A camping skill basic: Safe fire building

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Guest post by Craig who blogs at The Nature Nurd.

image by Jon Cage

One of the best ways to build survival/preparedness/self-reliance skills is to do so under a controlled environment.  What better place to build a variety of skills AND to get your family involved then during a camping trip?

Whether its 10 degrees outside or a 100, fire is a natural and often a necessary part of camping. You can cook on it, boil water, use it to keep warm, and just generally feel comfortable just because you have a fire.  I’d like to share with you some safe and helpful tips for building a safe fire when you are out camping with the family either this summer or sometime in the future.

Prepare your site

Most developed camping areas will have a designated spot for the fire, aka a fire ring.  The reasons for a fire ring are pretty simple.  They keep the fire in a semi-controlled area of the site and also limit the impact from repeated fires to the same location on the campsite.  Most state parks are heavily used and this cuts down on environmental impact and reduces the chance of the fire getting out of control and starting a wildfire.  It might be a good idea at home if you burn a fire regularly to create a designated fire ring or area for the same reasons.

Gather your materials

To start a fire effectively you need three types of wood: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

  • Tinder is the smallest material of the three and is what takes the initial spark to get the others going.  Examples might include leaves, pine needles, pine cones, dry grass, newspaper, etc.
  • Kindling is next in size and is the bridge, so to speak, between the tinder and the larger wood which is also known as fuel.  Some public parks may have regulations against gathering firewood so be careful and ask before you gather.  Tinder is usually finger sized wood which is placed in such a way to catch the flames from the lit tinder placed below it.
  • Lastly the fuel wood is the largest and burns the longest of the three.
image by mikemol

Let’s get this party started!

There are several different arrangements you can make your fire into. All of them have advantages and disadvantages.  My personal favorites are the log cabin and the tepee fires.


The tepee is one of the simplest and most common type of fires built.  To build it, place your tinder in a small pile in the middle of your fire ring or the area in which you will be starting your fire.  My personal tinder choice I carry with me almost all the time is dryer lint.  I seem to never, ever run out of it no matter how hard I try! It’s quite flammable and easy to add to any backpack or camping kit.  It does need to stay dry in order to light effectively so I usually keep it in a Ziploc bag with a Bic lighter.

Place a handful of dryer lint into the middle of your ring and place any other tinder on it as well.  Then arrange your kindling into a tepee type structure over the pile of tinder.  Light the tinder.  The idea is that the tinder will burns larger and will catch the kindling on fire, causing it to fall over into a pile. At that point you’ll add the larger fuel wood to the hot kindling.

image by kcxd

Another great choice is the log cabin fire.  To build it, follow the previous instructions for the teepee. Then, around the tinder and kindling teepee, lay logs down parallel like a log cabin in a square shape and up.  This forms a solid structure good for cooking or warming food.  Additionally it will burn a long time!  The shape will form a chimney funneling air into it further causing it to burn well.

Don’t play with fire

So now you have your fire going. You are warm and have cooked your food, so now how do you put out the fire? If you are leaving your campsite or are trying to hide your tracks, you want to make sure that fire is completely out before you move on. It’s not a bad idea to have a bucket of water close by to douse your fire once you are ready to put it out and perhaps a shovel of some sort.  I prefer a small military style shovel with a folding blade.  Use the shovel to knock down and spread out the logs then slowly pour water onto the burning parts.

If you have hot coals you can use the shovel to stir them in with the water.  Be careful pouring water onto hot rocks as they could explode when cooled quickly.  Repeat as needed to cool the fire until it goes out.  The fire needs three different things to keep burning: fuel, air, and heat.  Take one or more of these away and the fire goes out.

Hopefully I have given you a decent introduction to safe fire building, an essential of camping, survival and preparedness.  Fire can provide so many things and can do wonders to improve the morale in your group, no matter what the occasion.  Be safe out there!

Craig has been involved in the outdoors for many years as an Eagle Scout and working for two state park systems as an adult. He spends his time in Texas with his family honing his skills and learning new ones.

7 thoughts on “A camping skill basic: Safe fire building”

  1. I’m sorry, I didn’t think it would come to this… *sigh* Okay… *summons courage from within*

    I have to Disagree with the bucket of water bit. it’s handy in an emergency… it also works pretty well for putting out a fire… water who knew… your right about the rocks. dumping water on the fire has caused us some issues.. #1 Steam it can be seen for MILES around. it’s like a big neon sign in the sky (Roadrunner style) saying “Here I am! Eat me!” We usually use Dirt from near a water source or just moist dirt. then pack it down over the fire tightly. this smothers it. it also does a pretty good job of baking any foil wrapped potatoes that were tossed in the fire before covering it.. give it a few hours after your hike and you have food ready!

    Thanks, Gary

  2. great article! good description of how tinder -> kindling -> fuel works.

    2 things though:

    1.) you are right about wanting to keep your fire circle in one area but you forgot to mention to be mindful of the trees above you. make sure you stay far enough away from branches in case a gust of wind come by and blows your fire toward them. same goes for power lines.

    2.) i was always taught never to pour water on a fire but to sprinkle water on it, stir it around and stamp out any left over embers. if you pour water on at night and need to start a new fire in the morning, it will be difficult if your fire circle is still soaking wet.

  3. Pingback: oops im a few days behind. | Tha Survival Nurd

  4. After camping in all kinds of places for more years than I care to think of, and more than once struck out on getting a fire going, I have made it a goal to come up with something that works. And, I think I have. Tried the dryer lint. That stuff works sometimes. Tried the cotton balls and petroleum jelly. What a mess. Even tried coating them with candle wax. Still a mess. Then I discovered these little round, kind of quilted, cotton pad things. Fifty for $2. Not a bad deal. I “liquified” some petroleum jelly (PJ) and dipped about a dozen of these cotton pad things up to around half to three-quarters of their diameter into the liquified PJ. Not all at once, one at a time. After the dunking I placed them on plastic wrap to cool. Seemed like it took forever for the PJ to get to state where it didn’t smear all over everything they touched, so I put them in the fridge for a while. Worked great. The PJ solidified quite nicely. Took one outside. Tried to get one going with a magnesium striker. Twenty of thirty strikes later, and no fire, I decided that there has to be a better way. I originally only soaked them 1/2 to 3/4 so that I would have a place to grab them without getting any PJ on my fingers. That part worked fairly well. The ignition part hasn’t, yet. So, I made three or four tears on the dry part. This was to expose some cotton fibers. Two scratches of the striker and I had a fire going! Even in a 10-15 MPH breeze! The silly thing burned for almost three minutes. I stack them up and store in a Zip-lock bag, with a couple of ‘dry’ pads on each end. Wish I had found this out a long time ago!

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