On Camp: How to Start a Fire

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The thing about fire-building is that its a sexy skill. I’ve even included this awesome expertise on my dating profile. Yes, I’m so fantastic, I can build you a bonfire. We can roast marshmallows and talk about the stars. I’ve got romance down. (So why am I still single? The world may never know…) Anyway, I’m passing the torch. Start an awesome fire for the one you lust, and spend your evenings cuddled around it.

There are several important things you’ll need to get your fire crackling. First, a quick reference. Fire needs three important things to stay alive: oxygen, heat, and fuel. If your fire isn’t working, you’re probably missing one of these key components. If you’re missing fuel, find more! Just about anything burns, as long as its dry. And if your fire is hot enough, even the damp stuff will ignite. Heat is easy to solve. Matches, lighters, and magnesium strips will all bring flame to your pile of combustibles. Oxygen is probably the unsung hero of fire. After all, it doesn’t seem necessary. If you want to lose your flame, you blow your candle out, right? But fire needs to breathe. Make sure your flame has enough room, that there are levels in your fire, or you’ll end up snuffing it out. If you’re not comfortable putting your lips next to your campfire and physically blowing on it, take a thick chunk of newspaper, a clipboard, or even a trash can lid and fan the flames.

When setting up a fire, grab all of your necessary materials before you get started. There’s nothing so depressing as getting a flame, running off to the wood pile for supplies, and getting back to a smoking pile of ash. Grab your tinder, your kindling, and at least a few big fuel items before kneeling down over your campfire.

Tinder is the stuff that instantly combusts. It’s critical stuff because you can’t just set a twig on fire. Every fire-starter has their preference for good tinder. If you want to look ridiculous (I often do!), you can start a fire with Fritos. All of the oil in them produces a pretty awesome flame, and it smells delicious as well. Laundry lint is my personal favorite. Hair works, whether synthetic or real. Newspaper, last year’s tax returns, dry grass, and brittle dry leaves (make sure they crinkle when you crush them) are also good choices. Put your tinder in the center of your fire and pile up your kindling and fuel logs around it.

Kindling is as important as tinder because tinder won’t burn hot enough all on its own to heat up a thick log. Kindling is small wood — twigs, dry branches, or thin cuts off your large chunks of fire wood. Chopping kindling can potentially provide major props to your fire-starting sexiness. Make sure you do a few practice swings with the axe or hatchet so you don’t chop off your toe. Go for pieces that are small, no thicker than your thumb. The best method I’ve found for chopping wood is to take one good swing (with the grain of the wood), and get the blade stuck. Then just pick up the wood (stuck to your axe) and bang it against a hard surface (the ground, another log, a bench) until it splits. Tada! Now you’re a lumberjack.

Fuel requires very little advanced prep. When you’re starting out, stick to cut logs where the bark is stripped and you can see the “guts” of your tree. The stringier your wood grain, the easier it will be to light it. Elm and cedar are my favorites, but stick to wood that is local to your area to avoid spreading airborne diseases to living organisms. As your fire gets going, add larger fuels that take longer to burn. Don’t add too much too soon. Let the flames work. They’ll eat what you give them.

Build It
To get a good fire operational, use one of the following building methods: the log cabin, lean-to, or tipi.

The Log Cabin is my personal favorite. It’s easy to build up after your flames eat the understory. Put a couple of fuel logs parallel in your fire pit. Build kindling on top of the logs, just the way you’d build a Lincoln Log toy cabin. Put your tinder in the middle and light it. As your kindling burns, add fuel logs to keep it going.

The Lean-To method is harder to build up, but heats up your kindling more directly. Place one fuel log in the fire pit, and lean four or five pieces of thin kindling against it. Stuff tinder underneath the kindling and ignite it. As it burns, add more fuel. It may look more haphazard than the log cabin, but as long as its flaming, it’s good.

The Tipi method is great if your pit or surface is damp. Don’t leave fuels sitting in water or on damp ground. Water suppresses heat, taking away one of the key factors in successful fire. To build a tipi, lean three pieces of kindling over a pile of tinder. If the ground is wet, put the tinder on top of something else (like a few pieces of extra kindling). As the flames rise, they’ll ignite the kindling. It can be difficult to build on this fire, but one it’s going, add more fuel any way feasible.

Mastering fire-starting is all about practice. Try not to light your clothes on fire. Keep a suppression method around for safety (metal trash can lids or buckets of dirt are better options than a bucket of water). Don’t forget the marshmallows!


About the author
: Allison is a well-seasoned camp instructor, an outdoorswoman, and a fire enthusiast (read: pyromaniac). When not teaching kids to love the environment, she sets enormous fires on the prairies of Northern Illinois and pouts when she has to put them out. Allison lit herself on fire four times as a kid, and feels that any week where she doesn’t come home with her arm hair curly and singed is a week half-lived.

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I'm an environmental/outdoor educator and I live in Northern Illinois. :D

Allison has written 1 article for us.


  1. I’ve used the Frito in a pinch on a beach bonfire! Plus it totally MacGyvered me in the eyes of the other lovely ladies. But since I camp frequently, I collect the dryer lint and keep it in ziplocks in my pack (Because I’m that kind of dork).

    • Wow! I’m impressed. If you build me a fire, I will open your beer bottle with a cigarette lighter.

      • As I stand fire side drying off from having swum down to recover the beer bottles I will have chilled by anchoring them in a lake, fed by the melting snow water runoff? Yeah..We can do this!

      • things I’ve opened beer bottles with: lighter, fork, spoon, the very expensive wood table at my parents house (don’t!), my phone (don’t!), a folded up newspaper, another bottle of beer, a tree, my teeth (don’t!), cd case, chapstick
        I’d call it a hobby


    people who start fires always seem like magical gods or something, and i’ve never understood wtf i was supposed to do to achieve the same results. and then there was you! i think i could actually do this. i could actually make a fire! this is the first day of the rest of my life.

  3. I have to think up a new skill before camp.
    No girl will be impressed by my tipi-style fire-starting capabilities now that we’ve all learned how!

  4. I’ve never felt more proud than the first time I rubbed two sticks together and made fire.

      • Dude, if someone rubbed to sticks together and made a fire they would be my hero. Oh Digger, you always know just what to say to make me laugh.

      • The unfortunate part of making fire by rubbing sticks together was not being able to use my hands for days. But that’s why I have a mouth.

  5. I’m all about using lighters to start a fire. The last time I tried to start a campfire with matches, it took an entire box of matches to get the damn fire going.

  6. I love starting fires!

    Canadian pro tip: birch bark is the greatest tinder ever. That shit is CRAZY MAGICAL. Just don’t rip it off the tree; find it on the ground! Near birch trees! Also if you’ve got cotton balls and vaseline just coat the former in the latter and light! It’s like a candle.

    If it’s been raining, look for fallen trees because you’re more likely to find dry tinder underneath them. Also if you’re trying to start a fire in the rain, take a knife and whittle back little peels off your kindling, so they’re like little mini branches (like this: http://www.sogknivescollectors.com/attachments/Image/SOG_Creed/SOG_Creed_CD-01_fuzz_stick_(mistwalker-bladeforums).jpg); the tips will light easier and you’ll create more direct access to the drier wood inside the branch. If it’s been raining for days you’re probably fucked and should just bust out the stove.

    I can’t wait for camp.

  7. Wow, good to know fire starting is sexy (I’d mistakenly filed it in my “old-fashioned” skill set, with sheep shearing and hand sewing.)

  8. I love you all so much that I’ll share a picture of my face melting off. I CAN’T FUCKING WAIT FOR CAMP.

  9. Im huge on camping because it’s what I’ve done every summer, spring, and even the fall when I spend time with my dad in Colorado. I learned the frito thing from our buddies and I also learned to never say yes when someone asks “do you like seafood?” cause they’ll open their mouths with food inside and say “ha see my food” lol. I also liked burning stuff on the land I used to live on in Texas. I would place old cardboard boxes in a city type setting, walk through it, and set it ablaze. Lol I probably sound crazy now

      • Well what can I say, it’s fun playing with fire! I’ve grown up with nothing but brothers and we purposely buy extra rolls of firecrackers during New Years and 4th of July because we like adding them to whatever we burn. Nowadays, we don’t live on land but my uncle does and all I’m saying is, everyone needs to build a city out of cardboard boxes and wrap the city in rolls of firecrackers because that is the most entertaining thing to watch:)

  10. I think you should know that I started reading this when I was in the middle of getting a fire going. I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW HOW SEXY I WAS BEING.

  11. Guys, don’t start a fire with paper. It will create a bunch of smoke. Get out your pocket knife (I know you have one) and whittle a stick to create tinder. And on that note, be really fucking careful about where you pick up the firewood. Don’t burn something that was touching poison ivy or else you could be breathing it in and get it on your mouth (I’m not making this shit up…)

    I can start a fire with one match and no fire starters. Unfortunately, A-Camp might be the only place where this skill is sexy, and I am not going :(

    • I scrolled through all the comments looking for somebody to point out that burning paper is problematic. Props to you for knowing your fire safety, and for the bit about poison ivy. I do know someone who inhaled poison ivy and it was bad news bears.

      Also, burning leaves/pine needles is not okay either. Those little things can float away and cause wildfires. My camp was in a national forest (read: protected land) and they got on our asses about fire safety so we wouldn’t destroy it.

      • I’ve never had an issue with paper creating a crazy amount of smoke. I think leaves create more smoke than newspaper. And while I agree about the poison ivy, it’s never been much of an issue for me.

    • It’s also not good to breathe in the ink on paper. If you absolutely are stuck and have to used paper, use like, blank computer paper.

      And don’t dump the ashes in the woods! Even if you think they are out! Just put them in a trash bag and throw them away when you get home. It’s good fire safety and good Leave No Trace!

  12. being from wisconsin myself, I know how to build a fire, I don’t need this article, and I have come here only to complain that it wasn’t titled “to build a fire” in memory of Jack London.

    (sorry for the douchiness- it’s not often that wisconsinites get to brag about… anything.)

    • I have had some fine times in your state, even Milwaukee much to my surprise.

      Re Jack London: The best dog I ever had–I gave him ‘Buck’ as a middle name.

  13. This post is so great!! And camper or not, be sure to remove lint from your dryer to avoid bad indoor fire situations!

  14. This is great timing because I’m going camping and we want to have an awesome fire so we can make smores, burn bras and dance around like crazy people.

  15. When I was little we had a woodstove in our living room that functioned as the only heat in my house.
    Once my mom set 40 acres of forest on fire trying to burn a tentworm nest. That was special.

    I love campfires and bonfires so much you guys.
    But we need gelatin-free marshmallows for Camp :( Do they make those?

  16. “Tada! Now you’re a lumberjack.” I knew i owned lots of plaid for a reason! Besides the obvious one that is :p

  17. Yay, fire!

    I wish I was coming to A-Camp, so that I could show off my awesome flint-and-steel fire-lighting skills. I didn’t realize camping abilities were sexy to anyone but me.

    (I love the camp theme for this month, btw!)

  18. Woot for fire! When I was young, we often made camp fires when we would go up to my family’s cabin. I was always the wood gatherer and never got to actually start the fire (sucks being the second youngest of six kids). And I would be starting a lot more camp fires in my adulthood if basically all of Colorado didn’t have a fire ban for like the last ten years.

    Also, also…my most recent bonfire experience was at a beach on Lake Michigan. One of the best nights in recent memory. And I usually hate the beach. Perhaps it was all the whiskey/random cool people who joined us/great friends/smores/fire that made me ignore the face that I had sand in places I didn’t want sand.

  19. hey you forgot the most important step of fire-starting, which is obviously singing the chorus of “dancing in the dark” and playing air guitar with the kindling.

  20. the last time I went camping it rained and we had issues getting the fire going again in the morning, we didn’t have any dry tinder, so one of the girls got the bright idea to light a tampon on fire. Damn thing smoldered for a good hour.
    On another note, if my friends and I ever start a band, we will be known as The Flaming Tampons.

  21. I can make a fire with only one match. It was a requirement at summer camp. At least all-girls. christian summer camp taught me something that the ladies like . . .

  22. “And if your fire is hot enough, even the damp stuff will ignite.”

    And that’s how I set fiiiiireeeeee to the rain.

  23. Last time I was around a camp fire, the guys lighting it took over HALF AN HOUR TO GET IT LIT :( . Was a nightmare to not take over… Not that I think they would have let me as 4+ guys don’t really want a girl to light the fire for them, also I think they may have guessed that I like setting fire to things :D

  24. Excellent article!

    Due to my upbringing, I find flint and steel to be more rewarding than some modern methods. Then again, I also prefer pitching canvas tents with wooden posts and shooting flintlock rifles.

  25. I just want everyone to know I won a fire building contest at camp when I was 15 and it remains one of the best moments of my life.

  26. For the record, as soon as I saw the title of this I thought “Ask Digger, I’m sure firebuilding is in her skills set!”

    Really though, my dad is an excellent fire builder, and he’s taught me some things that come in handy! When I graduated from high school we had a huge party and burned a teacher’s desk to the tune of “School’s Out”…which was actually his idea. Also, it’s nice to see guys sulking after you start the fire they couldn’t get going ;) Thanks, dad!

    • I like fire..And things that go *BOOM*.. My Dad taught my brothers and I how to build Tennis Ball Mortars from potato chip cans. If Autostraddle ever has need of an article on “Backyard Ballistics”, I’m your girl!

  27. ZOMG, I can’t believe I actually remember this trick–for those of you in the military, or those of you with twisted culinary interests, the combat MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat)—have powdered creamer and peanut butter in them.

    Mix them together in a paste and slather it on some wood, that shit will catch fire fer rull. Be careful. (I have just topped my own threshold for random factoids. Must nap now.)

  28. This is awesome! I love to build fires! I actually teach fire building at the camp that I work at. After you learn to build fires, everyone is going to want to be your friend. Or more. ;)

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