Learning how to build a campfire is easy. It doesn’t take a lot of work, but knowing a few basics and tricks of the trade can make a big difference between getting it started quick and easy and building a campfire that takes hours to get a good blaze going. The basics are the same as building a fire just about anywhere, you need dry fuel (wood), something that lights easily to get it started (matches, tinder and kindling) and enough oxygen to feed your fire and circulate around the wood (proper stacking). With these basics you’ll be able to start any fire quickly and easily. So read on to learn how to build a campfire!
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, fire is dangerous! Please be safe when considering building any fire, particularly a campfire outdoors which is not in a designated fire pit or fireplace. First of all, before even learning how to build a campfire, review basic fire safety rules. Also, check with local authorities about outdoor fire regulations. There are many public areas where building a campfire is strictly prohibited, especially in wild fire hazard areas. Also, be safe about planning your campfire. Only build a campfire on non-flammable ground (dirt, sand, rock, etc.). Avoid areas with extensive dried leaves, brush and such on the ground which can ignite. Also, it helps to separate your fire pit a bit by digging a slight depression and bedding it and surrounding it with large rocks. Build your fire pit as far as possible from dried plants, brush, overhanging trees, etc. Even if your campfire is in a safe area, flying sparks can ignite nearby dried brush and leaves. If in doubt, ask authorities and those more experienced than you about how to build a campfire safely.
The first important thing you need in building a campfire is tinder. Tinder is basically any material which will ignite quickly and easily only with a few sparks or a match. This does not include firewood! Firewood will not light easily with a match. Common tinder materials include dry, wadded up newspaper, dried leaves, dry brush and cardboard. Unless these things are very dry they will not light easily. The tinder will be placed in your campfire firepit first and kindling (see below) will be laid on top of it as it burns. You don’t need a ton of tinder, just enough to get your kindling burning well.
Kindling is fuel which burns quickly and easily, giving off a lot of heat. It is not big pieces of firewood. Ideal kindling is thinly chipped firewood, small dried branches and dried twigs. This is placed on top of the tinder. When the tinder is ignited the kindling will quickly be lit as well but will burn a bit longer and hotter than the tinder. However, because they are small pieces, it will not last that long and is just used to get the firewood started. Therefore you should have as much kindling available as possible to be sure you can keep feeding the fire until the firewood is burning well.
Firewood really needs to be nice and dry (seasoned) to burn well. Even with great tinder and kindling, a green (fresh and wet) log will take a long time to start and won’t ever burn well. When learning how to build a campfire, many people make the mistake of just using any wood they see laying around or cutting branches from a living tree, which is green and won’t burn well. Ideally, find split, dried pieces of wood. If available, starting out with softwoods like pine can help get your fire started. Softwoods generally ignite more easily than hardwoods and create a nice quick, hot blaze. They do not burn as long as hardwoods but because they ignite easier you can start with them and then start adding hardwoods on top once the softwoods are burning well. If you don’t have softwoods, you can also start with hardwoods but they may take a bit longer to catch and you’ll need more kindling. Hardwoods (such as fruit woods, nut woods, oak, etc.) burn hot and long and are really idea for a good campfire both for cooking and for lasting warmth.
Proper Stacking: Oxygen, Oxygen, Oxygen!
One of the biggest mistakes amateurs make when learning how to build a campfire is improper stacking of wood. Randomly throwing on logs often ends in failure and many people mistakenly assume that the more wood the better, packing their fire pit tightly with stacked wood. What they fail to recognize is that just as much as fire needs dry fuel (wood), it also needs plenty of oxygen! A fire is basically a chemical reaction of the carbon-based materials in wood reacting violently (and thus producing heat and light…fire!) with oxygen. So without plenty of oxygen, the reaction doesn’t occur!
So what does this have to do with wood stacking and learning how to build a campfire? Well, when you pack wood closely together, very little oxygen is getting to the wood. Sure, the surface facing out is getting oxygen but all the surfaces in the middle of the pile won’t burn. To learn how to build a campfire more efficiently, what you want to do is create a lot of space in and around your fire so that oxygen can circulate throughout the wood, around each piece as much as possible. There are various ways to do this. One of the most common is to create a tee-pee type structure, balancing the wood logs against each other to create an inverted cone. This keeps the wood upright and separated enough, with abundant space within the structure, to allow good oxygen circulation. Other options are criss-cross stacking or a “lean-to” where you lay down a piece of wood and then lean several other pieces of wood against it, with plenty of space between each. However you do it, just remember that sometimes less is more. Don’t get too much wood in too fast and don’t pack them together closely. Touching yes, but prop them up so that air can circulate all around each piece of wood.
How to Build a Campfire: Putting it all together
To summarize, once you’ve found a nice spot to build your campfire, collect plenty of tinder, kindling and firewood. Some people like to lay down everything first, starting with a loose pile of tinder on the bottom, partially covered with kindling on top and finally covered by firewood, propped up and stacked well above the tinder and kindling with plenty of room for oxygen to circulate. Others add the layers on as the fire builds, first igniting the tinder while adding kindling on top of the blaze and finally building a tee-pee of wood logs over the kindling fire. However you do it, just remember these principals and you’ll never fail. Just keep adding kindling to the base of the firewood stack until the firewood is burning well on its own. Then maintain your fire by periodically adding more firewood, always leaned against other burning wood in such a way as to maintain the good air circulation so that the added wood lights and burns quickly.
Good luck and enjoy your next campfire!
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