A firefighter once told me that there are four elements to a fire: Heat, Fuel, Oxygen, and Chemical Reaction. This is a bit of fire-science, and for the purposes of making a campfire or cooking fire, the important elements are: Fuel and Oxygen. The Heat comes from your matches or other fire-starter and the Chemical Reaction takes care of itself. Here’s 7 easy steps that if you follow, will ensure grand firemaking success.
There are two main styles of firelay: the Log Cabin and the Teepee. A log cabin fire lay is one in which the sticks are stacked on top of each other in a grid-like fashion that looks like a log cabin. The Teepee is my preferred method of building a fire. In a teepee shape all the heat from your fledgling fire is utilized as it goes up, catching on fire the sticks above them.
So, let’s start a fire!
1) Select the method of ignition, your fire-starter
If you have a lighter, that is usually very easy to use. Ferrocerium fire rods, flint and steel, or a fire piston are a bit more challenging, but they all serve to ignite the tinder. Of course, matches work just fine as well.
2) Gather Tinder
Tinder is generally something light and easily ignited. In the wilderness you can use milkweed fluff, or scrape a knife against a cedar tree to create a “bird’s nest” of dry bark shavings. Steel wool works well (plain, not the pre-soaped stuff) as does dryer lint. Dried leaves or dry grass can also be used, but are not optimal because they burn up rather quickly, and they produce an awful lot of ash.
Whatever you choose, it is best to have a double handful, or roughly enough material to fill up the inside of a hat. Artificial tinders burn for a good while so you do not actually need as much to get your fire started. Set the tinder near where you will be building your fire.
3) Gather Kindling
- Start with match-stick thick twigs. It is best to find these still attached to a tree, or on a fallen limb. Twigs found on the ground, or amidst leaves are often moist and do not work very well. To test whether the wood you will gather is dry enough for burning, snap the wood in half. If the wood breaks cleanly then it is dry, if it bends or splinters when you break it then it is too moist. This method will work with any wood you test, as long as it is not too big to be broken. The length of these twigs should be in the size range of a pencil or a bowie knife. Again, gather at least a double handful of these and set them near your tinder.
- Now select twigs that are as big around as a pencil or your little finger. This will be the wood which basically ignites the rest of your fire, so gather a double handful or more. It is better to have too much than too little of this wood because nothing is worse than getting your fire going, then having to run out in the woods to gather more fuel and by the time you get back the fire has gone out. You have to feed your fire to keep it alive.
- Gather more sticks, making small piles of thumb-sized, then up to wrist-sized wood. The thumb and wrist-sized sticks can be a bit longer, about as long as your forearm. If they are even longer than that, it is fine you will be able to burn them in half once you get your fire going.
At this point, you should have: about a hat-full of tinder, next to that a pile of twigs roughly the size of a matchstick and as long as a pencil, next to that a pile of pencil-to-finger-sized sticks, and then a pile of thumbish-sized sticks and then a few wrist-thick ones.
4) Clear the Ground
It’s important to clear the ground of anything you wouldn’t want to burn in about a six foot diameter. Remember, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
5) Construct the Firelay
- Stick the ends of three thumb-sized sticks into the ground in about a coffee-can sized circle and lean the tops together.
- Put the tinder in the middle of the three sticks. As you build the fire, remember that you will need to light this stuff on fire, so leave yourself a little access hole in one side. It is better to sort of fluff up the tinder, you do not want it all compacted when you light it.
- On top of the tinder, right on top of it, put the matchstick sized sticks. You can put them in a teepee shape as well, just make sure to put all of them on to the tinder. Keep in mind oxygen as you place them, so if you are just laying them onto the tinder, make sure they are not all parallel to each other; lay them in different directions.
- Continue building your firelay with the pencil-to-finger sticks, placing them with their tops in towards the center stick or against the three sticks for your teepee shape. Don’t forget your access hole for lighting the fire. As you get to the thumb-sized sticks, place them against the fire and then keep the wrist-sized ones right there next to you, for fuel once the whole shebang gets going.
Now your fire should look like a pile of dry sticks in the shape of a teepee and have a little bundle of tinder in the middle.
6) Light the tinder.
Pro tip: If you are using a striker of some kind, such as a ferrocerium rod or a magnesium fire striker, etc. then it is better to place the striking-metal or knife right up there by the tinder and actually pull the rod away from the fire. This way, the spark goes right where you want it, and the motion of striking does not disturb your firelay.
If necessary blow on the fire with long steady breaths to help it get started initially. Once the tinder is lit, all the rest should follow right along. You can maneuver some of the sticks so they are more in the flame as it gets going.
7) Feed your Fire
As the fire increases in size, go ahead and start adding any remaining thumb-sized pieces and then add your wrist sized pieces. At some point, the teepee will collapse. This is fine, just use a stick to push the coals into a pile and keep feeding the fire. You can put very long sticks on the fire and when they burn through, push the ends in to save yourself from breaking or cutting them all to the size you need.
When this method is followed correctly, you should need no more than three matches to achieve the campfire or cooking fire you desire.
Remember: dry sticks snap in half, wet ones bend or splinter, and it is better to have more fuel than less, so you don’t have to go find sticks when your fire is just getting started.