundamental skills of camping. But chances are you’re doing it wrong! Understanding how to start a fire is essential, whether doing leisure camping or trying to survive in the backwoods, mastery of fire-starting is one of the best skills you can add to your outdoor skills toolkit.
How to Start a Fire: Basic Information
The most important concept you need to know in order to learn how to start a fire, no matter the lay or shape, is the fire triangle. The fire triangle is a helpful visual to show us the 3 essential “ingredients” of fire: fuel, oxygen, and heat. For more information about the fire triangle and what you need to know about how to start a fire, read What are the Components of The Fire Triangle? What is the Fire Triangle?.
Before You Start a Fire
Before you do any of the following steps, you must:
- Check your area
- Gather your materials
- Clear the surroundings
- Make a safe fire site
Read more about what you need to do before starting a fire at the link below, along with the 4-step procedure to ensure fire safety: 4 How to Start a Fire: The Basics
How to Set Up A Fire
Preparing to light a fire is actually a process that takes quite a few steps, namely setting up the “structure” of the fire. By this, we mean the way the firewood is laid. There are an infinite amount of ways to lay your wood to start a fire, but not all are equal! The best types of fire lays are the teepee/star lay, lean-to fire, and log cabin fire.
Note: Check out You Need to Know the Difference Between Tinder and Kindling + Firewood Tips to get more knowledge about the fuel you use for your fire, and how to best optimize it.
First, the teepee lay. This is one of the more basic ways to set up a fire, and good for people who are just learning how to start a fire. Unsurprisingly, it is in the shape of a teepee, in which the wood is stacked up so their ends all meet at the top. Alternatively, you can have the firewood cross over each other so they lean on each other. The kindling and tinder will then be placed below.
The star lay is an alternative to the teepee, where instead of standing up, the firewood is placed at an angle nearly parallel to the ground, with the ends all meeting at the center, thus making a star shape. Tinder and kindling keep the wood from lying parallel. The star can also be the wood flat on the ground, with tinder and kindling in the center of the star to light up the rest of the wood, although this doesn’t have a high success rate.
The lean-to by far is the simplest and least-effort fire lay. First, find a large log of firewood and lay it on its side. Then, place a clump of tinder and kindling adjacent to it. Lastly, take some large kindling or small pieces of firewood and lean them against the log. Again, the structure should hold some semblance to a real lean-to. Your lay is now ready! Light the smaller bits of fuel at the bottom. The flames will grow and lick at the wood above, catching those pieces on fire. You can then add larger pieces of firewood on top to keep the fire going strong.
Lastly, we have the log cabin fire. This one can also be a little tricky to get right, as it’s harder for the firewood to directly ignite. Lay the kindling in a square, placed on top of one another. You will soon have a “box” of some sort. Around that, make a copy of the same structure, but use pieces of firewood instead. Be sure to lay pieces of kindling + firewood on the top of the structure, so that the fire can spread to larger pieces of fuel. In the center of the structure, throw the tinder and kindling inside to start the fire. Remember to make a hole so you can put the match in to start the fire.
Note: Once you have built a large and successful fire of firewood, feel free to place new firewood in whatever pattern you would like, as long as it is safe and can catch fire (although placing it in a leaning fashion like the teepee is recommended).
Now that we’ve built our fire, let’s talk about how we want to actually start the fire.
Starting the Fire
We want the fire to start small and increase in size and strength gradually. We first need the tinder to catch on fire, then the kindling, and finally the firewood.
If you made it this far, you are almost done learning how to start a fire! First, grab a match or lighter and ignite your tinder. Hold the flame up to it for a couple of good seconds so it properly catches on fire. This is the stage most prone to mistakes, as not letting enough air can choke the fire on its own fuel. Once it gets going as a small flame, gently blow on it. Again, this is the oxygen/air that your fire needs to grow (refer to What are the Components of The Fire Triangle? What is the Fire Triangle?). It also helps it spread to other areas. Don’t blow too hard!
Your fire should be catching on to the kindling now and increasing in size. Use any leftover kindling from your fire-building to “direct” the flame as well as you can, by providing it with fuel to reach smaller pieces of firewood. Given enough fuel, the fire will continue to grow. If you haven’t already, start to (carefully!) place larger logs on top of your burgeoning flame. It’ll take a few minutes to catch on to such a big amount of fuel in one go, but once it does, it’ll stay! You’ve now got a good fire going. Keep a few logs in handy to place into the flames every once in a while.
Congrats! You’ve successfully learned how to start a fire! Now, enjoy your campfire safely with The Basics of Campfire Safety and How to Manage A Fire. It’s now time to sit back, relax, and enjoy some s’mores! Once you’re done, head over to How to Put Out a Fire Safely to learn to snuff out the last few flames.