How to Build a Fire

We’ve been camping in our RV for the past month in national parks, BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and Forest Service campsites. Last night we were camping at elevation so it got pretty cold. In the morning as we went about our camping chores we could see our breath. I said to my husband, “Let’s have a campfire tonight.”

I started my fire building career when I was a girl scout years ago before the dawn of time. Also, our family would go into the timber on Iowa wintry nights and have a campfire cookout. Now I build fires in our home woodstove and I’m taking these skills on our camping trip. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years: there’s not one way to build a campfire. It depends on what you want to do but the building blocks are similar for each type.

Before you start choose a safe spot!

Clear away anything close that might catch fire. Don’t start a fire near dry grasses or brush especially in windy conditions! It’s very annoying to start the next 50,000 acre wildfire. Make a stone fire ring if possible. The base of your fire pit should be soil, gravel or sand.

Camp Fire Supplies

Sturdy Leather Gloves and a Hatchet
Use gloves to handle firewood and to keep from getting burned. Use the hatchet to chop large pieces into smaller pieces. Hopefully your hatchet is sharp.

Tinder is the smallest material. You can also use loosely wadded up newspaper (but don’t wad it too tightly. It won’t burn well because no air can get inside the wad), dry wood chips or shavings (look for gray color), dry pine needles (look for brown color), dry leaves or grass, candle wax (aka paraffin), homemade or commercial fire starters or lighter fluid.

Kindling is small twigs, branches or slivers of wood not larger than the size of a pencil. Again, very, very dry.

You want firewood that is well seasoned, in other words, not green. The color will be gray. Most of the time they sell soft wood such as pine at campgrounds. Sometimes hardwood is available. Soft wood catches fire easily but burns faster. This is not a bad thing. It can actually be an advantage. Hardwood takes longer to burn and needs a hotter ignition source plus more kindling but it also burns longer. Think about how long you want the fire to burn and what you’re going to use it for. For example, if you start a hardwood fire in the evening you will have to put it out before bed. You might want to use soft wood so it will be mostly out anyway before you smother it.

Styles for Building the Fire and What They’re Good For

Cone Shape


Good for: Easy maintenance, warms quickly

Bad for: Burns through wood quickly

To build a cone fire, begin by laying down a large amount of tinder. Then, using small pieces of kindling, form a cone shape on top of the kindling. As the fire grows, continue to add larger sticks. I’ve used this shape on the beach where we weren’t planning to stay but wanted to get warmed up quickly.

Log Cabin/Platform Shape


Good for: long-lasting, good for cooking food, easy to maintain

Bad for: takes longer to get started

Log Cabin – Stack medium sized pieces of wood as if you were building a log cabin — place two pieces of the thickest wood parallel on the bottom, then stack two more on top that are thinner, perpendicular. Stack the wood about 2 inches high and place tinder, kindling and fire starters in the center and light.

Platform – Place the layers close together instead of open as in the log cabin. Add wood until the fire is three levels high. Then set tinder and kindling on top and light. The fire will burn down instead of up. This creates a solid, flat platform of hot coals, perfect for cooking.

Star Shape with Cone Center


Good for: when you don’t have a lot of firewood

Bad for: takes longer to get started

This style uses whole, un-split very dry logs and burns them slowly at the ends to create a long-lasting fire.

Gather five or six logs of medium size about a foot in length. Build a small cone fire with kindling and add the logs in a star shape around the burning cone. As the wood burns, push it closer to the center. Add logs as necessary.

Wind Break


Good for: when it’s windy

Bad for: takes longer to get started

When it’s windy it’s hard to get a fire started and to keep it going. A wind break fire helps with this. It can be any size. To start, place a thick log on the ground and lay your tinder and kindling against it, away from the wind. As the fire grows, gradually add larger sticks, and add another full-sized log to the windbreak when it is big.

The Way to Light a Fire

I’m not going to go into survival techniques for starting fires with flint and steel or friction. These types are for people who have practiced a lot and are good at it. Trying to start a fire with these difficult methods is not for your first time out. Or second. Or maybe even third. I go with matches, butane lighters and other fire starters to light your fire. Have extra kindling ready to feed the flame until the larger pieces of wood catch fire.

Some Fire Safety Tips

Put it out before you sleep: Once you are done with your fire, extinguish it thoroughly.

Never leave your campsite without making sure your fire is completely out.

Have a bucket of water, dirt or sand to smother the fire in an emergency. Have a shovel to stir it to make sure those coals are out good. You’d be surprised how resilient coals are. They can smolder a long time.

Now bring on the S’mores!

Published on Sep 3, 2020

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