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How to Build a Fire in 5 Steps

5 steps to build and tend a successful, roaring campfire.

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Bonfire on the beach

You can make and tend a cozy, successful fire in 5 steps, whether in your backyard, at the campground, or in the backcountry. Successful firebuilding is an art that takes practice.  

I’ve been building and making cozy, safe fires for decades, whether in the backyard, hearth, or the backcountry. I’ve experimented with several different fire-building methods with varying degrees of success. My favorite method is the log cabin method due to its burning efficiency and cozy, pleasing manner.  

Step 1 – Find a fire pit

Fire ring at campground
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Building a fire in a campground

Always use the designated fire pit or fire ring in a campground. Don’t try to move the fire ring or build a fire bigger than the designated fire pit. Never leave a fire unattended. 

Building a fire in backcountry/wilderness areas

If possible, use an existing fire ring or previous fire pit. You want to minimize environmental impact while also considering safety. Not all previous fire pits are great locations for a fire, so look for potential hazards such as low-hanging trees, bushes, or brush that is too close to your fire. 

If an existing fire pit or fire ring is not available or ideal, consider creating a fire mound. A fire mound is a 6-8” deep gravel or sand circular pile that you make flat. You then build your fire on top of the fire mound. When you are done with your fire, you scatter the fire mound, leaving minimal impact on the area and following the leave no trace guidelines

Step 2 – Gather firewood

Pile of split firewood
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Next, you will need to gather the fuel for your fire. You can separate your firewood/fuel into 3 different groups: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood

Gather Tinder

Tinder provides the initial fuel for starting your fire. This means tinder should light easily and burn quickly. Tinder has many different options.

Generally, you want something light and very dry. When car camping, I often loosely crumple old newspapers as kindling. I also use paper towels or TP for kindling when backpacking.

Other great kindling includes yellow, dry pine needles or dry brown grass. The key is making sure it’s very dry and not too compacted together. You will generally need a handful or so of tinder. 

Gather Kindling

Kindling is the small and medium-sized sticks that are less than 1 inch in size and provide the fuel for your tinder when starting your fire. Kindling could almost be tinder, but it doesn’t start well by itself. Kindling burns longer than tinder and helps get your main fuel firewood going.

Often, you can create kindling by splitting pieces off your firewood chunks with a hatchet. Small, dry, dead branches also work well. You will need a small basketball-size pile of kindling. 

Gather Fuel Wood

Your fuel firewood provides the long-lasting heat and crackling logs that most people imagine when they think of a fire. When car camping, buying local pre-cut wood sourced < 50 miles away from your camp is best to avoid introducing pests [1].

If you’re gathering wood from the forest, check the regulations in the area for gathering wood [2]. You should only gather downed wood that is no thicker than an adult’s wrist. 

Artificial logs provide another option for fuel firewood and may burn cleaner than regular firewood [3]. The disadvantage of artificial logs is that they often don’t burn as hot or aesthetically pleasing as regular firewood. 

Step 3 – Build your fire structure

Teepee fire in a metal firepit
Photo: ©TinkerJulie via Canva.com

A fire structure is how you organize and burn firewood in the fire pit. 

Here are 6 popular fire structure methods:

Log cabin fire

The log cabin fire burns slower but quickly makes a large fire.

How to build a log cabin fire 

  1. Place two large fuel wood parallel approximately 6”-12” apart.
  2. Stack two additional pieces on top at a right angle. 
  3. Continue alternate stacking patterns, building a log cabin-type structure. 
  4. Place tinder at the base in the middle of the structure. 
  5. Fill the inside of the cabin loosely with kindling.  
  6. Light kindling at multiple points. 

Teepee or cone fire

A teepee or cone fire works best for cooking because it burns fast and creates a hot bed of coal, but it needs more frequent maintenance to keep going. Cook food after the teepee collapses on a coal bed and feed the fire with kindling. 

How to build a teepee or cone fire

  1. Place several pieces of fuel wood on their edges, creating a cone-shaped structure. 
  2. Place the tinder inside the center of the teepee/cone.
  3. Place some kindling inside and in the gaps of the cone/teepee structure.
  4. Light kindling inside the teepee.

Pile Fire

A pile fire is easy to build and can create a nice bed of coals for cooking. It also requires maintenance to keep burning. 

How to build a pile fire

  1. Place tinder in the center of the fire pit. 
  2. Loosely pile kindling on top of the tinder. 
  3. Pile a few pieces of fuel wood on kindling.
  4. Light kindling at multiple points. 

Platform or upside-down pyramid fire

A platform or upside-down pyramid fire works great for cooking and is a longer-lasting fire. However, it will take time for the fire to burn down before you can cook well. 

How to build a platform/pyramid fire

  1. Place three large pieces of fuel wood together on the bottom
  2. Layer three pieces of wood at a right angle on top of the previous layer. 
  3. Continue layering fuel wood from larger to smaller for at least three layers thick. 
  4. Place tinder and kindling wood on the top. 
  5. Light the tinder. 

Lean-to fire

A lean-to fire works well for cooking and works best for windy conditions. 

How to build a lean-to fire

  1. Secure a long piece of kindling or fuel wood in the ground at an angle with the tinder underneath.
  2. Build a “roof” on one side with kindling and fuel wood, creating a lean-to structure. 
  3. Light tinder under the lean-to. 

Star Fire

A star fire can work well if you only have whole logs. It also burns slower but requires maintenance as the log ends burn. 

How to build a star fire

  1. Place several log ends or fuel wood ends towards each other to create a spoke structure or star structure. 
  2. Build a teepee/cone fire in the center to start the star fire. 
  3. As the log ends burn, push the ends toward each other. 

Step 4 – Feed and tend fire 

Man putting wood onto fire
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After you’ve started your fire. You will need to feed and maintain it. Usually, this involves occasionally placing 1-2 pieces of fuel wood on the fire. If you’re cooking, you’ll want to make smaller adjustments with kindling only. Generally, you’ll start with smaller pieces and then gradually burn the larger pieces. Never burn trash, especially any plastics. Take care to stir and rearrange the fire with a long enough stick.

Step 5 – Extinguish fire

Pouring water onto fire
Photo: ©tzahiV via Canva.com

Always extinguish your fire when you’re done with it [4]. Never leave the fire unattended.

When we were backpacking, a nearby group had a nice fire but then left it going after they went to bed in their tents. The wind picked up, and their fire became a serious hazard. 

Extinguishing a fire usually starts at least 30 minutes before you plan to be done with the fire. This is when you let the fire burn down as much as possible. 

How to extinguish a campfire

  1. Break the fire structure apart, keeping pieces in the fire pit. 
  2. Pour water on firewood in the fire pit until steam and sizzling stop. 
  3. Stir ashes and wood with a stick and pour more water on the ashes and unburnt wood. 
  4. Observe for any signs of smoke, steam, or heat from the fire requiring further water dowsing. 

Try these methods on your next car camping trip or in the backyard fire pit. Check out camping meal suggestions to enjoy around your cozy campfire.

Learn how to build a survival shelter for your campfire or different ways to purify water if you’re in a survival situation with only your hiking essentials

What is your favorite fire-building method? Do you have any tips or tricks that we should know? Leave a comment below.

FAQs

What if I don’t have matches or a lighter?

You can still start a fire without matches or a lighter in survival situations. It’s usually much more difficult, so consider practicing these methods beforehand.

Flint and Steel: Strike steel against flint to create sparks that ignite tinder.
Solar Method: Focus sunlight through a magnifying glass onto the tinder.
Friction Methods: Learn primitive techniques like the bow drill or hand drill.

Can I use any wood for my fire?

Not all wood is created equal when it comes to building a fire. Generally, wood is classified as hardwood or softwood:

Hardwoods: Like oak and maple, burn slower and hotter, making them ideal for cooking and warmth.
Softwoods: Softwoods like pine burn faster and are good for starting fires. They can pop and throw sparks but also work well to make a quick cooking fire.
Avoid: Using green or moist wood is hard to burn and produces excessive smoke.

Much of your wood choice is probably regionally dependent on what’s available. Hardwood has more energy packed into it, so it usually burns hotter and longer. Softwoods usually have less energy but can burn quicker and are usually easier to split and use.

Sources

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AUTHOR
Daniel Borkert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Outdoor Footprints, a website that tells you everything you need to know about camping and hiking. He is an avid outdoorsman with almost four decades of experience in hiking, camping, caving, and fishing. Daniel loves to involve his wife and kids in his outdoor pursuits and inspire other families to do the same. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his family and an energetic Boston Terrier named Zion.

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