An Expert Guide to Building a Campfire
Camping & Hiking expert Kat Keith shares step-by-step instructions on how to build a campfire with inspiration from Jack London's “To Build a Fire.”
“I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” - Jack London, To Build a Fire
It’s officially -65℉, and I am on the Iditarod Trail traveling with my 12 dogs between Huslia and Koyukuk. Knowing that I have to camp out to rest the dogs, I feel a deep fear within. Constantly moving around on my dog sled, I can keep blood circulating enough to prevent hypothermia from setting in, but my fingers are already turning numb as they were previously frostbitten at the tips. Stopping and making a campsite means four hours of attempting to sleep in the scary cold, and the words of Jack London’s To Build a Fire scroll through my imagination. I must start a campfire.
When you start a fire under -40℉, it takes forever to generate warmth; it’s as if the very wood complains at being woken from its hibernation. My fingers stop working well as I fidget with my knife to make a feather stick for kindling, and nothing alights with ease. Even my steadfast leader, Ears, is snuggling closer to me for warmth, impatient for the flames to match the dancing of the northern lights above. Starting a fire in the best of conditions can be a challenge, and I learned that such a skill is critical to perfect.
The science behind starting a fire isn’t complicated. It can be considered an interconnected triangle that consists of heat, oxygen, and fuel. Let’s break this down!
Different fuel sources are used around the world, from yak dung and seal oil to standard wood. Our campfire discussion is going to be based on good old wood. Dry seasoned wood is always best for a roaring hot fire if you have that luxury.
We need three types of material to get a fire going: tinder, kindling, and fuel. FYI, this article doesn’t describe taking a jug of lighter fuel from the back of your car when fellow campers are turned away, as much fun as that is!
Your pile of tinder is the recipient of the heat source, such as a spark, and is responsible for the initial combustion of fire. There are so many things, man-made and from nature, which can be used as a tinder bundle, including birch bark, dry grass, wood shavings, small twigs, pine needles, fallen bird nests, dry leaves (not my first choice), cotton balls with Vaseline, cardboard, shredded toilet paper, wax with dryer lint, or any other item that can be dry, fluffy, and quick to ignite. Tinder should be smaller than the width of ½ the width of a pencil but larger than a toothpick. Please don’t buy tinder in a store, even Curated! There are so many options for you to gather your own tinder, which will save you money.
After your tinder has caught fire, you want to have kindling nearby. Kindling comprises dry pieces of wood about a foot long and less than your thumb in diameter. You will need numerous small pieces of kindling if conditions are wet.
The last material to add will be the long-term fuel, in this case, pieces of firewood larger than kindling; the actual size will be determined by the type of fire you seek. Smaller pieces of dry wood will make for a shorter-lasting but hot fire. Larger pieces of firewood will burn long into the night but with less intensity.
To start combustion, a source of heat is needed as the fire starter. This could be focused solar radiation or sparks created by a Ferrocerium, or Ferro, rod. There are countless versions of Ferro rods on the market, but I recommend carrying the biggest size within the limits of your camping or backpacking style.
Consider my Iditarod story from above; swollen and numb fingers have a challenging time with small tools. A long Ferro rod means more sparks generated with each strike. It should only take three strikes to start your tinder on fire and Ferro rods typically come with a striker. However, using the back edge of a knife (especially one with a 90-degree corner on it) is a more elegant and simple solution. This is easier than going caveman and carrying burning embers in a char cloth!
Matches or a lighter can be used, but the extra supplies can be bulky if you are on an extended trip. Also, matches can get wet, and lighters can malfunction in poor weather conditions. However, once used to a Ferro rod, it is a much more elegant and fun solution! You feel like a true survivalist!
Airflow in your fire setup can be the most difficult to master. It is easy to suffocate a baby fire. The structure in which you build up your primary fuel is the source of much survivalist debate. You could plan on using the well-known teepee fire or log cabin fire. Alternatively, the campfire could be built stacked, top-down, lean-to, star, even in a Swedish fire torch formation.
While a teepee is often a beginner pyromaniac’s method, it isn’t a long-lasting fire structure and can be difficult to manage when you need access to tinder and kindling on the inside of your teepee. Beginning with a log cabin at the base and stacking your logs up provides you with excellent control over the burn rate. The other methods are great for different situations. The ‘star’ technique will last long into the night, while the ‘Swedish fire torch’ is an efficient method for cooking where your logs will last three times longer than the other methods discussed. The top-down technique, similar to stacking, is unique because you ignite your tinder at the top of a stack of wood (larger pieces on the bottom with smaller ones on top) and watch as your fire slowly makes its way to the surface over time. This is an efficient and long-lasting fire structure. Overall, the key to all of the structures is airflow. Design it so your burgeoning flame does not get smothered by enthusiastic intent.
Building a Campfire
Now let’s break down the process of starting your fire once you arrive at a camp.
Keep in mind the Leave No Trace principles. If there is a fire ban in place, don’t begin a fire unless it is an emergency. Find a hard surface to start your fire on—for example, a rock or area of bare dirt or gravel. Do not start a fire on grass. It is wise to dig down a couple of inches to make sure there is nothing flammable under your make-shift fire pit. If it is raining, find a location covered by high-hanging branches to block the rain. You will want to put up some type of shelter, such as a tarp if you have it.
“Now the tree under which he had built his fire carried a weight of snow on its boughs … High up in the tree one bough capsized its load of snow … It grew like an avalanche, and it descended without warning upon the man and the fire, and the fire was blotted out! Where it had burned was a mantle of fresh and disordered snow.” -Jack London
Having now read this article, you won’t make that same mistake!
2. Gather your materials
Collect all three types of material first. There is nothing worse than working hard to get a fire going, only to have it die because you didn’t collect enough kindling. Starting over, especially when cold, is less fun than doing it right the first time around.
"Well, it was up to him to build the fire over again, and this second time there must be no failure. Even if he succeeded, he would most likely lose some toes … Such were his thoughts, but he did not sit and think them. He was busy all the time they were passing through his mind. He made a new foundation for a fire, this time in the open, where no treacherous tree could blot it out." - Jack London
3. Build your structure
Depending on the ground, placing kindling down for a base serves as a barrier between the tinder and a potentially wet surface. Form a square log cabin with your kindling, stacking up to three levels of wood. On the inside, place a softball size amount of dry, fluffy tinder on top of the base.
Now for the fun part! Let loose the flames upon the readied tinder and watch it swiftly light. Give it a few long moments to gather momentum before you take a handful of smaller pieces of kindling to lay on top of the tinder. Finally, stack a few long pieces of kindling to form a roof for the log cabin structure and watch patiently as it takes off.
"A large piece of green moss fell squarely on the little fire. He tried to poke it out with his fingers, but his shivering frame made him poke too far, and he disrupted the nucleus of the little fire, the burning grasses and tiny twigs separating and scattering. He tried to poke them together again, but in spite of the tenseness of the effort, his shivering got away with him, and the twigs were hopelessly scattered. Each twig gushed a puff of smoke and went out. The fire-provider had failed." – Jack London
5. Keep it going
Having the varying size of logs already by you, start by stacking smaller logs in parallel on top of the kindling roof. On the next layer, place a larger piece of wood or three perpendicular to the layer below it. This ensures adequate airflow as your fire converts wood into charcoal and ash.
Now that you have succeeded in the backcountry or the KOA where London’s ‘man’ failed, all that is left to do is kick back and gaze deeply into your hot fire as you ponder the more profound questions of the universe. Why is 42, the answer to Douglas Adams’ Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything? Why didn’t I bring real food instead of these dehydrated Meals Ready-to-Eat (MREs)?"
When fire time is over, keep safety in mind by pouring water over the coals to douse the fire and make sure it is all the way out. You can stir the campfire remains with a stick to mix the water and ash together.
Not every adventure is a Jack London survival story, but each one imprints special long-lasting embers of memory in our hearts. Getting outdoors can be intimidating, but there are resources available to make sure you have the perfect gear for your upcoming trips. The Camping & Hiking experts here on Curated are available to answer any questions you have, get you pointed in the right direction, and make sure you can sit comfortably by the fire at night knowing your long-dreamed-of outdoor adventure is as incredible as you deserve it to be.