If you’ve ever been camping, we don’t have to tell you that sitting around the fire for stargazing, storytelling, and a s’more or two is the best part.
But, building a campfire isn’t as cut and dried as one might think (ha!). In fact, there are numerous strategies and skills involved that can mean the difference between a roaring fire and a smoking pile of sticks.
There are several campfire building techniques you can use to get your fire going, so it’s important to choose the right one based on your purpose, materials, and environment.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about how to light a campfire and keep it going so you’ll be ready for your next adventure.
Fire Building Materials
This should go without saying, but you can’t start a fire without the proper materials. Tinder, kindling, wood, and, of course, flame, are all necessary for both starting a campfire and keeping it burning.
This is the easiest part, and also the material you can get the most creative with. Tinder is the first thing that will light when you start your fire. It can be anything that’s small, flammable, and easy to manipulate, usually wadded-up paper, cardboard, dry leaves or grass, pine needles, dry bark, wood chips, dryer lint, or anything else that catches fire quickly without the use of lighter fluid.
While tinder is great for getting a fire started, it burns out QUICK and can only do so much. You need something for the flame to transfer to, which brings us to kindling.
Kindling is a thin wood source that’s larger than tinder but smaller than firewood. Anything from twigs, sticks, small branches, and slivers of wood work great for this purpose! Essentially, you just need some small pieces that will light easily once the tinder is ablaze.
For a true, roaring fire, you’ll need proper firewood. While logs work well once your flames are fully established, when you’re just getting it going you’ll want some dry, split wood.
If you’re gathering firewood, look for dry logs about 1-2 feet long. While you’ll probably have to pick your wood off the ground, try to make sure it’s not too soggy or rotten. Be sure it isn’t still too fresh – or “green” – as well. You can usually tell this by evaluating the wood’s color and scent. If it’s very fragrant, heavy, sappy, or has a bright, yellowish color, it’s probably too fresh and won’t burn well.
Remember to have plenty of firewood on hand. While tinder and kindling are only used to get things started, firewood is the fuel to your campfire, and you’ll need to add more periodically to keep it going.
Spark or Flame
This one seems pretty obvious, but you will need a flame source to get your fire started. As they say, it only takes one spark to get a fire going – and it’s true!
In fact, some people like to use a flint striker to start their campfires just for the fun of it. While more time-consuming and tedious, using a single spark to light a fire is an experience of its own that brings out your inner mountain man and puts your survival skills to the test (plus it’s a great way to impress someone *wink*).
But if you’re like most people, you’re probably looking for a quick, surefire way to get this thing going. If that’s you, a lighter is a perfectly acceptable flame source, or a match if you still want to keep things more natural. A torch is another option if you’re really impatient (we get it) or a magnifying glass and some sunshine will work if you want flashbacks to your childhood.
There is no “wrong” way to introduce a flame to your campfire. Except maybe a flamethrower – we happen to like our forests NOT burned down, so we don’t recommend that!
Campfire Building Techniques
A great campfire only needs a couple of elements: good firewood, flame, and oxygen flow. That last one is important because even if you have the best wood available, simply tossing it into a pile and expecting it to burn is only going to end in frustration.
To have a successful fire, you need to build it properly. But that doesn’t mean there’s one right way to do it. There are a variety of campfire building techniques that allow oxygen to flow and flames to grow (sorry for the cringe there…).
That said, the foundation of your fire will be pretty much the same no matter which building technique you use. Here’s how to start a fire step by step:
- First, clear the ground around the area where you want to start a fire. Remove all leaves, grass, sticks, and anything else that appears to be flammable. You’ll want to clear a pretty wide area so that in the event a stray ember or spark pops out of your ring, it won’t touch anything dry. Also, check above the spot you want to use to make sure there aren’t any dead branches hanging overhead!
- Now it’s time for some heavy lifting. If you’re in a place where there isn’t one already, build a fire ring using rocks to keep the flames contained. The bigger the better when it comes to choosing rocks for this, but if there aren’t any bowling ball-sized rocks around, you can always pick up a bunch of grapefruit-sized ones and stack them – it’ll just take you twice as long.
- Next, you’ll want to create a tinder bed (hey, now’s not the time for jokes!). This is one of the most important parts of making a campfire, as it’s nearly impossible to light one without it! To do this, take your tinder of choice and lay it down in a layer or bundle. Make sure you put down plenty of it, because tinder burns out quickly, and you want to ensure there’s enough to catch your kindling on fire.
- You guessed it, the next step is to add the kindling. This is where things start to get a bit more complicated. Most of the time, you’ll stack your kindling on top of the tinder, but exactly how you do it will depend on the technique you decide to use. More on that in a bit.
- Finally, it’s time to add the firewood. Again, the exact way you do this will depend on the construction you choose. So, let’s talk about the various types of campfires! ⬇️
This style of campfire is by far the most popular, and for good reason. It’s an easy go-to thanks to its simplicity and effectiveness. Because it burns through wood pretty quick, this one is a great choice if you need a fire fast.
As you may have gleaned from the name, these fires are built in a tepee/cone shape with a wide, circular base that comes to a point at the top, allowing plenty of oxygen to flow through.
Tepee fires are super easy to build. All you have to do is lay down your tinder in a pile, then form a tepee shape with small pieces of kindling. Once the kindling catches fire, add some larger sticks, maintaining the tepee shape.
As it burns, the tepee shape will collapse. But don’t worry! When it comes time to add more firewood to the pile, simply lean the wood vertically against the frame. You may need to add a couple of logs at a time if they need something to brace against.
If you’re looking for an easy-to-build, long-lasting fire, this is the method for you!
To make a log cabin style fire, you’ll need to start by thinking back to your childhood. Lay down two pieces of wood with about a foot in between them. Then, stack two more pieces of wood on top of those facing the other direction, just like you would with a Lincoln Log cabin.
Continue this pattern a few times until it’s at your desired height, using larger pieces of wood at the bottom and lighter, thinner pieces at the top. You can even taper your structure in at the top if you want to get fancy. From there, place your tinder and kindling inside the center square, and light it up!
As a log cabin fire burns, pieces of wood will fall into the center, feeding the flames so that it burns long and slow – perfect for a late night of hanging around without the need to throw new logs on all the time.
The platform technique is similar to the log cabin, just arranged closer together to make it easier for cooking.
The way you light a platform fire is also different. Once you’ve “Lincoln Logged” your wood – making sure to stack the pieces right next to each other this time (more like Jenga, really) – you’ll place your tinder and kindling on top of the stack tepee style and light it.
Make sure your kindling setup is a big one, as platform fires can be difficult to get started. But once it’s going, you’ll start to notice that as the flames burn from the top down, it will create a solid, flat “platform” of coals that you can place a pot or pan directly onto.
And, much like the log cabin build, this fire is self-sustaining, so you shouldn’t need to keep adding more wood to it.
Sometimes nature just refuses to cooperate while you’re trying to get a fire started. A strong breeze, rain, or snow can be downright infuriating when you’re trying to light a fire. But don’t worry! Just because the elements are fighting you doesn’t mean all is lost. That’s where the lean-to technique comes in.
To create a lean-to fire, start by selecting a large log or rock – the bigger, the better as this will act as your wind block. Place this log on the upwind side of your fire pit, and place your tinder just next to it on the downwind side so that it is sheltered from the elements.
Next, take some small pieces of kindling and place them on top of the tinder. Then, grab some larger sticks and lay them at an angle over the pile, leaning against the large log for support. Kind of like a roof for your tinder and kindling. You can then place some larger pieces of wood on top of these sticks, but be careful not to use too many as you can restrict the flow of oxygen.
When you light your fire, the small flames should be protected from the large log and stick “roof.” When it comes time to add some more wood, simply lean them against the original log like you did in the beginning, which will help them ignite and continue to offer protection from the wind.
This is a bit of a weird one, but the result is a long-burning fire that doesn’t use much wood. It’s perfect if you’re low on supplies toward the end of a camping trip or in a survival situation without many resources.
First, you’ll want to place your tinder and kindling in a tepee style. Then, take four or five round logs and place them around the tepee, fanning them out in a star shape with one end of each log touching the kindling pile and the other end pointing away from it.
Once you light your kindling, the star should burn from the center out. This method works best in a true fire “pit” so that gravity can pull the logs toward the flames as they burn. If you’re working with a flat surface, you can always push them closer as needed. Easy!
Tips for a Successful Campfire
Not all campfires are created equal – some are magical, crackling, warm sources of fun and light, while others just… aren’t. Sometimes it’s because you used the wrong building technique for what you’re doing, sometimes because your materials weren’t good quality.
Whatever the reason, there’s a solution for all your campfire problems. Let’s get into the tips for ensuring a safe, fun, and successful fire-lighting experience.
Practice Fire Safety
As we’ve already said, here at GeoGrit we LOVE our forests! Which is why fire safety is tip number one.
Fire safety is critical when talking about having a campfire in the woods. While enjoying nature, it’s your responsibility to ensure you do so in a responsible manner. Forest fires are no joke, and to take a line from Smokey the Bear, only YOU can prevent them.
Humans cause nearly 85% of all wildfires in the United States – and the consequences are devastating. Luckily, by diligently following a few simple rules, you can ensure that you won’t become part of the problem:
- Always have your fire in a designated pit or ring. If you’re backcountry camping, be sure to clear an area and make your own ring with plenty of good-sized rocks to keep everything contained.
- Never EVER leave a fire unattended – even for a few minutes. No exceptions. If you’re going somewhere you won’t be able to see the fire, just put it out. It’s not worth the risk.
- Pay attention to environmental factors. It’s never a good idea to have a fire on a really windy day, for example. Or near a building. Or next to a giant pile of dry leaves. Basically, just use common sense! You should also check with the U.S. Forest Service for any local fire restrictions before getting started. Many places, especially drier climates, have added rules depending on the risk of forest fires at the time.
- Properly extinguish your fire. That means your fire should be dead out before you go to bed or leave the site. Pour water on the coals until they are no longer steaming and sizzling, making sure to roll over any remaining logs to douse every side. You can even shovel some dirt on top for added measure!
- Always have water nearby in case of emergency. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, bad things happen. One pop could send a spark flying into some dry weeds, and then you’ve got a problem on your hands. Luckily, if you have a bucket of water, dirt, sand, or a fire extinguisher nearby, these incidents can be handled quickly before they get out of control.
Choose the Right Wood for Your Purpose
Whether you’re buying your wood or gathering it in the forest, you don’t always have the luxury of choosing its type. But, if you do, it’s good to know how different types of wood burn and which ones are best for your purposes.
Oak is one of the most common types of firewood. It’s very dense, which means it burns hot, slow, and with minimal sparks. Beech is another wood that burns long and hot, but because it’s so dense, it takes a while to dry, meaning it may be hard to find some that is ready to burn if you’re gathering instead of buying.
Maple firewood is known for being incredibly long-lasting. It produces high heat as well, which is perfect for cooler camping trips. Ash is similar to maple in that it burns hot, slow, and steady, but it’s also lighter and easier to split.
Birch tends to give off plenty of heat, but it is a softer wood and burns up pretty quickly. Pine is similar, and, while it sometimes gets a bad rap, is an excellent choice of firewood when seasoned properly!
If you’re cooking over a flame, you may want to pick up wood from a fruit tree like apple or cherry. Not only do these woods work well for making cooking fires, but they add a nice, smokey flavor to any meats you plan to make.
How to Start a Campfire with Wet Wood
Sometimes, you’ve got to use what you’ve got to use. When you’re camping, the materials available can be unpredictable. And with the nearest Walmart over 40 minutes away, there’s not much you can do about it!
So, how can you make the best of a tough situation? What is the best way to start a campfire with wet wood? And how do you do it without using up an entire bottle of lighter fluid in frustration (and burning the forest down in the process)?
If you’re in rainy, humid, or dewy conditions, don’t worry. It is possible to light a fire with damp wood – your dreams of toasted marshmallows are not in jeopardy!
First, make sure that any wood you use has been split. Round logs are great, but they are much harder to light on fire even in dry conditions, and often still have bark on them that holds moisture.
Next, look for kindling and firewood that’s still sticky with sap. If you can find spruce, fir, pine, or other trees with needles, grab some! The sap that these trees produce is highly flammable and may help you get things going.
Before you lay your kindling down, try snapping it in half to reveal its drier center. You can also look for dead sticks and twigs that are still attached to a fallen log or tree but don’t touch the ground. These will be a lot drier than anything that’s sitting in mud!
You can also start your fire on the windward side at the base of your structure to give it its best chance. As the flame starts to smoke and rise, it will help dry out the rest of the wood, making it easier to ignite.
‘Cheater Methods’ for Getting a Fire Started
If you’re struggling to figure out how to light a campfire on your own, there’s no shame in coming prepared with some fire starters to help get things going.
Fire bricks are readily available at most stores, and are super easy to light. Grabbing some dryer lint from home is another great option as it’s super flammable (don’t forget to clean those lint traps out, people!).
Lighter fluid is another obvious way to get a fire started, but it’s definitely cheating! It can help in a pinch, though, just be careful not to use too much as it can get dangerous fast.
Finally, a weird but effective trick is to soak some cotton balls in petroleum jelly and use them as tinder. They’re guaranteed to catch fire and stay lit longer than most other kinds of tinder, plus they’re much cheaper than fire bricks.
No camping trip is complete without a roaring fire to gather around when the sun goes down. But there’s more to building a campfire than simply taking a match to a log.
To successfully start a fire, you need to gather tinder and kindling and arrange them into a teepee shape. Then, using one of the campfire building techniques we’ve listed above, slowly start to add logs to keep it going as long as you need it to.
We hope these tips for how to light a campfire will help take your camping game to the next level. But a fire isn’t the only thing that can make your outdoor experience better – a lightweight, minimalist wallet is a great way to help lighten your load so you can focus on the experience rather than the day-to-day.
If you’re interested in carrying a minimalist wallet that’s made in the USA, check out our entire collection at GeoGrit.com. Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and follow our blog to keep up on all our latest content.
*This page contains affiliate links. When you purchase a product included on this list, we receive a commission at no extra cost to you.