The Basics Of Starting And Maintaining A Campfire

The basics of starting and maintaining a campfireYou may say that you already know how to build a campfire. In fact, everybody knows how to build a campfire. However, allow me to offer some suggestions that could facilitate things for you when you need to start a campfire in the wilderness.

I spend a lot of time in the outdoors and I’ve learned from some of the best. I never take things for granted and I’ve educated myself to have a humble attitude when it comes to the wilderness. Building a campfire that lasts will help you stay warm, will boil your water and cook your food, and it will become the center of your social gatherings. Nothing beats a well-made campfire when it comes to survival.

Looking for burning materials for your campfire

The key to getting a fire going quickly is in selecting the right tinder. If you brought tinder for home you won’t need to look for natural tinder and you have much more time in setting up your campfire. If that’s not the case, you need to look for natural tinder such as dry moss, small and dry twigs, dried pitch nodules, a handful of shavings from a dead tree, the outer layer of birch bark. Dead brown needles from any type of conifer tree will work great as tinder and many outdoors enthusiasts consider it to be the best fire starter.

If you found the tinder, the next thing to look for are small dead limbs. Get the ones that are drier for your campfire as it will help maintain a steady flame. To find such limbs look low on the trunk of a live tree or the interior of a dense shrub, where they are protected from moisture. Break off the small ends of the twigs and place them immediately above the tinder. Use the slightly larger butts for the next layer of campfire material.

Now, it is time to look for slightly larger firewood that is suspended off the ground, such as limbs that are still attached to dead logs. Small trees that are not lying directly on the ground also make good firewood for your campfire. If the wood you found is in contact with the ground, leave it be since it makes poor burning material. The same goes for wood that has begun to rot.


Suggested reading: Various fire setups you can build in the wild


Preparing the materials for your campfire

In my bugout bag, I keep a survival hatchet to cut firewood, but sometimes it’s easier to break large pieces of wood over a log or a rock. You can use a pair of gloves to protect your hand from splinters and vibration. The smaller twigs can be easily broken by hand and there is no need for an axe or a knife.

Break your firewood into relatively small pieces, not more than two feet in length. There is no use to make a huge campfire, unless you’re trying to signal for help. A small campfire will suffice for both warming and cooking purposes.

Some people prefer to build rock fire rings, but I usually place one or two flat rocks next to my fire bed to set things on. It doesn’t leave too much scars on the land and I can easily return the spot to its original appearance. The area around the fire bed should be scraped down to plain soil to reduce the risk of igniting nearby materials. Camping in a forested environment means that you will eventually build your campfire on damp soil. This can cause two issues:

  1. The dampness tends to reduce the temperature, which inhibits the flames’ ability to grow;
  2. When the fire heats up, the water in the soil begins to steam. This can cool the fire or put it out altogether.

To deal with the dampness of the soil, you need to put a layer of insulation between the ground and the fire. You need combustible material that will last long enough to let the fire mature before burning up. If you lack man-made materials such as cardboard or paper, use a tight later of small dry limbs.


Related article: Starting a fire against all odds


Building the fire

Start by setting two pieces of wood about four to six inches in diameter about six to eight inches apart. Green ones last longer, but dry ones work just as fine. Put the layer of insulation next to the ground. The tinder goes between the two pieces of wood, and then the layer of very fine twigs goes across the two, followed by another layer of slightly larger twigs. Start the fire by igniting the tinder. Don’t add any more wood until the largest of the twigs are well ignited. Add larger pieces of broken limbs as the twigs burn. When the third layer of fuel is well-ignited the fire will continue to burn undisturbed even if the insulation next to the ground is consumed.

The way you layer the combustibles plays and important role and you should do it carefully. This becomes critical especially in cold and/or wet weather. The pieces of firewood should be far enough apart to allow oxygen to the flames, but they must be close enough together to maintain enough heat to keep the fire going. To layer the burning material properly you need to build a few fires and study them. You will get a feel for the optimum spacing after a few tries. Experiment with different types of fires throughout the year.

The self-feeding fire video

If you plan to cook on your campfire, start as soon as the third layer of wood is burning strongly. This is the perfect time to start boiling water since the vigorous flames crate a lot of heat. During this burning stage, it’s easy to burn food so you are better off trying a different approach. Pile a stack of medium sized branches (an inch or two in diameter) on the fire. Let them burn to a good bed of hot coals before putting your skillet over them.

After you’re done with your cooking, the campfire becomes a cozy spot for socializing. Feed the campfire with slower burning pieces of wood for this activity. There is nothing quite like a campfire in the wilderness. A good campfire can save your life, or it can just keep you company and increase your morale. Follow these suggestions and you will be able to start and maintain a campfire under almost any kind of weather condition.  Follow these recommendations you won’t exhaust available firewood supplies; and you won’t freeze during the night.

Happy camping and stay safe out there!

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