Introduction: How to Build a Campfire

Picture of How to Build a Campfire

So, campfires are the best. They're warm, they give off light, they keep bugs away and they're great for cooking. This instructable is all about how to start a campfire with photos from our roadtrip to Mexico.
Originally, stasterisk was going to post photos she took and I was going to make up witty commentary. Then I realized that this is similar to what Emily and Joey of A Softer World do, and I love that comic so much, I couldn't pass up a chance to do a take-off.
read on!

A note on stones:
Star and Star's mom were walking along a rocky bit of coastline in Hawaii, when Star's mom, in her infinite wisdom, exclaimed, "Hey, these rocks would be great fire rocks! And look at all this dry driftwood - we could survive, out here!"
Star, in her infinite curiosity, said, "What makes them good fire rocks?"
And Star's mom said, "Look! These are lava rocks, so they're really porous. A strong rock will split, in a fire, but these porous ones are strong, and will hold heat, and stay together! Good fire rocks!"

Step 1: Kindling

Picture of Kindling

You'll want to start your fire with kindling, or tiny, really dry sticks. You can find these pretty much anywhere--you want sticks less than 1/4" in diameter (ish) that are bone dry--they should snap sharply when you break them. We were camped on a beach in Mexico, so I walked around for a while until I found some brush. It worked pretty well.

Break up your kindling into ~6" pieces and make a little pyramid in the fire pit. It's important that there's good airflow at the bottom of the pyramid, or else you'll choke the baby fire. And no sentence with both 'choke' and 'baby' in it can be good, right?

Step 2: Larger Bits

Picture of Larger Bits

Also gather some larger wood before you start up the fire. I like to have some ~.5"-1" diameter sticks ready to throw on once the kindling catches (and I also put one or two of them on top of the pyramid before I light it)
And then, of course, get some big logs. If you're going to be cooking, keep an eye out for dense wood, which makes great coals. While I was hiking in the California mountains, a wonderful botanist turned me on to using thick chunks of pine bark(that have already fallen off the tree) to make briquettes.
One note of caution: Under _NO circumstances use pressure-treated wood in a fire. Apart from being illegal everywhere in the US, it's a great way to release arsenic into the air (the 'treated' part of pressure-treated is Chromium Copper Arsenate, which is a cocktail of awful chemicals you don't want anywhere near you, and can make you sick almost instantly) The easy way to avoid treated wood is to use things that fell off of trees, and don't burn anything that looks like it's been in a mill.

Step 3: Starting the Fire

Picture of Starting the Fire

People talk about 1-match fires, or fires that are so well built that you just need one match to start them. This is a good thing to aim for, and a reasonably hard thing to achieve. Give it a shot!
To facilitate my 1-match luck, I loosely crumple a few bits of paper and jam them inside the wooden teepee. I also tightly twist another sheet of paper and light that with my match, so it lasts longer and I can poke it around the fire to make sure everything catches.

Step 4: Get Stoked!

Picture of Get Stoked!

Once your fire catches, start gingerly adding bigger and bigger sticks to the blaze. Don't just dump them on top, or you'll smother the fire. Try to keep some semblance to a pyramid, which both exposes more surface area of the new sticks to the wood and keeps the fire supplied with air.
If you have some wood that's not entirely dry, put it next to the fire for a few minutes before throwing it on, and the heat will dry it out a bit.

Woo hoo! Enjoy your fire!

oh, right. I little bit about cooking:
You don't want to cook when there are lots of flames. This will get lots of ash into your food and also get all kinds of soot on your pot. Let the fire burn down to coals, and then just sit your pot right on the coals. It'll get all kinds of hot.
Also, if you want to cook hobo-style, you can use tin cans instead of a pot. I also really like wrapping potatoes in tinfoil along with a little olive oil and sliced onions and chucking them in to the coals. mmmm, boy!


Kiteman (author)2007-08-20

It's actually quite easy to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. (Just make sure one of the sticks is a match!)

Pickles5000 (author)Kiteman2012-07-12

yes - and the other 'stick' is a striker. (here ine Australia we have safety matches and none else.

VillainTricks (author)2008-07-06

if your on the beach a good idea is to dig a pit, start a fire and when you get hot embers you put your favorite food in tin foil toss it on the coals anb bury it and it will cook nicely (make sure the tin foil is tight)

my brothers a cubscout, so he goes camping alot. My friends brother is in it too, so he goes too. every time, we make foil packs (meat, veggies, fruit, and a touch of beer (alcohol burns off and left with good taste)) These are THE BEST to eat. my friend and I eat these all the time. About half of my body weight is from these. I will make an instructable soon.

Wow that is a good idea! You can pre-pack all of your meal/dish's and and eat them like that. I camp allot and I usually take a pot and a pan to cook with and eat out of. It gets bulky even with the survival kinds

yah these are extremly simple, it has the perfect portions, and it tastes great. If you know the area, you could even make them out of local plants and small animals that you have caught (i call it high class survival lol) but idk where you would get the ranch dressing.

a cubscout?

yah well not any more hes older now...

my mom is from sudan and the take whole ears of corn and just chuck um in the fire and boom you got corn

yeah ive done that before, it tastes good that way.

Robert.Springer (author)2009-10-03

Why is it that when I read this I think of xkcd?

JustinFremont (author)2009-08-11

Go out with three matches, return with two.

hodgebe (author)2009-07-10

Porous rocks, such as chunks of volcanic rock, make horrible fire ring stones, especially in a humid climate. Moisture which has seeped through a small pore in a stone (particularly, into a cavern) will expand more rapidly than it can escape, resulting in the rock fracturing or (in some cases, depending on how rapidly it is heated, amount of moisture, and size of the pore) explode. Not a good idea. Good fire stones are of a consistent composure (ie, all of the same mineral composition). It would be a better idea to use something like granite, chert or even quartz, if they're available - ie, stones which do not remain "moist" for long, and are usually of fairly consistent composition.

lbrewer42 (author)2008-10-18

Oh yes, I did not mention it - but I mean only one match. No paper, no lighter fluid - no anything - just one match.

lbrewer42 (author)2008-10-18

Actually a 1-match fire is not hard to attain! It is ridiculously simple when you know what to do and think as to how the flame/heat process works. The concept is to start with a bundle of very small sticks (I tell people to look for "toothpick" sized sticks. After you get a good sized handful of these, place them in a small pile on the ground and then think of "matchstick-sized" sticks and collect a good couple handfuls of them (the strike-anywhere-Ohio-Blue-Tip-sized matches). Put these matchstick-sized pieces up against the sides of the toothpick bundle in a sloping format - ie. the toothpicks are horizontal, & the matchstick-sizes are piled vertically around them -- sort of like a teepee shape. Make sure to leave an "access hole" where you will be able to reach the toothpick sized sticks with your actual "one match." After this, think pencil-sized and get enough to surround the matchstick-sized ones . Again, though, do not stack the pencils over the access hole to the toothpicks. Then think double-pencil-diameter-sized and also get a bunch to surround the pencil sizes with. Continue with larger-sized diameter bunches - collecting one size diameter at a time. Put them on, in turn, around your teepee structure. Remember to leave the hole so you can reach into the toothpick sized ones with your match. Light and insert one match into the access hole you left - making sure the match makes contact with the toothpick-sized sticks. Prefereably you left them somewhat loose packed so the head of the match can actually be inserted, somewhat, into the bundle. Since they are smaller and catch so easily, they light. The heat from them naturally rises and gets hot enough, b/c of the amount of these smallest sticks, to ignite the match-stick sized sticks. in turn these ignite the pencil-sized etc. etc. This whole process can easily be done in 5-10 minutes depending on how big you want your fire to be. Especially where Hemlock trees are present b/c the small white, dead branches underneath (still connected) are excellent for fast collection of all sizes. I have taught a lot of people how to do this and used it in survival situations. Now, without matches is a whole different story! But once you get the technique down of that process also, then you can also do it!

last_decoy (author)2008-06-28

digging a hole would be a smashing idea. and did you know if you play your cards right. before you go off to sleep turn sone half burnt wood under the ash. next morning you will have a pile of ash or a ash hole. use a stick and dig. depending on your fuel, and weather. you will have burning embers (this is why you dont dig with ur hands) easy to start the morning fire from!

Sora_1_2 (author)last_decoy2008-09-28

-chuckle- I cant help but laugh at the word "Ash Hole"

nafango22 (author)2008-07-19

you dont want them to snap too easily though, thats a sign their rotten.

wethecom (author)2008-06-28

in cases of rain in the north east we break off the dead branches of a pine tree they are the easyest and dryest starter wood around here

Rishnai (author)2008-05-27

I second the ptoato idea. I've been known to build the potatoes right into the fire when I'm setting it. Right on the coals really is an efficient way to cook 'em.

Rishnai (author)2008-05-27

My dad and I have used maple bark that our tree drops as kind of long-burning briqutee in our barbeques for years! It really works, but they're tough to get to catch on fire at first. Boy, once they do, though... Great to see we're not the olny ones that do it that way!

smo (author)2008-02-21

Great instructable! I love the softer world take-offs, the last one in particular. :)

watermelon (author)2007-12-12

Don't do any of this in the National forests in Florida. The director issued an order in May that requires commercial equipment and bans any fire on the ground (except for forestry employees), even to cook meals. This order was to eliminate forest fires from campfires but after the order went into effect and the forestry employees started dousing campfires (and the food cooking on them) with chemicals and water and issuing tickets, guess what happened to the statistical probability that at least half of twice as many forest fires since May were caused by arson. Moral: Don't mess with people who need to cook food to eat and require then to have commercial equipment instead of just a hole in the ground or you will loose your forest.

Blackwolf (author)2007-09-11

Step ZERO really needs to be, "Dig a hole." Seriously. Even if you're just camping for one night, it's worth the effort. The fire will light easier, the fuel will last longer, you will have far less embers blowing around putting holes in your tent, among so many advantages. If you're backpacking you can get by with a lightweight folding shovel, but for truck camping we always brought a standard long-handled shovel, and sometimes a railroad pick.... Not to mention about 300 lbs of seasoned firewood. Your firepit can be from 2 to 4 feet across, and as deep as 1-1/2 feet. Mound up the soil in a ring around the edge. If some of your logs are green or wet, arrange them on a ledge of undisturbed ground inside the ring so that the fire can bake them, and before you know it they'll be ready to burn. Your food will cook more controllably with a firepit, because the heat is contained and concentrated. Instead of rigging up a tripod or something to elevate your pans, you can simply lay a couple of metal bars across the pit (or very green, very wet branches). When breaking camp, the responsible thing to do is to leave the site as much as possible the way you found it. With a pit, you merely shovel/scrape the soil back in the hole, leaving no ugly burned scar. With some foresight, you can leave it practically undetectable. For instance, if there's native plant growth, that top layer would be simply flipped over to form the bottom layer of the soil ring, with further excavation mounded onto it (pretty much protecting it from the heat). That bottom layer would go back on top when you're finished.

theque (author)2007-09-10

see thats why Washington, USA (where i live) is a weird place. There is a waterfront, forests, rainforest, desert, mountains,plains, we've basically got everything..

Legend (author)2007-08-21

You're in the desert... where do you live? I live in the UAE

prank (author)Legend2007-08-21

These pictures were from a trip down Mexico way, on the west coast of Baja. I live in LA. How are the deserts in the UAE? I love a good desert!

Legend (author)prank2007-08-30

Deserted!! Only kidding. Well we have steriotypical deserts - pure, smooth sand dunes that go on for miles, and single humped camels. Then there are differnet kinds of desert; a more rugged kind which has sand but desert trees and shrubs - I soppose this is easer to drive on, there are almost always tracks to follow and the ground is harder. You say you love a good desert... I love a good forest! Don't have any of them round here though. You can't do much bushcraft in the desert, compared to the forest. The desert is cool for camping in though, sitting around a campfire at night. There are too many places in the world today where you aren't allowed to have an open fire. At least you don't have to worry about bears in the desert!

DerangedMoose7 (author)2007-08-20

well first of all that 'house method' is called a log cabin. Built exactly how you would imagine, two parallel large sticks about 5" apart and then two more sticks going perpendicular to these sticks. Then you just build it up and place some kindling and tinder inside. also the method you teach is called the tepee, named after the Native American Housing Structures. This is a very fast burning fire, probably my favorite. Then there is the Lean-To, named after lean-to housing structures. For this you need a large log, then lay sticks at a 45 degree angle up to the log and place tinder and kindling underneath. Now if you want a fire burning from the top down (meaning rather slowly), build a log cabin. once that is finished place sticks side by side on the top of the log cabin and create a sort of roof. then build a tepee with kindling and tinder on top of that roof. When you light that tepee, it'll burn and fall on top of the roof which will then light that, and eventually get to the log cabin. but good job on a veryy thorough explanation of the tepee method. And an alternative to using paper in your fire (which you wouldn't need if it was built with bone-dry tinder, kindling, and sticks, you can get birch bark which actually burns longer, and hotter than paper but catches just as quickly. hoorayy camping skills!!

prank (author)DerangedMoose72007-08-20

Also, if you can't find birch bark (it's a wonderful oily papery bark, great for starting fires), really dry pine cones catch pretty well and burn for a while--they're actually designed to do just that. Discussions on which fire-building method is best remind me of being young and going on camping trips with Older Men who all sit around a campfire and debate the relative merits of teepees and log cabins while I impatiently wait, impaled marshmallows at the ready. In general, any way of stacking up kindling is fine. You want to allow airflow through the kindling and have a good way to add more logs without squishing the fire.

xsmurf (author)2007-08-20

If you're lucky your wood will have a good amount of bark. Take it all off, build your structure. I like the "house" method to start and it holds strong and use a combination of house and "tipi" when the fire is well started (house provides structure and tipi provides cover for wind and possibly rain). To come back to the bark, just place it under you structure and light it up, if your logs aren't that big and dry enough you won't even need kindler and twigs!

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Bio: Hi! I'm Star Simpson! I'm a real me! See more at []. photo by [ ... More »
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