My name is Andrea Anderson, and I’m happy to be here as a guest poster today. I’m a wife, soon-to-be mother (only three more weeks!), and interior design student with a specialty in organization. I spent the majority of my childhood in the great state of Alaska where my weekends were filled with camping, fishing, and hiking. Such a lifestyle leaves a girl with a certain skill set and I’m happy to share some of my experiences with you. In addition to posting here today, I also write in my own blog Project: Simple Home that covers topics ranging from emergency preparedness to home organization to craft projects. Feel free to drop by and check it out sometime.
Now, my younger brother and I have been able to start campfires (with supervision, of course) before we could even write out own names. Like I mentioned before, it comes with the territory of being “Alaskan Grown.” Because of this, it hardly ever occurred to me that there were people who didn’t possess this valuable knowledge. That mindset changed when I went camping with a few friends in college and caught one using an entire box of matches trying to light a large, damp log on fire. Luckily, I had packed some extra matches, and proceeded to teach her the same techniques that I’d like to offer you today.
Step One: Prepare a Pit.
Before you ever strike a match, you should have an area where you plan on containing your fire. This is the one of the most important ways to make sure that your fire remains in your control. Many camping grounds will have a pre-made or maintained pit for you to use, and if so, you should use that. However, if no pits are available where you are, then here are your guidelines to creating one.
- Find a open area with no trees, tarps or anything else overhead that could be damaged by high heat or flare ups.
- Clear a circular area (about 4-feet in diameter) and make sure it is free of any debris such as trash, dried grass or leaves, or any other flammable materials. It is a good idea to choose a place that has exposed dirt, gravel, or sand if you are able to. You can do this on green grass (or even packed snow!) but dirt or sand is ten times easier and leaves less negative impact on the environment.
- In the center of your clearing, either dig a pit several inches deep or build a ring out of stones that is several inches high. Whichever method you choose, you want your new construction to be at least a foot smaller than your original clearing, but still fairly large. Typically for a 4-foot clearing, I will make a 2.5 or 3-foot ring.
- Finally, keep a bucket of water, a large pile of dirt or sand, or a small fire extinguisher nearby, just in case your fire decides to “jump the fence.”
Step Two: Gather Your Supplies
To build a proper fire that will last more than a few minutes, you need three types of fuel (in addition to an ignition source such as matches or a flint/steel combo) that you will gradually use to increase the intensity of the flame until it can sustain itself with only minor interventions. Be sure to gather all of your supplies before trying to start your fire.
- Tinder is any small ignitable substance that you can use to catch the initial flame or spark that you will create. The most common natural material you will probably find are dry twigs thinner than a pencil. Other good choices to look out for are dry grasses, dry leaves, shredded paper or firestarters. There are many commercial options you can purchase online or at outdoor outfitter stores, or you can make your own from household items such as lint or sawdust.
- Kindling are slightly larger twigs or sticks that have a high surface to mass ratio. I don’t recommend anything larger than a half inch in diameter. You want it to catch the flame from the tinder, but be durable enough to sustain that flame until the main fuel can ignite. I would suggest choosing dry sticks or torn pieces of cardboard for this. However, damp or “green” (i.e. newly broken off a living plant) sticks can work also, just know that it will take longer for them to catch the flame from the tinder.
- Fuel is what most people think of when they think of building a campfire. If you are able to buy dry and cured firewood bundles (especially from a local dealer) then that would be the simplest. The wood is cut to a good size for efficient burning (typically no thicker than 5” in diameter) and you don’t have concern yourself with finding sufficient fuel in your area. “Survivor Man” star Les Stroud said it best when he stated, “A good rule of thumb is once you think you have enough wood, get at least five times that much.” If you do decide to forge for your own fuel, remember that it is bad environmental stewardship to cut down healthy trees unless absolutely necessary, and even if you do, they will not burn as well as dead, dry logs or branches found on the ground.
Step Three: Build Your Fire
There are numerous ways to construct your fire, but I have found that three styles reign supreme.
This construction of fire is easy to make but it burns fast and hot, so be sure to have plenty fuel to keep feeding the into the flames. Because it is a taller construction, the flames rise higher making it good for visibility and signaling. If you are forced to use either “green” or damp wood, this is a good method to choose.
To build a tepee fire, light your tinder using matches, a lighter, or other method. Slowly, allowing plenty of air to circulate, build kindling over and around the tinder. When the kindling takes to the flame, place the fuel logs in a tepee shape around the kindling, once again remembering to leave plenty of space for air circulation. As the fuel burns, the logs will fall to the center and you can continue building upon the tepee shape.
This is my personal favorite method to use. This construction utilizes the basic tepee method but takes it one step further. It provides the best base for cooking because the heat is distributed the most evenly and it burns slower than just the standard tepee.
Follow the same method of building a tepee, then alternate stacking additional logs around the outside of the structure. This will create a four “walls”around the tepee. You should have enough circulation because of the spaces in the walls, but if it seems like the fire is being choked out, then use a long stick to dig vent holes underneath the walls.
Star or Sunburst
This is probably the most simplistic method of fire construction, and this is a fantastic method to use if you are on the move or need to conserve fuel. It will typically give you a smaller fire than the other methods, but still enough power to heat a kettle of water so is fairly popular with hikers.
Light your tinder with your ignition of choice, and then build up kindling around it. Once the kindling takes to the flame, lay several logs around the kindling pile in a starburst pattern with one end touching the flames. This end should catch fire and burn rather slowly. As the logs burn, push them further and further into the flames. The further the logs are in the flames, the hotter the fire will burn; the more spread out those logs are, the weaker the flames.
- To extinguish a fire you have a few options. A small fire extinguisher will make quick work of the task, but tends to be more costly overall so I recommend keeping one around for emergency extinguishing only. I would recommend using a large bucket of water, sand or dirt to smother the pit area. Keep in mind that it will take more material to smother open flames than it will to smother dying embers. It is best to time how long you want your fire to produce heat and light, then let the fire die on its own until you are left with only glowing chunks of charred wood. Spread the embers around the pit as much as possible and then use your water, sand or dirt to cover them completely. The fire is considered “dead” when you are able to hold your hand comfortably a few inches above where the embers were. There should be little or no heat radiating from the pit.
- To move fuel logs or embers around the pit without putting your hand in danger, look for a “poker stick” as you gather your supplies. A two or three foot long branch about an inch or so in diameter is perfect. Either choose a “green” branch or soak the end of a dead branch in water so it will not burn.
- Occasionally your fire will spit sparks outside the designated pit area so be sure to keep your extra wood (or any other flammable material) in a dry area several feet from the main pit.
- Building fires take time and practice. The best thing you can do to perfect this skill is to study someone who knows what they are doing and then try it yourself under their supervision.
- Always be sure to check your local laws and any campground/state park restrictions to make sure that you can build a fire without being subject to fines or other legal action. This is especially important during dry summer months. These rules can change from day to day as the weather changes, so always be respectful if authorities ask you to extinguish your fire, even if you were given the OK the day before.
- Finally, never ever leave a burning (or even dying) fire unattended.
There you have it: the basics of building a fire. I hope these instructions were clear enough to build your confidence in your ability to thrive in a survival situation. Have patience with yourself and know that practice makes perfect. If you still have questions, please leave a comment and I’d be happy to reply!
Andrea Anderson is a wife, soon-to-be mother (only three more weeks!), and interior design student with a specialty in organization. She spent the majority of her childhood in the great state of Alaska where her weekends were filled with camping, fishing, and hiking. Such a lifestyle left her with a certain skill set and she is happy to share some of her experiences with you. She also writes the blog Project: Simple Home that covers topics ranging from emergency preparedness to home organization to craft projects. Feel free to drop by and check it out sometime!