Around the campfire: Classic and creative ways to make a campfire
Fire is crucial to outdoor survival. In the absence of electricity, it’s the best way to create safe and appetizing meals and stay warm in the wild. In this chapter, we’ll walk you through the must-know tips for making and using a campfire, from classic friction techniques to constructing a teepee-style fire as a long-lasting heat source. You’ll also learn how to use household and outdoor materials to create your own kindling and tinder—whether for cooking meals or keeping yourself warm.
1. Collect Firewood
What to collect and where to find it
Photo by Kaarina DillaboughRemoval of dead, insect-infested and diseased timber, along with downed wood on the forest floor aids in forest conservation and management by removing would-be fuel for wildfires. In most National Parks, you are required to use firewood collected from the park because bringing wood from outside the park increases the risk of insect infestation. Dead trees that are still standing are a likely home for birds and other wildlife, so collect downed wood from the forest floor first.
2. Build a Campfire
Easy ways to stack a fire
Photo by Virginia State ParksFires need fast starting tinder, a generous amount of kindling and oxygen to develop a ‘core of heat’. The ‘teepee’ and ‘chimney’ are two simple methods of construction that allow the oxygen to flow through the stack and feed the fire. For the ‘teepee’, build a cone of kindling around a generous pile of tinder, and light. For the ‘chimney’, place two large pieces of firewood parallel with a couple of feet in between. Stack two large pieces on top of but perpendicular to the bottom two, creating a square. Layer firewood in this fashion twice more; place plenty of tinder and kindling in the center, and light.
3. Make your own Fire Starter
Simple tricks with everyday ingredients
Photo by Random lettersFire starters are easy to make with inexpensive or free items you have on hand. Dryer lint placed inside of an empty bath tissue roll and wrapped in wax paper is a wonderful fire starter. Place a few stems of rosemary or dried sage for a pleasant aroma and insect repellent. Fill a paper egg carton with dryer lint, herbs, sawdust, or dried leaves. Slowly pour melted wax – from spent candles – over the carton and allow them to dry before cutting apart. If you drink wine, save your corks and soak them in a jar of rubbing alcohol.
4. Nature’s Tinder
Plant fibers that make great fire starters
Photo by ChrisA tinder bundle, shaped like a small bird’s nest, is essential to starting a fire without premade fire starters. Use your coarsest plant fibers – dried grasses, bundled pine needles, or tiny twigs and vines – to shape the nest. Layer less coarse materials in the bottom of the nest – dried grasses, bits of tree bark and dried leaves. If you have a pencil sharpener, ‘sharpen’ a pencil sized stick and use the wood shavings in the nest. Top it off with very fine fibers – pulverized dried leaves, fibers from mature cattail heads, and delicate hairs on wildflowers gone to seed.
5. Flint and Steel
Start a fire with this traditional method
Photo by Troop701Humans have started fires using this traditional striking method since the Ice Ages and up until the invention of the match. Flint, a crystallized form of quartz crystal strikes metal – striker – causing a small piece of metal to break off and ignite, hopefully in a nest of tinder. Flint and steel kits typically include a piece of flint – make sure it has a sharp, acute edge, a steel ‘striker’, and some tinder – charred cloth, jute fiber, cotton – in a compact metal tin. Purchase a kit at most camping and outdoor recreation stores or make your own.
6. Start a Fire with Heat from the Sun
How to start a fire using a mirror
Photo by Dave GoughThe sun is an incredible source of heat; one quickly harnessed for starting a fire. Find a sunny spot out of the wind and place your tinder bundle on a flat surface, making sure you have more tinder and kindling nearby. To ignite the tinder with a mirror, point the mirror at the sun and adjust it so that the mirror is projecting a small round focal point onto the tinder. Hold steady so the heat can build – it helps to brace yourself. Within 10 – 30 seconds, the first puffs of smoke should appear. Blow gently, start adding more tinder, and when flames appear, begin to add your kindling.
7. If all Else Fails
Use wood friction to start a fire
Photo by SudarkoffIf you find yourself with no other way to start a fire, try making a fire plow. You will need a flat piece of wood – 18” long works well, a hard stick with a blunt end, tinder, kindling, and a knife. Carve a channel down the middle, lengthwise, of the flat piece of wood, wide enough for the tip of your stick. Kneel and place one end of your flat piece between your knees, the other end on the ground at the base of your tinder. Moving the stick rapidly back and forth in the indentation builds up heat, eventually igniting a spark.
8. Make a Camp Candle
Everyday ingredients you can convert into candles
Photo by Calvin HodgsonYou forgot to pack candles? Don’t fret, making your own is easy. A candle is made of two simple ingredients, a wick – cotton rope, a paper napkin twisted tightly, or a small piece of cotton cloth – and some fuel. For the fuel, use the wax coating from a package of cheese, molded around the wick, a stick of butter, or a can of vegetable shortening. If you have any crayons, melt the tip, letting the wax pool on a surface. Then set the crayon upright in the wax pool, letting it harden, and light the paper wrapping.
9. Make a Camp Lantern
A clever way to turn a drink can into a lantern
Photo by Michael KlineIf you forgot the camp lantern or just need a small burner to heat up a cup of tea, grab a couple of aluminum cans, a marker, a knife or scissors, some steel wool, and some rubbing alcohol. Mark and cut the cans 1 ½” from the bottom. Fill one bottom loosely with steel wool, and fit the other on top with the edges tucked into the bottom half. Punch small holes around the top outer edge and five holes clustered in the center. Slowly pour the alcohol into the center, allowing it to funnel into the bottom and light. Once flames appear in the outer ring, toss a coin over the holes in the center.
10. Build a Camp Stove
Turn a wood log into a stove
Photo by Chris CampbellChoose a thick log, the thicker the better, and stand it on one end. If you have access to a chainsaw, cut three slices – like you were cutting a pie – to within 6” of the bottom. You can also split the log and set it back up in a small pit whose sides will help hold it in place. Fill the slots with paper and fine kindling, but don’t pack them tight because air circulation is critical. Pour a generous amount of oil, preferably vegetable oil, into the middle and let it soak into the wood. Place fine kindling on the top and light your stove. The flat surface is ideal for pots and pans and you can also use the stove to smoke food.
11. Build a Fire Pit
To shelter the fire from strong winds
Photo by Michael DorauschWhen camping in open grasslands and meadows or beach and maritime environments, starting and keeping a fire going can be a real challenge. High winds quickly burn your fuel and blow away much of the heat. Combat these elements by digging a fire pit 2’ – 4’ in diameter and 12” – 18” deep. Make the sides as vertical as possible, using large rocks or pieces of firewood to support the sides. Create a windbreak by stacking rocks above ground around the perimeter of your pit on the windward side.
12. Fire and Ice
Building a campfire in the snow
Photo by George PankewytchThe key to building a fire in the snowpack is site preparation, an area of approximately 2’ x 2’. Sweep away any powdery snow and compact the remaining snow by walking on it. Spread a 3” thick layer of tree bark over the site and place large logs around the perimeter. Stack your kindling, beginning with the coarsest, layering up to the finest, in the middle of your fire pit. As soon as you light the kindling, begin to build a teepee around the fire with twigs and sticks.
13. Save Campfire Ash
The many uses of this campfire byproduct
Photo by Kai SchreiberWood ash typically contains some mixture of calcium carbonate, calcium oxide, and iron oxide, chemicals that have many practical uses. Sprinkle it around the campsite – tents and shelter – to keep insects at bay. A paste made of ash and water works well as a cleaner and fabric stain remover. The ashes of conifer trees – pine, spruce, fir – can be used to make toothpaste that is gentle on tooth enamel, but you might want to add an essential oil to hide the flavor of the ash. And any bits of charcoal you collect from the ash can be used to filter water.
Keeping yourself safe, warm, and fed can feel more complex in the wild than it does at home. But by mastering techniques like flint and steel, friction, and the “mirror” method of starting a fire, you’ll be well on your way to kindling a resilient campfire that will keep you toasty all night long. Now that you’ve got the creature comforts covered, you’re ready to dive into our last topic. In the next and final chapter, you’ll learn how to stay safe and mend your wounds in the wild.