How to Start a Campfire

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A weekend campsite just isn’t the same without a campfire. The bright orange and yellow flames dance around the firepit, emitting heat that keeps you warm and intrigued while you’re sitting under the stars enjoying a nice meal and a cold drink. Knowing how to start a campfire properly and efficiently can make you the life of the night, while proving you have wilderness survival skills.

While nearly everyone knows how to start a campfire, knowing how to build a campfire properly to emit the most heat and save the most camping firewood is a completely different story.

I’m sure you’ve sat around a campfire all night and burned through a few batches of costly firewood, thinking to yourself or saying aloud that it’s the worst firewood you’ve ever seen because it doesn’t burn long. I certainly have.

So let’s take a look at how to build, start and light a campfire to conserve camping firewood, get the campfire raging to a great level and keep it going with minimal effort!

Materials You’ll Need for Lighting a Fire

When it comes to how to start a campfire, the most important things involved are your materials. No matter which fire-starting method or different type of campfire you build, you’ll need dry materials. Searching for the following items in a wet environment will almost always result in a botched campfire, so try to get the driest materials you can find.

1. Tinder

Starting a campfire consists of getting a base of good tinder. Tinder is the material initially used to start the campfire, so it needs to be dry to work properly.

Tinder can consist of any natural materials from dry leaves, small twigs or sticks, pine needles or bark to manmade materials like paper, dryer lint, cotton balls and even potato chips. Yes, potato chips can successfully start a campfire.

You can also forgo tinder by using or making a fire starter, like cotton balls coated with petroleum or starter log kits sold at stores and on Amazon.

2. Kindling

Kindling is what gets the tinder’s fire to transfer to the larger logs you’d like to burn, which is what gets the campfire burning hotter. Kindling consists of small sticks that are about 0.5 to 1 inch round or wide.

You can create your own kindling from your camping irewood by shaving off a few pieces or cutting one piece into many small, long pieces of kindling.

3. Fuelwood

Fuelwood consists of the largest logs you’re building a campfire from. Whether you buy it from a local store or collect it yourself, having good fuelwood is the key for how to start a campfire.

4. Fire Starter

A fire started can consist of a lighter, matches, magnesium fire starter sticks (which I carry with me at all times for starting a campfire — camping and hiking) or two sticks and some friction if you want to go Bear Grylls on your camping trip.

How to Light a Campfire

Lighting a fire successfully requires dry tinder, kindling and fuelwood, as well as a fire-starter source like a lighter, matches or magnesium fire sticks. Light the tinder first, blowing on it to give it oxygen until it catches.

Next, place the tinder inside a makeshift pyramid made of small sticks, blowing on it again to give it oxygen and fuel the fire.

After it’s successfully burning, begin placing wood around the kindling and tinder — but don’t put too many pieces of firewood on too quick or you’ll cut off oxygen to the flame and kill the campfire. As the larger fuelwood starts to burn, you’ve got yourself a successful campfire!

7 Different Types of Campfires You Can Build

Knowing how to build a campfire using these seven different types of campfires will suit your camping needs, ranging from generating a heat source to cooking and general survival needs. Let’s take a look at the different types of campfires, each fire’s purpose and how long they typically last.

1. Teepee Campfire

The most common form of campfire is the Teepee fire. It consists of placing your tinder and kindling in the designated fire pit and surrounding it with logs sticking diagonally up from the ground, resembling the poles poking out of the top of a Teepee.

To build a Teepee campfire, it’s recommended to have about three to five logs surrounding the tinder and kindling, all touching at some point near the top.

Once you get the tinder and kindling lit, they will burn the inside of each log, carrying the flame to the top and creating a stellar campfire so sit around and roast marshmallows.

  • Best Uses: General campfire and roasting food on a stick
  • Duration of Campfire: 1 hour before extra logs need to be added

2. Log Cabin Campfire

The log cabin campfire is most common among campers who want a fire to last long but don’t necessarily want to tend to it all night. It will burn long (about six hours with larger logs) and it will burn slowly, creating a fire that’s great for warmth.

To build a log cabin campfire, simply place your largest two logs horizontally at the bottom. Place your tinder and kindling in between them and add two to three more logs on top, placing them in the opposite direction as the first level to create a log-cabin-type structure.

Place another two to three logs on top of those (running in the same direction as the two base logs), light the tinder and kindling at the bottom and enjoy this slow-burning, long-lasting campfire that gives off a lot of heat!

  • Best Uses: For campers who want long-lasting fires that give off great warmth and don’t have to be tended to much
  • Duration of Campfire: 6 hours with no extra logs added

3. Pyramid Campfire

The pyramid campfire is, essentially, the upside-down version of a log cabin campfire. Instead of putting the tinder and kindling on the bottom, you’ll place it on the top and let the fire burn to the bottom, where your biggest logs are located.

Start building a campfire pyramid by placing three to four of your largest logs on the bottom, facing the same way with no separation between each. Add two to three of your next-largest logs on top of those, angling them perpendicular to the bottom logs.

On top of those, you’ll add another layer of your smallest logs perpendicularly to the middle section. Place your tinder and kindling on top, light it and enjoy the long-lasting campfire that will burn from top to bottom and create hot heat for hours.

  • Best Uses: For campers who want long-lasting fires that give off great warmth and don’t have to be tended to much
  • Duration of Campfire: 6 hours with no extra logs added

4. Lean-To Campfire

The lean-to campfire gets its name from the one-sided tent that protects campers from high winds. A lean-to campfire can be used in high winds and utilizes a wall of logs to brace the fire’s source from the wind.

You’ll place your largest log at the bottom, laying tinder and kindling beside it in the direction the wind is coming from.

On the same side as the tinder and kindling, you’ll prop up three to four logs (or the length of the large log) perpendicularly on the log to protect it and your kindling and tinder from the wind. You should arrange the logs so that little to no wind is coming through.

After you’ve got it set up, light the tinder and kindling, blowing on it to create a fire. When the wall of logs starts to burn up, simply place more logs in the same spot to reinforce the wall.

  • Best Uses: Windy conditions
  • Duration of Campfire: 30 minutes until extra logs need to be added

5. Swedish Campfire (Canadian Candle)

The Swedish campfire, also known as the Canadian candle, is a great way to create an outdoor kitchen burner for cooking. It utilizes one batch of logs tied together with a metal wire or a section of a tree that’s been split into multiple sections at the top but is still attached at the bottom.

For the Canadian candle campfire (that’s more fun to say than Swedish campfire), you’ll need a part of a tree and an axe or a bundle of firewood and metal wire (while car camping, I typically use a metal wire because it’s easier than lugging around an axe).

If you have a bundle of firewood, place them together facing longways straight up from the ground to the sky. You’ll want the bark on the outside and the tip of the triangle to be facing the middle.

Tie your metal wire around the outside to keep them together, place your tinder and kindling on top, light it up and watch the wood burn from top to bottom and inside to outside.

If you’re going with a piece of a tree and an axe, chop the wood three-quarters of the way to the bottom (like you’re splitting wood), to create about five to six different portions (think of it like slicing a full pizza into smaller pieces because this is, essentially, what it should look like. Place your tinder and kindling on the top and let it burn!

  • Best Uses: Outdoor cooking over a campfire with pots and pans (not great as a heat source)
  • Duration of Campfire: 6 to 10 hours with no extra logs added

6. Star Campfire

A star campfire, also known as an Indian campfire, is typically used in primitive camping or for survival methods. But if you’re at a designated campsite and can build a firepit big enough, it’s a great campfire method to conserve wood and have a long-lasting campfire.

Start by arranging six to 10 pieces of wood in a star/asterisk formation (mimic it after the symbol in your cell phone’s dial pad [*] that’s directly under the number seven).

Place your tinder and kindling in the middle, light it and let the wood burn slowly from inside to outside. As each log burns, slowly push the log further into the ash pile to keep it going.

  • Best Uses: Primitive or survival methods
  • Duration of Campfire: 10 minutes until logs need to be adjusted

7. Keyhole Campfire

A keyhole campfire is, essentially, a Teepee, log cabin, pyramid or lean-to campfire that transfers heat from the source to a keyhole-shaped piece of firepit that’s used for cooking meals.

In this method, you get both the warmth from the fire and a nice cooking setup that cooks your food slowly and doesn’t burn the bottom of your pots and pans. Unless you’re cooking a meal or boiling water, you don’t need a keyhole campfire.

You’ll lay the base of the fire inside the firepit, open one side of the firepit and extend it as a square off to the side and place iron rods or some sort of metal over the square. When the fire gets going, place your pots and pans filled with uncooked food on the metal and let it cook!

  • Best Uses: Only needed if you’re cooking with pots and pans and don’t want them stained by the fire’s flame
  • Duration of Campfire: Depends on the four different types of campfires used as a base

Putting Out Your Campfire

After you’re finished enjoying your fire or when it burns to embers, you need to extinguish your campfire. Never go to sleep without properly putting out the campfire, as it could start forest fires and cause lots of unnecessary damage.

To extinguish your campfire, get a bucket or large jug of water, slowly pour it over the flames and hot coals at the base of the fire, gently stirring the coals as you pour to ensure water is reaching all of them

Once you think the fire is completely extinguished, place your hand about six inches about the coals (without touching them). If you feel heat, pour more water over the coals. If you don’t feel any heat, the campfire has been properly extinguished and you’re ready to call it a night!


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