How to Start a Campfire: A Guide

How to Start a Campfire

Knowing how to start a campfire is one of those many people think is easy but realize it can be a bit more complicated in practice. If you want to start a campfire in less than ideal conditions, difficulty also increases.

Whether you’re starting a fire in your backyard or on a desert island, join us as we explain how to build a campfire that will last the night and keep the cold at bay.

The Fire Triangle

There is an important concept in both fire safety and fire-building called the Fire Triangle. These are the three elements that must come together for a fire to begin.

The first side of the triangle is oxygen. Without oxygen, a fire will choke out and die. Oxygen is a key component of the reaction needed to make a fire (and tends to be everywhere).

The second side is heated. Fire requires heat to start and to maintain itself. There are many ways to produce the necessary heat, but some are far more complicated than others.

The final side is fuel. There cannot be fire if it has nothing to consume. No fire lasts forever; there must be a constant supply of material to burn for the chemical reaction to continue.

Some people also argue the idea of this “Fire Triangle” is incomplete. That’s because, technically, all these elements must come together to form an already mentioned chemical reaction, or fire will not occur.

Remove (or miss) any side of this triangle, and fire will either die out or fail to start in the first place.

The Basics of Starting a Fire

We will assume, for now, that you want to start a campfire in a situation under your control and in which you have access to the ideal tools. Starting a fire in this sort of scenario is pretty easy and often fun.

Step 1: Find a Safe Place to Start

When survival is not a priority, you should put safety above all else in fire-building. Fire is useful and fascinating, but it is also dangerous if handled in the wrong way.

The first step to making a fire is to find a safe place to light one. While many homes already have a good firepit set-up, some do not.

You’ll want to prepare what is called a fire pit. First, dig a hole about one foot deep where you wish to start your fire. Then remove any leaves, sticks, and twigs within a five-foot radius of the pit.

At this point, the pit is nearly done. All that is left is to surround the hole with rocks, helping to mark where the fire is and further prevent sparks from getting out or anything from rolling in.

Step 2: Get Some Tinder

Tinder is one of the most basic elements of starting a fire. All you really need for good tinder is a material that is dry, fluffy, and flammable.

The idea of tinder is it is very easy to catch aflame and then will be used to light less-flammable material that will, in turn, be able to burn much longer. The list of good materials to use as tinder is long but includes:

  • Firestarter sticks
  • Dryer lint
  • Shaved wood
  • Tiny pieces of bark
  • Milkweed fluff
  • and more

Dry leaves and grass can work somewhat but can be challenging for beginners to get working. They require some “fluffing up” by cutting or tearing them to work well.

Step 3: Get Some Kindling

Kindling is basically the next tier up of burnable materials. This is stuff that is somewhat harder to light but will burn longer than tinder.

This is where material most people would recognize as wood really starts to get used. You can use a pile of sticks, not too large, and, as they catch, you will slowly add larger sticks as well.

It is hard to collect too much kindling. That said, if you can get at least three or four handfuls of small to medium sticks, that will probably suffice.

Please note we haven’t said to light anything yet! The early stages of making a fire can be somewhat time-sensitive. Prepare your materials before lighting anything.

Step 4: Get Some Logs

The final step before starting to light a fire in earnest is to get some logs. These will be larger pieces of wood, perhaps 3-5 inches in diameter and one or so feet long, that should burn for some time once caught.

The drier this wood, the better, with the bark being harder to light than the inside parts of the wood. You also don’t want to try lighting huge wood chunks, as this can both be harder and a fire hazard.

If you want some good wood to burn without hunting for it yourself, head over to and buy some firewood there. That way, you’ll have wood that is guaranteed to cooperate and burn well.

Step 5: Making a Fire

Now it’s time to make a fire! Ensure the area is safe, all your materials are ready, and you have a bucket of water nearby in case of an emergency or for when you’re done.

First, put your tinder down in your pit with your kindling laid lightly over the top of it in something vaguely resembling a tepee or pyramid shape.

The kindling should be touching or very close to the tinder, as the initial flame will be small and short-lived. The idea is the tinder catches the kindling on fire, and then the kindling slowly catches the rest on fire.

With your materials nearby, it is time to light the tinder. Using matches or a lighter, hold a flame to the tinder and wait until it catches. Try to light the tinder somewhere that it meets your smallest, easiest-to-burn kindling.

Once the kindling is lit, you want to add progressively larger sticks. Don’t rush; try to upgrade in size at a steady pace if you can manage it.

The mistake many people make at this stage is adding large logs too fast. The goal, for now, is to keep your little flame going and slowly get it larger. If you try to light big logs with too little flame, it may die before anything lights.

There’s an art to how to build up a fire. As you do it more and more, you will learn what level of flame can or can’t light a given piece of wood. For now, be patient, and you should have a roaring flame in no time!

Step 6: When You’re Done

When you’re done, be sure not to leave even a dying fire unattended. You never know when debris might blow into a fire, or even an animal might toss what’s in your pit around.

The good news is that it’s very easy to leave a fire safely. Pour water on it! This will kill the flame and make the area safe to leave unattended again.

Pour your water in bursts, as you want to make sure you get all the fire. It is often easy to see what is still burning because fire glows.

Be careful, as a great deal of steam will occur if the fire is still going at a good rate. It won’t do much harm, but it is surprising and may hurt your eyes.

When you’re done pouring water, look for even tiny glowing sparks. Those need to be put out too. You can do this by stomping on them, putting dirt over them, or just pouring on more water.

Making a Campfire When It is Raining

Making a fire when it is raining is often not as hard as it sounds. You can light a fire even in a moderate storm with the right amount of effort.

At the most basic level, the challenge of lighting a fire when it is raining is low-quality materials. Wet wood more or less can’t burn until it becomes dry wood again.

If you want (or need) to light a fire while it is raining, you first want to find materials as dry as possible. The best places to look are where the sky is covered, such as below heavy tree cover.

In an ideal world, you will also be able to light your fire in a place with a similar cover, although you must be careful not to be so close to trees, branches, or brush that you risk setting the surrounding area on fire!

Then you can set up your fire much as we described while doing your best not to let the materials get wet by the rain. One way to do this might be through a temporary cover over your fire pit as you work.

Once the fire is lit and gets going, your options improve a bit with actual logs burning. A good fire can survive moderate rain and even light materials put into it. That said, it isn’t going to burn as well, but it will serve in a pinch.


Where Things Get Tougher

Much of the above is the same, no matter what sort of situation you want to light your fire in. However, one big element changes if you’re surviving on your own in the woods, especially if you didn’t intend to be.

The first stage of lighting a fire, where you need enough heat to light your tinder, is much harder without matches or a lighter. Moreover, even if you have those things, they are a limited resource that you can run out of.

This is why someone interested in survival skills should learn about and carry flint and steel whenever possible. This is a tool in which you run a small piece of steel over a small piece of flint, producing sparks.

These sparks can light tinder. It is not as easy as using matches, but it is easy enough that most people can do it with a small bit of practice.

Meanwhile, lighting a fire without any tools is quite difficult. In essence, you’re going to have made your own. One of the simplest ways to do this is through friction, but this is also not a skill most people can learn at the moment.

Fire Without Tools

Being able to make a fire without any tools, you had better practice first. Making friction fires is difficult, and even many survival enthusiasts can’t do it.

The goal of a friction fire is to use friction to generate enough heat to light tinder via what is called a spindle, which is a stick you’re going to use to generate heat.

There are a few ways to do this, but most also involve what is called a fireboard. This is a small, very dry piece of wood that you will carve notches into so that your spindle can be run, over and over, on the same small area.

The goal is to have your spindle, and where you’re rubbing it will grow hotter and hotter. By building a large nest of excellent tinder on that point that is getting hot, you can, with great effort, get the tinder hot enough to light.

From there, making the fire is much the same as how we described. However, those initial steps can be brutal if you haven’t practiced and don’t have your technique down.

If you’re interested in starting a friction fire, it is a topic worthy of its own article. That said, there are a lot of tutorial videos online for those interested.

That’s How to Start a Campfire

That about covers how to start a campfire. Don’t be intimidated by all the challenging stuff near the end. Starting a campfire in normal conditions with the right tools is fun and easy.

If you found this article helpful, explore our site for other content like this! We’ve got articles on a wide variety of topics, and there’s sure to be something for everyone!

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