How to Make a Fire in the Woods

Making a fire (aka caveman television) is by far one of the most fun parts of camping.  There is even scientific evidence showing that we love campfires because fire sparked the evolution of the human mind, but we won’t get into that here. 🙂  What you want to know is how to make a fire in the woods.

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Start with Your Fire Pit or Circle

No matter what, you ALWAYS must contain your fire.  This usually means digging a fire pit or making a circle with rocks.  Seriously, do not skip this step.  No matter how immune to forest fires you think you are, it is best to play it safe.  Plus, that pit or rock circle will be a good resting point for your poker sticks.

See all of that dry brush? That's why you need a fire ring or pit!

See all of that dry brush? That’s why you need a fire ring or pit!


Tinder vs. Kindling vs. Fuel Wood

Once I went camping with a complete newbie and took it for granted that some people don’t know how to make a fire.  Here’s what happened:

The fire I’d built had died down.  We were in the tent getting ready to sleep.  Well, it turns out that my super-macho friend was scared out of his mind of bears (nevermind that there weren’t any bears where we were camping!).  He was getting on my nerves, so I reassured him by saying, “Don’t worry.  Even if there were any wild animals out there, they would have been scared off by the fire.”

Two minutes later, he gets out of the tent to refuel the fire!  Except that the fire had died down to embers and he put giant logs on top of them.  Well, you can’t light a giant log with embers.  Within a few minutes, there was smoke all over the place and making me gag.  I had to go out and (trying not to laugh at him 😉 ) explain that first you put on little sticks, then you put on bigger sticks, and only then you put on the big logs.

So, to break it down technically, here’s the type of wood you need:

  • Tinder: This is very dry, very small pieces of wood or fluffy items like dry moss or bark. Tinder is what you use to start your fire.  Some people bring their own tinder when camping.
  • Kindling: These are small sticks and twigs. Once you’ve got your tinder burning, you use the tinder to light the kindling.
  • Fuelwood: Contrary to what you might think, you don’t need big giant logs for your fire. Sticks and branches about the circumference of your arm are ideal for more campfires.  Once your kindling is burning, you put the fuelwood on.
This is ALL Kindling!

The wood on the left is kindling.  The wood on the right is tinder. 


Gathering Firewood

As I talk about in this post about things to never bring camping, DO NOT USE AN AX TO CUT FIREWOOD!  Aside from destroying nature, cutting trees for firewood is a bad idea because the wood is still alive.  You want dead, dry wood for your fire!  It really shouldn’t be that hard to find branches that have fallen.  If you are at a popular campground which has already been picked clean, then you might need to walk a bit further to find firewood.

Make sure you GET A LOT OF KINDLING.  In fact, get 3x more kindling than you think you will need.   You’d be surprised how quickly a campfire burns up all that wood, and you don’t want to go gathering more wood after dark.  That’s a good way to sprain your ankle!

This stack of firewood lasted us a few hours.

This stack of firewood lasted us a few hours.


Breaking Wood

You just found a great piece of firewood but it is 15 feet long? Never try to break branches with your arms.  You’ll end up with a lot of scratches.  Instead, try these methods:

  • The Under-Foot Break: Get your boots on. Leave the branch on the ground and put your foot at the point where you want to break it.  Then pull the branch upwards with your hands.
  • The Over-Knee Break: Bend one knee up in the air. Hold the branch over your knee and pull both sides towards you.  It should break over your knee.
  • Use the Fire: If a branch is too big to break, then you can just lay it over the fire. The fire will eventually burn away the middle of the branch so it breaks.  Then you can just push the branch further into the fire.

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