If you didn’t grow up camping, you may be surprised to find out that starting a campfire isn’t as easy as it looks in the cartoons. (My daughter recently tried rubbing two sticks together, earnestly believing this would start a fire. Spoiler: It doesn’t work like that). But if you’re hoping to quickly get a fire going at your campsite, you also need more than just a lighter and a bundle of firewood.
What a campfire needs
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Let’s take a minute to look at how a campfire actually gets started, so we know what we’re trying to accomplish. Keep in mind that a log of wood won’t actually burn very easily. A flame alone won’t get it going; the wood also needs to be very hot before it will catch fire.
The smaller and thinner a piece of fuel is, the more easily it will catch fire. A piece of paper, for example, will burn instantly—but it will also burn itself out in as soon as a few seconds. The secret to starting a fire is to use quick-catching, quick-burning fuels like paper and twigs to heat up larger ones. Then the bigger logs can finally catch.
Once you finally get a log burning, you’re not done yet. Those first flames on a big log or two are what you use to get the next couple of logs burning. Once you get several logs hot enough to keep burning, the tall flames will die down, but the slow-smoldering logs and embers will remain. This is when the campfire is finally perfect for cooking food and roasting marshmallows. But you’ll never get there if you don’t build the fire well from the start.
How to start a campfire without a fire starter
I’ll talk about different kinds of fire starters in a minute, but first let’s consider the more traditional route: starting a fire without the aid of a store-bought starter. You’re going to start by collecting a few different types of fuel:
- Tinder: Faster-burning, smaller stuff, like crumpled newspaper, wood shavings, or a pile of dried leaves.
- Kindling: twigs and small sticks that can catch fire after they’ve been heated up by the previous layer.
- Slightly larger sticks, or split pieces of firewood that can catch fire next.
- And finally, your campfire logs.
I asked my husband, who honed his fire-building skills at nature camp as a kid, for the most straightforward version of this method. He recommends using an accordion-folded piece of paper as a simple tinder. (The accordion folds help to keep air flowing toward the fire.) I remember my dad starting fires with loosely crumpled newspaper, which works the same way.
How a fire starter helps you start a fire
Dry tinder and kindling work best in good weather, when it’s not too rainy or windy. And they require some practice. A fire starter, on the other hand, is more forgiving.
A fire starter usually has some tinder-like stuff that will catch fire easily, and some wax that burns for a long time and is a little more resistant to blowing out. It’s like a candle, but where a candle concentrates the flame into a single wick, a fire starter has fluff or shavings that spread the flames out across a larger area.
You can make a DIY fire starter by putting a few pinches of dryer lint into each cup of a paper egg carton, and then pouring some melted candle wax into each cup. Cut the cups apart, and each is a fire starter. You light the paper, and then the paper, lint, and wax burn together. They replace the tinder and some of the kindling in our earlier example. Or, accomplish much the same thing using a paper towel or toilet paper tube.
You still need to place the fire starter in between your logs, and it helps if you can use some larger kindling or smaller logs to get the fire started. I like to use fatwood as a bridge between a fire starter and my regular logs; it’s a type of wood that contains a lot of resin so it burns longer.
The best fire starters
- Fire starter bricks are made of sawdust and wax. They’re cheap, simple, and can be broken into pieces so you can start the fire in multiple spots, if you like.
- Duraflame cubes come in a plastic wrapper, and you actually light the wrapper to get them started.
- Natural or wooden fire starters have wood shavings or strips on the outside, and wax at the center.
- Fatwood can, in theory, start a fire by itself, but I’d still recommend using some paper or other tinder to get it going.
- Pull Start Fire is a fire starter that doesn’t require a match or lighter; you pull the string and it ignites.
All of the fire starters listed here will create a tall, hot flame that lasts for at least 10 minutes; some will last longer. (Pull Start Fire says it lasts 30 minutes; I tried one out and found that it worked well, but I didn’t think to time it.) While the fire starter is burning, make sure you’re putting the flames to good use. I like to put two logs parallel to each other on either side of the fire starter, and one log over the top—ideally a bit to the side of the starter, where it can absorb heat without smothering the baby fire.
Putting it all together, or the lazy way to start a fire
The below method isn’t the way to make the best, largest fire, but it is a way to start a perfectly serviceable small fire for roasting marshmallows or sitting around while sipping a beer. Once it’s going, you can feed in more logs to make a larger fire. But we’re learning the lazy way here, and this will do the job.
What you need to build your campfire
- A fire starter: one of the products above, or the DIY dryer lint kind; they’re all good honestly.
- A long-handled lighter (unless you’re using the one with a pull string, but I’d probably still bring a lighter as a backup).
- Three or more campfire logs. Buy these locally, to avoid carrying pests from one area to another.
- Optional: miscellaneous small sticks or other flammable items (used paper plates from lunch are perfect).
- Optional but highly recommended: a poker. If you don’t have a metal poker, find a sturdy stick and keep it out of the campfire. That’s your poking stick. This is how you’ll move logs around once the fire is lit.
How to build your campfire
Now, find the fire ring at your campsite. Assemble the fire like so:
- Lay two logs parallel, about 4 inches apart from each other.
- Place the fire starter in between them, not in the center but slightly toward one end.
- Light the fire starter.
- Once the fire starter is burning bright, add your sticks or rolled-up paper plates on top of it or just to the side. Use the poker to separate the two parallel logs if you need more space.
- Add a third log on top of, or next to, the fire starter and kindling. You want this log to start heating up, too.
- Once the fire starter has burned out, the logs should already be burning nicely. Add a fourth log if desired (I go for a square, log cabin style structure).
- Rearrange as needed, always making sure that new logs are being warmed up by the currently-burning logs, and that there’s plenty of room for air flow rather than crowding everything together.
If you’re a total beginner, bring extra fire starters—better to restart a fire than to sit around in the dark because you couldn’t get keep your first attempt going. There’s no prize for building the most pure, correct fire: Just light your store-bought starters, feed the flames with as many paper plates and Doritos as you need to, and eventually the logs will get hot enough to allow you to toast some marshmallows.