The warm light of a fire is at once calming and exhilarating. That’s because, deep in our bones, we feel how essentially human it is to sit around a fire: We watch the flames and smoke dance, while listening to the crackle of transformation.
Indeed, fire turns wood into heat and light, campsites into welcoming rings of brightness, raw ingredients into fragrant food, homes into cozy havens, and ignites our instinct for storytelling and song.
The knowledge of how to build a fire from sticks, leaves, resins, and even mushrooms found in the wild used to be a basic skill for survival. Of course, for our ancestors, fire was a necessary protection from predators, heat source, and the only way to cook.
Now, most of us turn knobs and flip switches to bring this element into our lives. However, even in this age of “captured fire” in the forms of electricity and gas, knowing how to build a fire remains useful and alluring. You may just build a campfire a few times a year, or perhaps you heat your home and cook with wood fuel. In either case, there are some basic skills and tools that will make the process easier and more effective.
General fire building tips
Preparation is key
It shouldn’t take very long to get a good fire going, once you’ve gathered the right materials. In contrast, you could spend an hour or more nursing along a smokey fire without really getting it going if you’re not properly prepared. Take your time to: gather and prepare tinder, kindling, and fuel wood, get comfortable, create windbreaks if necessary, and arrange everything carefully. If you do all this, you’ll hopefully be able to spark a blaze with just one match (or lighter strike, as the case may be).
Use dry wood
This is a bit of a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how frequently we encounter damp, smoldering branches being passed off as firewood, even amongst our badass, back-to-the-lander friends. It’s especially important to use dry wood for kindling and to get a fire going. In a pinch you can burn wetter wood once you’ve got a coal bed established, however, it will be smokey.
Dry means dry; it doesn’t just mean dead. For smaller twigs and sticks, you can tell if wood is dry by breaking it: a satisfying, clean, complete snap means it’s dry. It can be a bit more difficult to determine if larger logs are dry. One approach is to heft the log. Since water is heavy, wetter wood will weigh a lot more than dry wood. The kinesthetic knowledge of the dry weight of different kinds of wood is a wonderful skill to hone. In other words, if you lift a lot of logs, you’ll eventually get a sense of how heavy different kinds of wood are when they’re dry.
Have plenty of kindling on hand
To put it simply, kindling can make or break a fire. Even if you have tons of paper or other tinder available, kindling is necessary to make the jump from a hot, fast flame to the kind of fire that will last and build up coals. Plus, the bigger, slower burning flames from kindling have the staying-power to ignite larger fuel wood. Kindling can be smaller twigs and sticks that you gather, or slivers of larger logs that you split out with a nice sharp tool. Either way, put together a nice pile of it before you attempt to build a fire. Trust us, scrambling around for more kindling while your fledgling fire slowly burns itself out is no fun.
Learn to blow hard and well
This is not what you think. The basic equation that equals fire is heat+fuel+oxygen. Your match or lighter brings the heat, your well-prepared tinder, kindling and fuel wood provides the fuel, and your breath can up the oxygen. Clearly, there’s a sweet spot when it comes to blowing on a fire. We’ve all “overdone it” on purpose at birthday parties, when the force of our breath blows out the candles. But have you ever experienced a fire with too little air? It’s a sorry, smokey, smoldery sight. In contrast, blowing on a wimpy or smokey fire can, quite literally, breathe life into it.
There are tricks and tips for blowing well, and for concentrating the force of your breath so that it is the most effective, without needing to huff and puff to the point of passing out. Some tools can help. Around here, we’ve got a beautiful wild plant called Joe Pye Weed that has a hollow stalk. Fresh or dried, a Joe Pye stalk makes a great tube through which to blow air right into the heart of a fire, without getting too close to the flames. A piece of metal pipe works, too. And, of course, a proper bellows allows you to blow with the action of your hands instead of your lungs.
Fuel for building a fire
Fire needs fuel in order to burn. And to get a good fire going you’ll need three essential types of fuel: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood.
- Tinder is small, light, dry material that lights right up and burns hot and fast. Indeed, newspaper is a very popular, accessible, and, if dry, effective form of tinder. Some other options include wood shavings from a planing machine, pine needles, shredded inner bark from tulip poplar trees, birch bark, and dry palm leaves. Neither brown paper bags, nor egg cartons make great tinder; they tend to smolder, rather than ignite.
- Kindling catches the flames from tinder easily, but has more mass and burns longer and slower. Dry twigs make great kindling, especially from resinous conifers like hemlock, pine, and fir trees. Alternately, kindling can be split out of larger diameter wood. If you’re lucky, you may come across the resin-impregnated heartwood of a dead pine tree, a.k.a “fat lighter.” This makes excellent and long-lasting kindling because it’s saturated with flammable, oily resin.
- Fuel wood includes larger logs and branches that will burn for longer periods of time and build up a bed of coals. It’s helpful to gather fuel wood of various sizes, so that you can transition gradually from kindling up to larger stuff. Different species of wood have different qualities as fuel. Here is a handy chart that compares the burning qualities of many common types of tree.
Steps to building a fire
Gather all necessary materials: tinder, kindling, fuel wood, lighter/matches/bow drill, etc., blowing tube or bellows if desired.
If you’re building a fire outside, choose a safe spot for your fire and clear it of all vegetation. It’s best not to build a fire under low branches, or very close to tents or other flammable items. If you’re in a dry area, clear a circle at least 10 feet in diameter around your fire area.
Notice wind and create windbreaks as needed. Too much wind can blow out a fledgling fire; stacking wood or other debris upwind of your fire spot can help protect the baby blaze.
Arrange tinder loosely, with kindling on top either in a cone shape, or propped up on a rock or large branch. The kindling should be directly above the tinder, but not squishing it down.
Light the tinder and blow gently to get it going.
Once the kindling has caught, slowly add larger diameter fuel wood until it, too, has caught fire.
Add more fuel wood in a cone or “log cabin” shape so that plenty of air can still feed the fire and the flames can catch the new fuel.
Enjoy the warmth, light, and magic of the fire
Continue feeding the fire as it dies down, blowing as needed to get new fuel to catch
Be sure to attend to the fire until it is completely out, dousing it with water and/or spreading out the coals when you’re done.
The beauty and usefulness of fire does not come without serious risks. If you live in any part of the Western United States, you know the destructive power of fire all too well. However, even those of us in the humid south need to treat fire with respect. In order to manage fire safely, you need to be careful and attentive. Never leave an outdoor fire unattended, and follow the guidance of Smokey Bear when enjoying campfires.