Your life may depend on knowing how to start a campfire one day soon. (Whether you’re a pyro who compulsively has to flick a lighter just to see the flame… or whether you could care less about fire.)
If you do anything to prepare for the future, this one skill could be the most fun and useful you’ll ever learn.
It’s just sad how many people depend on pressing the button on their stove or heater to get flames or heat.
Murphy’s Law says when you need a fire the most, it’ll be the hardest to start one.
So keep reading. You’ll be happy to know this article prepares you to overcome this very challenge.
In fact, you’ll be armed with twelve ways to build a fire.
Why 12 ways?
Any old kind of fire can give you some benefit. But there are definite advantages to knowing as many campfire-building techniques as you can.
You’ll find headlines on the internet like “The Only [small number] Kinds of Campfire You’ll Ever Need.” Baloney! You need to learn all the different kinds. Again, why?
You need to know…
Now there’s not just one kind of fire that’s best for each of these 7. All campfire designs have pro’s and con’s. But when you learn them all, you can make the decisions that will keep you alive when you really need a fire.
When you absorb all the tips and tricks here to make these techniques easier and faster for you… you’ll be far more equipped to survive.
Here you’ll also learn how to make sparks. Plus some tiny, lightweight gear and tools to make fire starting so much quicker.
Finally, you’ll discover an irresistible, fun way to build these skills.
Be sure to check out these reliable fire-building techniques too.
Building a fire is so much easier when you don’t have to worry about the wind. Even a gentle breeze can snuff out your efforts if you don’t know this trick:
Protect your fire from the wind. In this case, we use a large log to protect your fire.
First, figure out which way the wind is blowing.
For example, let’s say the wind is blowing from the north. In this case, you want to build your fire on the south (opposite) side of a big log. A nice big log about 1-foot diameter or bigger is ideal, but one that’s a bit smaller will still work. In fact, you could also use a large stone as a wind break.
On the side of the log protected from the wind, put your tinder and kindling. Lean larger sticks over the log (or stone) as shown in the photo here. Read on to learn more about tinder and kindling further below.
This type of fire was a favorite of the late Gene Ward, air force and wilderness survival instructor. This fire is super easy to build and even better than the lean-to for windy weather, since it protects your fire on two sides.
There’s no need to have any saw or axe with this type of campfire. Just find two dry broken sticks (or break them yourself.) The sticks should be about as big around as your arm. And about as long as from the tip of your fingers to your elbow. (No need to be exact with the size here though.) And of course, this fire works if the two sticks are dry and burn easily.
Place the sticks in a V shape and put your tinder and a bit of kindling inside the V shape. And just like the lean-to campfire, you want to arrange the “V” so that your tinder and fire is protected from the wind.
This is one of the easiest kinds of fires to build. It makes a lot of warmth and is great for cooking.
Simply place your kindling on the ground with tinder on top of it. Then lean logs and sticks against each other vertically around and over the kindling – in the shape of a pyramid or teepee.
Start your fire using tinder on the side of the teepee opposite the wind, so that the fire has some protection when it’s just getting started.
Remember though, after the fire gets burning… leaning logs will fall as they burn. And sometimes they fall away from the center of the fire. As with any fire, make sure you’re careful not to get too close. Just keep your marshmallows on a long enough stick!
Instead of the smallest tinder and kindling on the bottom as usual, the largest pieces go on the bottom and the smallest go on the top.
Build this kind of campfire before you go to sleep. Why? It will burn much longer and give off more heat longer – before it needs more fuel.
Anyone who’s had to sleep outside in the cold and relied on a campfire for warmth will tell you… It’s not fun waking up to a fire that’s (almost) burned itself out! And it can be exhausting to have to keep waking up and adding fuel to the fire every couple hours… all night. So stack your campfire this way – it will let you get more sleep.
Simply stack the largest logs flat in one layer on the bottom. Then crisscross layers, with progressively smaller pieces as you build toward the top.
Wouldn’t this kind of fire just go out when it burns down toward the larger logs? Surprise, it doesn’t. Heat radiates from the flames equally in all directions – including down. So the fire is plenty hot enough to keep burning as it reaches the bigger pieces.
If you really need a good night’s sleep and a dependable fire… the self feeding campfire is the best.
However, looking at the picture, you’ll see it’s an advanced technique that requires some tools and real effort to build. I’d recommend you practice this one a few times before you’d need to depend on it.
In fact, I wouldn’t spend the energy to build this in the wild, in a survival situation, unless you’ve got a group of people to keep warm. Plus you’ve got the time and energy and your food supply is not a question.
The payoff? A fire that can put out lots of heat and (if you build it right) last about 15 hours without adding more effort.
You’ll need a good saw and/or axe. Plus some cordage to tie the frame together. Along with a digging tool, such as a small shovel (or even a stone, in a pinch.)
Build the frame by using cord and knots to lash sturdy forked logs as shown to fairly straight, green (not dry wood, but from a live tree), small logs about 4 feet long and about as big around as your arm. Note that the “V” shape of the frame allows the big logs in the center to touch the ground. So the logs that make the “V” do not touch at the bottom of the V shape.
Also note that the ground is hollowed out into a small trench between the two big center logs at the bottom of the “V”. This allows more air flow to help get the fire started.
You’ll also see the two smaller, green (not dry) spacer logs sticking up at the bottom of the “V” between the two center logs. These allow enough room to put tinder and kindling between those two big center logs.
A hot, well-established fire will eventually burn those two big center logs, and the next logs above them in the “V” will fall down and start burning. As long as you have a steep enough angle on your “V” shape. It’s also important that your big logs are dry, seasoned wood from dead trees.
The star campfire, or “Indian fire,” as often seen in those Western movies, also burns slowly. It does require a bit of maintenance though. You must push each log toward the center as the fire burns up that end of the logs.
This fire does not put out a lot of heat. But a little is always better than nothing. The real advantage of this fire? It’s great when you have very little wood for fuel.
Cowboys and Native Americans didn’t always find tons of trees growing all over the desert. You might not either when you need a fire.
Just place 5 logs on the ground in a star shape, as shown above. Place your kindling and tinder in the center of the star and set it on fire.
The fire bed might be your ultimate weapon for sleeping in warmth on cold nights.
You see, all the other fire methods above for sleeping have a serious drawback… You must sleep close enough to the fire to stay warm.
But the fire can always spit flaming embers on you without warning.
This is a difficult problem. Some people simply say don’t build a fire and just depend on your sleeping bag. I doubt they’ve ever had to stay overnight in really cold weather. And what if you don’t have a sleeping bag with you?
Oak and ash wood won’t spit embers as much as pine, spruce or hedge. But what if you can’t find the right wood?
A wool blanket does fairly well at extinguishing sparks. But stay away from the polyester stuff – it will simply melt and let the ember burn you. But what if you don’t have a wool blanket in your survival situation?
Build a fire bed.
Choose a spot with no overhanging tree limbs or lots of leaves and ground clutter. These can accidentally catch fire while you’re preparing the bed. You also don’t want wet ground or an area with big tree roots.
There’s a rule called 8-2-4 (not 9 to 5) when building fire beds. What does this rule mean?
Dig 8, burn 2, cover 4.
Eight inches is approximately the length between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your pinky finger when your hand is fully open. Four inches is approximately the length of your index finger.
How wide and long should the hole for the fire bed be? Digging takes lots of energy. Just do what’s right for your situation – depending on your food, energy and time. Burning all your calories when you don’t have food is foolish. So is getting sweaty when the weather is freezing cold.
Your fire bed will radiate heat outward about 18″ beyond the size of the hole. This means a hole that’s only a foot wide and about as long as you are tall… will be more than enough. A smaller (but 8″ deep) hole is okay too.
Choose small stones from the ground. Not ones from a creek bed or those often underwater. Some rain on the rocks is ok. But heating stones with water inside the rock can make them explode.
You want stones all about the same size. About as big as your fist. No great big ones. And don’t cover the bottom of the hole with stones. Leave about an inch between stones. You want lots of air flow so your fire burns as hot as possible.
In fact, you might use a cooking fire. (More on these in a bit.) Of course, you don’t want a bonfire built tall. You just want a short, hot fire that burns 2 hours long.
Once the fire is burning well, start spreading the coals around. You want to cover the whole layer of stones. Otherwise you’ll have hot and cold spots.
After 2+ hours, cover the fire with dirt. After adding 4″ of dirt, carefully test all over the fire bed area by poking your finger in the dirt about 3 inches deep.
Or you might want to use gloves or a small stick to make a hole in the dirt. Unless you like jamming dirt under your fingernails. And burning your fingers.
Find a spot that feels too hot?, Add another inch to your layer of dirt.
Now, test how long it takes for the surface of the bed to warm up. If the top of the dirt seems warm after 30 minutes, add another inch of dirt. You want the dirt warming up after about an hour. This means the bed can release heat slowly enough to keep you warm all night.
Oh, and Just in case… Add another thin layer of tree boughs or branches. As you sleep, you roll from side to side. All too often, this means you accidentally dig into that layer of dirt and get too close to the hot coals. Ouch!
Adding an extra layer of boughs just might keep you from burning your behind.
How well does a fire bed work? Some survival experts, (who build them often), claim that with a tarp overhead, you can stay about 75 degrees when the weather is as cold as minus ten.
This fire lay allows a lot more air to reach the fire. This means a fire that gives off lots of heat.
It’s great for cooking or making a great bed of coals, such as for the fire bed above.
Also called a crisscross fire, notice how the logs are stacked with each layer crisscrossed over the layer below it, like Lincoln Logs.
Notice smaller sticks (about as big around as your thumb) are placed in the center of each layer, with the two larger logs on the outside of each layer. The two largest logs are on the bottom layer. Place your kindling and tinder in the center of the structure on this bottom layer. You can make a top layer of all medium sized logs.
Some will make a trench in the soil under the center of the bottom layer. The logs in the bottom layer are stacked so the wind can enter the bottom layer and help strengthen the fire. The trench also is parallel to the bottom large logs, further allowing more air to accelerate the fire.
For a hotter fire, try to use logs from standing dead wood, not wood lying around on the ground. To make less smoke and even more heat, remove the bark from all the logs/sticks.
If you’re in wet weather, you can shave the bark and outer wet layer off each of the sticks so that you are using the dry core of the sticks.
This is simply a fire built between two logs of about the same size. It’s very convenient for resting cookware on top.
However, just plopping down two logs and trying to build a fire between them that’s hot enough to cook with… well that might be a problem.
So, you might start with the log cabin campfire. Then when you get hot enough coals, shove the two logs in place. Add some more kindling and fuel. Now you have a nice parallel cooking fire.
Lay your fire like this to overcome wet ground.
Bundle together some dry fuel logs with cord or vines. Place your tinder and kindling on top and light it.
As the fire burns downward, it should be plenty hot enough when the fire meets the wet ground.
Add a reflector to just about any kind of campfire. Done right, it can really keep you warmer. But…
The illustration above is a common myth. This is how many outdoors and survival instructions tell you to build a reflector. Wrong! Why is that?
Because this little wooden structure on the opposite side of the fire from you – takes effort to build, but will hardly help you at all. Sure, it might be a tiny wind break or a tiny help in channeling the smoke. But it doesn’t really reflect heat. And that’s what a real reflector is supposed to do.
Of course, if you have a space blanket or a large piece of something that does reflect heat, like aluminum foil, that might work a tiny bit better than the wooden structure.
You can improve its performance by placing the reflective material close and behind you. Put yourself between the fire and the reflector. That way you’re close to the reflector and it can bounce heat back at you. But if you really need that kind of warmth and you have a space blanket, why not just huddle in the blanket?
Rock can absorb heat and then radiate it outward. This can work like a reflector is supposed to, and keep you warmer.
Just be careful about heating rock that hangs overhead. Or rock that has water trapped inside it. You don’t need any avalanches, explosions or injuries.
Always keep an eye on an active fire near rock until you are absolutely sure the rock is thoroughly heated through, it’s dry inside, and won’t crack and explode while you’re sleeping.
After you heat the rock, as shown in the picture above and described here, sleeping near the heated rock can really help keep you warm.
This smokeless fire pit is a great choice when you are hiding, or there’s a lot of wind and you want to protect the fire.
A campfire of this kind produces almost no smoke or light.
Start by digging two holes about 12″ deep in ground that’s dry enough to hold its shape. Dig the large hole 8-14″ wide and the smaller hole 6-8″ wide. As shown, create the larger hole downwind from the smaller hole.
Make sure each hole is about 10″ apart, measuring from rim to rim. (You don’t want the holes too close: a collapse between the holes can ruin your campfire.) Connect the holes at the bottom with about a 4″ diameter tunnel.
Build a small fire in the larger hole. The air flow from the smaller hole will keep the fire burning, and nearly smokeless, even if the larger hole is almost entirely covered, such as with the logs and cook pan, as shown here.
Increase your stealth by building this campfire near a tree. This will further help hide any small puff of smoke that escapes from the fire.
When you’re first starting to build a campfire, you know your fire will not look like this. Whether you’re an expert or a beginner.
Fires never begin strong enough or hot enough to eat up large logs.
A fire is born only when a few sparks (or only one, or even just enough heat) meets tinder – the stuff that’s easiest to burst into flame.
Without a way to make sparks or heat, and without tinder, building fires can be really, really hard. Even for experts. Add in cold or wet weather and it gets nearly impossible.
And you also need kindling to get a lonely little flame to become any kind of useful fire.
Remember how this article started out? How most people only know how to press a button or turn a knob to get fire? Or maybe flick a lighter? Or use some lighter fluid?
If you only know how to do these things… you just may NOT survive if you ever find yourself in an emergency.
Yet with only some simple preparation and maybe a few dollars, you can GREATLY increase your chances of surviving, and even have a measure of comfort in a dire, unexpected situation.
And these kind of situations (floods, weather, riots or anything that can kick you out of your home and send you running) seem to be getting more and more common.
Only a fool would say, “Oh, hey, it’s getting dark and cold. I’d better look for some tinder and kindling!”
Chances are very high they won’t find it!
Yes, you can carry knowledge. But people who know… also carry at least some tinder and something to ignite it.
It’s true, you can find and gather tinder in the woods as you walk. But this assumes a lot. Will your survival situation happen in the woods? And also during the day when you can find stuff? And also when the weather is dry?
I’m not the kind of person who would bet my last dollars on rolling dice and getting all sixes. You’re probably not either.
That’s why you need at least a go bag, and even better, an additional get home bag in your car. This way, lifesaving essentials are within your reach to grab when bad stuff happens.
Another thing about rolling all sixes with the dice… do all emergencies only last for 3 days before the rescue helicopter arrives?
Dumb question, right?
But how many websites tell you to be sure to stock up for a 3-day emergency?
Maybe that’s why people think of things short term – like Bic lighters and matches. Sure, these are great tools for doing the job. And back in the old days, that’s all we had.
But what if your emergency lasts longer than 3 days? Or what if you packed 5 matches and you’ve used up 4? Or that lighter leaked out most of its fluid because the button accidentally got pushed by something in your backpack? Or you simply used the lighter up building a few fires?
That’s why modern survival experts recommend and use an electronic lighter (plus a small solar charger). Or a ferro rod plus a small knife. These items just can’t be beat:
You could build a thousand fires with these tools if you needed to.
Personally, my survival bags are stocked with all of the above.
You see, there’s a rule about survival: two is really one, and one is really none… in the woods. This means you should ALWAYS carry a backup for the really critical stuff, like your tools for fire-making.
Here’s the USB lighter I use. So simple. Just push the button and you get a small electrical plasma arc that works like the flame from a regular lighter. So dependable and there’s no lighter fluid to leak out. And I can start quite a few fires before it’s ready to be charged. I keep it charged with this small but powerful solar charger.
I also carry a ferro rod for backup. These ferro rods are great because you get 3 of them. Split them between your survival bags or your people. And just like the USB lighter, the bright colored handle makes them harder to lose.
You need a striker to make sparks with the ferro rod.
Cheap ferro rods often come with a cheap striker that doesn’t work well at all. It’s far better to use a knife for your striker.
The very best striker is a fixed-blade survival knife with a 90-degree edge on its spine. Or your multi-tool, provided that the blades lock for safety. That’s why I always carry my Leatherman Wave multi-tool.
You scrape the striker against the ferro rod to make the sparks. (Or rather you scrape the ferro rod against the striker. More on that in a minute.)
For the striker, use the back of a knife blade or the saw blade on your multi-tool. Never use your blade as a striker. This will quickly make it dull. In a survival situation, you especially need to keep from dulling any knife blades you have.
You want sparks to land on your tinder. So place your striker near and above the tinder. Place your ferro rod at about a 45-degree angle.
This means halfway between straight up vertical and flat horizontal. The end of the rod should almost be touching the tinder.
Pull the rod back toward you, scraping it against your striker. You want a longer scrape that’s most of the length of the rod. Not short quick jerks or scrapes. And you don’t have to press really hard.
Actually, you should practice this a number of times in a safe place. Don’t just buy a ferro rod, throw it in your pack and hope you can figure it out when you need to!
And practicing can be fun. You’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment when you start your first fire with sparks from a ferro rod.
If you have tinder fungus like this growing near you, go ahead and grab some. You can break these tree mushrooms apart when you need a fire: they make fantastic tinder.
Don’t have any of these nearby? I don’t either.
You could always…
Grab a handful of dryer lint and dab a few drops of high-alcohol hand sanitizer on them. That works pretty well.
Or you could soak cotton balls in petroleum jelly.
Or you could grab some dry tree bark and shred it.
These options are messy, though, and I don’t use them.
I don’t take chances with my tinder. I have TinderQuik, which is awesome for starting fires. It’s like the ultimate juiced-up cotton ball. You get a whole pile of these in a bag. Frizz up a couple of these and start up a rip roaring fire while you laugh at the bad weather.
I also carry a stick of fatwood. I love this stuff! What is fatwood? It’s pine wood with the resin (that burns about like gasoline!)
Just use your knife to cut off a small pile of fine shavings. This makes powerful tinder. Land a spark on one of these smaller shavings and you have an instant flame that burns hotter and longer than many other kinds of tinder. And one of these fatwood sticks will give you tinder for many fires.
You can learn so many principles about building a campfire… from grilling.
That’s right, your backyard barbeque grill can help you get prepared for survival.
Well, the truth is, there are some kinds of grilling equipment that will help you. Gas grills will not help so much. After all, you just turn the knob and light the burner. Now I’m sure there are a lot of people who will argue loudly that gas is better because it may give you consistent, even heat for cooking… but we’re talking about learning to build campfires here.
Even with charcoal grills, some will help you learn more than others. Really small cheap grills (usually in the $20 to $60 range) can’t help much because you can’t really put enough charcoal in them to get real heat for cooking. But you don’t need a huge cooker that costs hundreds or thousands either.
The best grill for learning? The Original Weber 22″ Charcoal Kettle Grill. It will do everything you need for BBQ, smoking meat, you name it.
Some grill masters swear it’s better than those thousand dollar grills. I can tell you from experience, it’s easier to use than a number of other grills I’ve owned. And the flavor is far better. Amazing flavor, in fact. But…
How is this grill the best to help you learn about starting campfires?
First of all, it’s big enough to put enough charcoal in so you get blazing heat. Like 500 degrees or more. You need practice making a fire that really works – for cooking, heating or whatever.
Second, charcoal acts like real coals in a fire. There will be hot and cool spots. Bunch them up or spread them out, it’s all under your control. When you learn to cook with coals, you learn so much about managing a campfire.
Now let’s talk about something super important to grilling and campfire skills:
Use a chimney fire starter, NOT lighter fluid to start your grilling.
How likely are you to have a can of gasoline or a bottle of lighter fluid…in a survival situation? Okay, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t use them with your grill at home.
Get a chimney fire starter like this. It will teach you about lighting tinder and how much tinder to use. Plus you can practice using your USB lighter or ferro rod to start the fire.
How do you use the chimney? Wad up several pieces of newspaper, advertisements, or paper bags, etc… and put them in the bottom part of the chimney. See those vertical slots at the bottom in the picture above? That’s where the paper (tinder) goes. You can even have a piece of the paper sticking out of those slots so you can easily reach it with your lighter.
For most grilling, you only need to fill the chimney about 3/4 full of charcoal. But for a really hot fire, like you need to sear steaks or salmon, go ahead and fill the chimney all the way full.
Then go ahead and light your tinder.
Watch your chimney for a couple minutes to make sure the charcoal actually gets started. When you see flames in the bottom and a bit of smoke coming out the top, that’s a great sign you’ve got the fire started.
The Weber grill actually has two gratings. The larger top one for grilling your food and the smaller bottom one for holding the charcoal. Note in the picture how you can remove the top grating and set the chimney right on the bottom grating.
Now that you’ve got the charcoal started, count about 15 minutes. This is the time it takes for your charcoal to get nice and hot.
How do you know your charcoal is ready? It should have some white ash on each piece of charcoal at the top of the charcoal pile in your chimney.
Now that the charcoal has some white ash (it’s “activated”) go ahead and use the metal bale and the handle on the chimney to pour the charcoal onto the bottom grating of your grill. Just for safety, you might want to use gloves to do this.
When you pour, don’t spread the coals around. Keep them in a pile on one side of the grating only. This makes a hotter fire and gives you an area for searing and another area for regular cooking.
With the hot coals on the lower grating, go ahead and place the upper grating back in the grill. Put the lid on and let the grill heat for about another 10-15 minutes.
Now your grill is hot and ready to cook with.
Your Weber grill comes with a free app, (just register with your email,) that tells you all the temperatures and cook times for all the foods. If you want to make less mistakes, you might also want to get a thermometer for the grill and a meat thermometer. These are the ones I use.
Why grilling? Because as a newbie, you will make mistakes! You’ll burn food. You’ll undercook food. And many times this will be because of a mistake in managing the fire and heat. As you get better at grilling, you gain more campfire skills.
Fire can be your best friend in an emergency. The worst thing you can do is put off preparing until later. Do something today to get yourself ready for crisis. Anything, even something small. And then do something every day to get yourself ready.
This is a small investment with a huge payoff. Turn your fire learning time into play time. If you don’t have a backyard, find a woodsy area nearby you can use to learn.
Let me know how your preparations are going. And please share this info with others. There are still a few more people out there who need to get prepared.
Too many people search for “how to start a campfire”. Yet most of them have never thought of what it takes to keep their fire going. Now you’re armed to do both. Go forth and conquer!