Intro: Building Campfires the Right Way (without Fire Starters or Dangerous Accelerants)
Fire building is an art. Sometimes you may find yourself in a situation without a convenient fire starter, and you will need to find flammable materials from your environment. It may take a little more work, but creating fire from the natural elements is very rewarding.
Step 1: Finding a Location
Where you build your fire is going to be largely dependent on your environment and the purpose of your campfire. Typically, you will want to find a location that is flat, dry, has no overhanging foliage, and is close enough to your tent, cooking area, etc. so that it is functional but not so close that it is hazardous. Fire is dangerous and it is important to build your fire in a location where you will be able to control it.
Tip: if it has rained recently and there is no dry place to put your fire, you can make a dry base by laying dry small to medium sizes sticks next to each other on the ground.
Step 2: Collecting Materials
When starting a fire, helping it catch, and keeping it lit (yes it does require more attention than just lighting a match), you will be most successful if you prepared well. This means you need to have an adequate amount of each type of fuel. When you are searching for all types of fuel, you need to find wood and other plant materials that are dry and dead. Wet wood does not burn, and if it’s green (recently cut down and still flexible) it’s still full of water and won’t burn. Dry wood will snap easily. When you stockpile your fuel, group different sizes of wood together and get more than you think you will need.
Tip: if it has rained recently it can be difficult to find dry campfire materials on the ground. Dead branches that are hanging in the trees stay much dryer than those on the ground do. Sometimes dead tree branches are still connected to the tree. These are easy to break off and can be great kindling.
This is principally the most important part of your fire. You will not be able to start your fire if you do have not good tinder or enough of it. Good tinder is usually some type of straw, sawdust, or other dry dead plant product. It is important that your tinder is small and has been broken or pulled apart to some extent so that it has a large surface area. This allows it to catch easily and burn quickly so that it can spread to your larger fuel. If you are unable to find some good tinder like dry grass or dead pine needles wherever you are, you can make it from larger pieces of wood using a pocketknife, saw, or any other wood tool. Small wood shavings or saw dust burn easily and can potentially ignite with only sparks. Always get more tinder than you think you will need. Getting kindling lit can be more difficult than you anticipate.
There are different types of kindling. These range from very small to medium-large sticks. Their size refers to their girth. You will need to get a fair amount of each size. Smaller sticks that come in contact with your tinder should be as thin as a golf tee if not thinner. This size helps transition from small flames to burning big sticks and logs. Get plenty of them. For the most part smaller sticks will only be used when your fire is lit, but they can help to bolster the flame once your fire has stable coals.
Depending on how long you want your fire to burn, it is necessary to find large sticks and logs that will burn for long periods.
Step 3: Assembling Your Fire
Now that you have collected all this wood, you need to start planning how you will build the fire. There are two approaches: put all wood in place ahead of time, or place wood as the fire burns. Both methods have their benefits.
Building Structure: requires minimal effort once lit, lights larger fuel more quickly
Placing as Fire Burns: easier to manipulate fire, easier to manipulate fire, easier to start over if flames go out
Either way, you will follow the same steps. Place all wood close to your fire (but not so close that it could catch) grouped by size so that you can easily access it while you are building/adding to the fire.
Place the tinder. Fire burns up, so you will start out placing your tinder at the bottom. When you are building the fire, keep in mind that fire requires a source of ignition and air to burn. It is important to make sure your tinder is close enough so that the flames will travel through tinder, but there is enough spacing for air to flow. You will follow this principle as you place more wood on the fire. Tightly packing sticks over a flame can smother the fire and put it out. If you intend to build the entire structure before you light the fire, make sure you leave an opening at the base to light the tinder.
Add small kindling. Lay the thin sticks over top of the tinder without crushing it or closing off airflow. These sticks do not normally have enough mass to crush your tinder but there are ways you can elevate this kindling so that it does not directly touch the tinder (increasing airflow). You can make a lean-to over the tinder by placing a log next to it. Using two parallel logs allows you to make a kindling roof over the tinder. If you have a stick with forked branching, you can make a teepee over the tinder just using kindling. Whatever you decide to do, make sure the kindling is over top of the tinder and you have enough space for airflow.
Adding larger kindling and logs. You can gradually add larger and larger sticks to your fire as you get further away from the tinder. Continue to space them for airflow and place them above the flame so that they will catch. Thicker wood is heavier and could potentially collapse on your fire, putting it out. When you place big sticks and logs be aware of the strength of the structure underneath them. Eventually the structure will burn through and the fire will collapse, but if you place your logs well they will not smother the fire.
Step 4: Lighting the Fire
Now that you have prepared and developed a strategy for building this fire, you are ready to light it. Whether you decide to use a lighter, matches, or reusable flint and steel, you need to know how to use your source of ignition well so that you do not waste it. It should not take more than one match to light a fire. When using matches, strike the match head on the lighting strip close to your tinder. Hold the match slightly inverted and cover it with you hand so that it does not blow out. Light your tinder in one or several places, and then leave the burning match in the fire.
If your fire goes out, get more tinder and go back to step 3. Lighting the fire is the hardest part and if you have not prepared well then you may have to do this several times.
Step 5: Maintaining the Fire
Your fire is stable and you need to keep it going. This is the point when hot coals have formed in the center of your fire. If you want your fire to grow then add logs and some kindling to help the logs catch. Be careful, if you add a lot of wood to the fire all at once, it can get out of control or burn so quickly that you will not be able to sustain it. One log can burn for hours if you have hot coals and you are not burning lots of wood at once. Tend to the fire and add wood to fulfill your purpose. It is easier to maintain a small hot fire than starting a new one.
Step 6: Putting Out the Fire
At some point, you will no longer need a fire and it is very important that you put it out. Leaving an unattended campfire is irresponsible and can lead to forest fires. Use a shovel or a large stick to spread the fire apart, dispersing the hot coals. Then slowly and methodically pour water on the fire to put out the remaining coals. This will produce steam and it may do so for a while because the fire was so hot. This is not smoke and it does not indicate the fire is still burning. Once you are satisfied that the remains of your fire do not pose a threat you are free to go on your way.