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Tips for starting a camp fire

Discussion in 'Other Camping' started by campforums, Feb 3, 2013.

  1. campforums

    campforums Founder Staff Member

    A lot of people don't know the basics of starting and tending a fire so I thought I would make this post. Sure, it isn't that difficult when you have plenty of dry wood of various sizes and maybe a lighter and/or fire starter which you brought along but even then I think you can learn a bit about the types of fire you want to build depending on what its going to be used for.

    Types of Wood
    All fires, including camp fires rely on some sort of fuel to burn and produce heat. When in the outdoors we don't have access to the kind of fuel you might normally use at home like gas or kerosene so we'll have to make due with wood in the form of dead tree branches. If you've ever heard anyone talk about fire starting then you've probably heard of the terms,
    • Tinder
    • Kindling
    • Fuelwood
    Small, light, and fluffy material which can catch easily from a spark or small flame. Birch tree bark works great and is usually white, curly and can be peeled apart in layers into thinner pieces. Alternatively you can get a larger piece of wood and create shavings using a sharp knife.



    Bigger than tinder and smaller than fuel. Small easy to break twigs that can be stacked and arranged easily are usually considered to be kindling. Kindling serves as an intermediary between tinder and fuel, it is there so that the tinder (which burns out pretty quickly) has something to light.


    Fuel Wood
    Heavy, dense logs, this is usually the kind of thing you see stacked outside people's houses or sold in stores. The purpose of these is to keep your fire burning for a long time, if you keep using kindling you'll find yourself feeding the fire every couple of minutes. However the larger the log is, the hotter and larger your fire needs to be for it to catch. Again, you should always build the fire up places smaller items then larger and larger ones. Eventually your fire should be sustainable using only fuel.


    Fire Styles
    Now that you know which types of wood are which and have created a safe environment for your fire, you can start putting wood into your fire pit. There are 3 main styles which are easy to put together and work the best. Feel free to experiment with whichever works best for you, sometimes if you're at a pre-made campsite it is easier to simply stack the logs or wedge branches between some rocks to get a good formation to light.
    • Tee-pee
    • Log Cabin
    • Combination
    The teepee gets its name from the native american shelter with long branches leaning against each other and supported at the top. This style is good because the large gaps at the bottom make is easy to insert tinder or kindling at the bottom to feed the flame, and the dense area at the top can catch easily because the fire is directly under it. The drawbacks are that finding sticks with grooves in them that are suitable for leaning against one another can be difficult depending on what species of trees are surrounding your campsite. Also once you start adding heavier logs it can easily topple over.

    Log Cabin
    Both styles are named after traditional shelters, this style of fire resembles one of those square shaped cottages you've probably seen. Its great because it can easily support the weight of even the heaviest fuel wood and as the lower levels burn down you can easily add to it.


    Most fires inevitably turn into this type as they grow and you want to pack the most amount of wood in and does a good job of protecting the inside from the wind. It is a combination because it is made up of a log cabin with a hollow shell surrounding a tee-pee on the inside. This makes it easy to lay logs vertically along the inner walls of the cabin. This is usually not a good choice when your first starting your fire because the log cabin shell prevents the inside from getting the maximum amount of oxygen needed to burn cleanly. If you start seeing a lot of dark smoke, try removing some of the heavier pieces which haven't caught fire yet.


    There are also a few other things you should know before starting a fire in the woods regarding safety and tips for your general well being.

    Your Fire Pit
    Some campsites will have one of these already, however if your's doesn't have one you will need to dig it yourself. Otherwise you risk losing control of the fire and becoming a hazard to others, not only this but a fire pit can help keep your fire protected from wind and rain.
    1. Choose a spot well away from the rest of your supplies and tents.
    2. Dig a hole with a shovel or your hands that is 3-4 feet in diameter and about 1 foot deep.
    3. Surround the perimeter and floor of the hole with flat stones.

    Breaking Down Wood
    The wood you find lying around outside usually doesn't just happen to be in a size suitable for building a fire with. It quite often falls of the tree in branches much to big to use. Here's a few does and don't for breaking big pieces of wood.

    The key to breaking wood with minimal effort is using leverage to your advantage.
    • Over your knee: Use one quick action, its much easier than using just your hands.
    • Under your foot: Doesn't work so well with wood that isn't brittle.
    • Between elevated surfaces: Place the wood is a way so that there is some space under the branch, then apply all your weight on top to try and crack it in two.
    • Between a forked tree: Wedge the wood between the fork and then rotate it around the tree until it breaks.
    Do NOT
    • Whack the branch against rocks or trees: Not only is this ineffective but the recoil will sting your hands and you are liable to hurt yourself or someone else with a sharp fragment as it breaks off.
    • Hold it for a buddy: Do not attempt to hold or sit on the branch while your friend jumps on the other end. You have a good chance of getting a splinter and hurting yourself.
    Northern Dancer likes this.
  2. AurelioLeo

    AurelioLeo Newbie

    I would also advise if the ground is wet to make sure you have that fire off the ground a bit. If you are trying to get it going on that wet ground the moisture can make it difficult to keep that fire on. Also I would advise if you can't find tree bark that has any resin in it to start your fire to make sure you keep a pill capsule with you on hand with some cotton balls mixed in with vaseline. That can also help you get that fier going easier if everything else is wet.
  3. spuncookie

    spuncookie Newbie

    One trick I learned last year was that tea candles are AMAZING for getting a fire going. You can get a big bag of these things for really cheap, they are small and easy to stow away in your pack, and the wax makes fire starting even in wet conditions much easier. I've always been something of a fire troll, will sit around stoking a camp fire all night long. But one evening last year it had been raining all day, and we couldn't find any dry wood anywhere. I spent an hour trying to get the fire to stay lit, and eventually gave up and climbed in the tent. Afterwards a friend of mine laughed at me, and dug a little bag out of his pack that he apparently kept all kinds of fire starting materials in. he made a log cabin style wood pile then took a tea candle and lit it, then let the melted wax drip all over a bundle of hemp cord he had waded up into a ball. Then took another tea candle placed it in the center of the wood. lit it and placed the bundle of string and wax over that then started piling the least damp tender and kindling around that. Within a few minutes I was being called out of my tent for cooking duty. Made a believer out of me for sure.
  4. bigteeth96

    bigteeth96 Newbie

    The DO NOT's especially helped me. Those were always my first two instincts for tough ones.
  5. campforums

    campforums Founder Staff Member

    Interesting... What does the vaseline do? I wasn't aware of vaseline being flammable.

    They certainly are cheap, I think I might actually have one of those big cheap bags you're talking about stored away somewhere in my house. I'll be sure to bring a couple along the next time I go out camping but can you explain what the wax covered hemp cord is for? I didn't exactly get that part.

    Also I totally get how you sit around stoking the fire all night long, I'm the same way. There is something enchanting about a burning wood fire! :D
  6. Esperahol

    Esperahol Newbie

    Small axes and machetes are a good for breaking down wood. Also I would not advise going just for what's on the ground. If you come across dead wood that just happens to be in tree form it is totally okay to attack it with a machete and a grin. I sincerely believe that.
    Oh and I can totally second the Vaseline-coated cotton balls.
  7. campforums

    campforums Founder Staff Member

    You really shouldn't do that and in fact most places have rules against it. Imagine what all of the camp grounds and forests would look like if everyone chopped fire wood off of living trees. Many of the trees would be dead or deformed which hurts the eco system and ruins the environment for others. Besides, wood taken from living trees usually has much more moisture than dry, dead wood from the forest floor which means it catches fire more easily and burns with less smoke.
  8. Esperahol

    Esperahol Newbie

    Actually what I said was: "dead wood that just happens to be in tree form". Like how by my house there are dead trees that just haven't taken a tumble standing about. It's fine to take the limbs off them and if they're small enough it's actually helpful to take them down before they fall down on top of somebody - hell I nearly had a good sized one fall on me the other day.
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