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How to Start an Amazing Campfire

Amazon disclaimer

Ok, who doesn’t like campfires? Daddy Critter was a Scout and I think it’s required that all Scouts have a little firebug in them.  In almost all cases when camping the Critterz love a fire (when it’s allowed). We’ll teach you how to build a campfire several different ways.

There are many uses for a fire when camping, being able to cook food, keep warm and provide light. Food is usually the main reason most campers start a campfire. Think of all that delicious food you can make: S’mores, camper pies, tinfoil dinners, cobbler, hot dogs, etc. The list goes on and when you’re camping, food cooked over a fire seems to just taste better.

That said, packing the right gear for starting a fire and understanding how to build a campfire is important to a successful camping trip. The Critterz will go over what fire starters we like to use (practical and impractical) and how we do the actual fire builds.

Safety Note: Fire burns, be careful when handling and working with the fire. Have a bucket of water within reach to quickly put out any fire that spreads beyond the ring. When you’re done with the fire, ensure it’s out. This is especially important in the dry months. Wind/sparks/etc. can do unpredictable things and you don’t want to start a forest fire. Practice fire safety at all times.


How to light a campfire:

Let’s start with the fun stuff, flames! When packing, you’ll have to decide what lighters and fire starters work best for you given the trip. You may want to bring a couple forms of ignition in case one doesn’t work. Don’t rely on one lighter only to have it run out of fuel halfway though your camping trip. If you want to pack light/compact, some of the options below will be too big, so bring a few of the smaller options.

Campfire Lighters

  • BIC Classic

The BIC, it’s simple and it works. This lighter is light weight, cheap, reliable, and boring. Boring is great when you need a fire.

pack of 5 zippo lighters

No matter the trip, we always have one of these on hand just because it’s so easy and light. The only negative to the BIC lighter is wind puts it right out. If someone tells you that you need an expensive lighter for camping, find someone else to get advice from. This isn’t to say those survival lighters aren’t neat/fun little tools (Daddy Critter very much enjoys all sorts of gizmos) but it’s just not necessary.

  • Grill lighter

There are a lot of basic grill lighters out there. These are also simple, relatively cheap and reliable in our experience.

Pack of 4 grill lighters

The grill lighter isn’t built for backpacking trips but if you’re doing some version of car/camper/cabin camping this is a nice tool. The length allows you to get the flame where you want which is a plus because you’re less likely to get burned.

  • Zippo

This is a bit of a fancy choice and gets a bit closer to those unnecessary survival lighters. Not sure why but Daddy Critter really likes his Zippo. Ok, we know why, it gives him something to fidget with and practice all his cool lighter tricks (firebug).

Green zippo lighter

However, Zippos do have a couple of practical features worth considering. 

The Zippo flame is wind resistant which gives them an advantage on the BIC. Also, they can last forever because it’s easy to replace the flint and refill the lighter fluid. The first Zippo Daddy Critter got is over 20 years old now and has zero issues. 

If for some reason the zippo doesn’t light, it’s likely you can still create sparks and in an emergency situation if you have dry tinder, you may be able to light it that way.

However, there is a con worth mentioning, if the Zippo gets in water, it’s unusable until you can dry it out and add lighter fluid. The BIC doesn’t have that issue.

Matches 

  • Match book / Box Matches

Yep, that tiny folded matchbook or those little match boxes make for a cheap, reliable ignition source. No, they aren’t wind and water resistant but they work great the majority of the time. Also, if you want a little water resistance, you can put them in the ziploc snack pack bag.

  • Strike Anywhere

A step above the book/box of matches, the strike anywhere really just adds a bit of fun. Now you can strike the match on the fire ring or the rocks that make the ring and amaze other campers! Yes, the box is right there and you could have done that too, but that’s not as fun.

  • Waterproof / Stormproof

To be honest, we’ve had these water proof matches in the past but they’re brought as a backup or just for fun.

Waterproof matches for camping

The good news is they are lightweight, you only need to bring a few and they work great for backpacking trips. Sometimes the coatings make it hard to light but with a little practice these work just fine. Try some out before you go just in case you need to use them.

Advanced:

Both of the below options may be unnecessary, either primitive or overzealous, but can make for a fun time.

  • Fire Steel

Ferro rods are a cool way to start a campfire. The sparks fly with each strike and they last a long time before you eat through the rod.

ferro rod for starting a campfire

The best part, it works really well in our experience. This makes a good challenge when you have time to try it out. You have to be very cognizant of the tinder you’re using and build up slow but it’s pretty rewarding to get from a spark to a roaring campfire! 

  • Propane torch

Ok, so propane torches are totally unnecessary, I understand. But if you’re car camping or camper camping this is a fun little accessory that starts that fire right up.

Propane torch lighter

If your wood is a little damp, it’s no problem. Forgot the fire starters and maybe the tinder is a little thick? This lighter doesn’t care. If you don’t want to leave the campfire to chance, this is the tool for you. This is the best tool for lighting a campfire with wet wood.

Fire starters

Depending on your tinder, maybe you don’t need these. However, it certainly is helpful to have them when the other stuff is a little damp or you’re having a hard time getting tinder/small pieces to get those logs burning. If you’re cost conscious, we recommend making your own, it’s easy to do. However, if you don’t want to take the time to make your own, here are the best fire starters you can buy:

  • BlackBeard Fire Starters
Blackbeard Fire Starter
You only need a tiny amount for a roaring fire!

We love Blackbeard fire starters for starting campfires. They work wet or dry, in warm weather or in snow. Daddy Critter got some for Father’s day one year and we love using them. They’re a great US based company and we obviously love supporting small businesses whenever we can.

BlackBeard Fire Starters are so great, Momma Critter sent them an email about how awesome their product is and they got us a code so we can get you 10% off! Use code: CampingCritterz at checkout or use this link!

  • SOL Fire Lite Kit
SOL fire light kit

This one comes with the sparker but the tinder fire starters are waterproof and lightweight. A great option for backpacking.

  • Coghlan’s Fire Sticks
Coghlan's fire sticks fire starter

These fire sticks are a bit bigger than other one-time use options, but we keep them in our car camping gear (in addition to the home made ones). They work every time. Honestly, I think Daddy Critter got the ones we have now as a stocking stuffer.


Wood types you need for a Campfire:

There are 3 types of wood you need to start a camp fire. In the beginning the tinder and kindling are the most important.

You want your tinder to be as dry as possible so it catches fire right away. Have kindling ready to go, so the tinder doesn’t burn out and go to waste without lighting something more stable on fire.

Once the fire is established, slowly add fuel in the form of bigger logs to keep the fire burning evenly.

Tinder

Tinder for starting a camp fire. A collection of different kinds of small sticks, the size of a matchstick. Match sticks for comparison.

Tinder can be wood shavings, grass, pine needles, paper, etc. You’re looking for things that light easily and stay lit for a bit. Fire starters are really tinder that you bring with to help you along the way. This stuff you can get or make on site. For example, grab a camp axe and just start taking off small shavings from the wood you have. Pretty easy.

Small (Kindling)

Kindling for starting a campfire, smaller sticks the size of your thumb.

Kindling is small to medium sticks, typically the size of your thumb. All you’re trying to do with this is to build up from your tinder and/or fire starters so you can catch those medium and large pieces of wood on fire.

Medium/Large (Fuel)

Fuel logs for building a campfire. One split log stacked on top of a log pile.

This is your bundle of wood you purchased, or scrounged up. For this, a split log always works better if you have the option.

How to Build a Campfire:

The below are three examples of builds to start a fire. In my experience Teepee type always seems to be the go to but it depends on what wood is available and how big of a fire we’re having. In all builds, make sure you don’t pack in the fuel too tight. Remember, air is a critical part of having success with a fire. Without air flow, you can’t have fire and you’ll just end up frustrated.

Teepee

The tee pee campfire style is the Camping Critterz go to for a quick basic fire.

Example of a teepee campfire. Larger sticks balanced against each other so they stand up forming a pyramid or teepee shape. The space in the middle is filled with tinder.

Start by leaning 2 sticks together, a forked stick is key to starting this off. Then keep balancing more sticks to create a larger fire. Place the tinder in the middle and build a mini-teepee over that to ensure the tinder catches something else on fire as it burns.

Light the tinder and keep adding on bigger pieces of wood until you’re at the size of fire you’re looking for.

Eventually teepee fires fall over, so be aware of Young Critterz being close to the fire. Once it does tip over, you can convert it into some kind of lean-to fire by laying sticks against the biggest log.

Lean-to

A lean to fire is great for blocking wind from a specific direction since you’re building a wall on one side.

Example of Lean-to campfire. A large log lays on it's side with smaller sticks leaned between the log and the ground. The space below the sticks has small tinder.

Take a large log and lay sticks against it making a triangle shape. Put the tinder at the base of the large log ensuring that there are bigger sticks above it to catch on fire. You can also lean smaller sticks on top of the tinder to give the tinder something to catch fire as it burns.

To be honest, we don’t use this often because we are already in a fire ring of some sort. However, if you have a large log to start with and want to build off the side of it, this is a great option.

Log Cabin

The log cabin fire is for those larger fires. When you’re talking big bonfires, this is our go to. It’s fun watching a good log cabin campfire burn down.

Example of log cabin campfire. Sticks and logs arranged in a square with smaller sticks in the middle.

Daddy Critter loves the campfires you don’t sit right next to, he prefers the ones you gather and watch the fire from a distance.

It’s easy to build this campfire. Grab 2 similarly sized logs and lay them parallel to each other. Then stack 2 more similarly sized pieces of wood 90° to those, making a square. Keep going to create about 4 levels. Place the tinder in the middle and create a tiny log-cabin with smaller wood in the middle.

If you stack it too high, it can fall over, so watch the Young Critters. Keep stacking wood as it burns down.

Campfire Building Tips:

When building a campfire, pick your build and start with the fire starters and/or tinder in the bottom/middle. Build up from there with your kindling and into larger sticks/logs. Try lighting it in several places at first to give it a better chance.

Add bigger wood little by little, being careful not to add too much and snuff it out. It’s better to keep things a bit smaller and feed the fire more often. You’re there to enjoy so there’s no reason to dump a bunch of logs on the fire all at once.

After a while the coals will get hot enough that tossing another log on the fire won’t be a big deal at all. 

It’s just fine to build the fire little by little as you learn. Eventually you’ll get able to create a full build and light it from the start. A challenge you can try (but has no award) is to spend the time building it just right and seeing if you can light it with just one match. If that fails, try again… or get that Propane Torch out and show it who’s boss!

Note: For MN, harvesting downed trees or dead wood isn’t allowed at state campgrounds. Be sure to understand local regulations. In those cases, we find it easiest to just buy a bundle of wood at the campground.

Frequently Asked Questions:

  • How can I keep my toddler/child safe from the fire?

Our awesome Auntie brought along a portable dog fence and put it around 2/3rds of the campfire ring. This kept her puppy and our 1 year old decently safe from most of the fire. The only opening was usually occupied by an adult who was cooking or tending the fire, so this worked really well.

  • How do you keep a nice, big fire going?

Building a nice, hot campfire isn’t something you do once and then walk away. Having a good campfire is an activity. Fires need fuel and air to keep going once they’re lit. Any of the above styles of campfire will eventually burn down and collapse, and once that happens, part of the fire can be smothered.

If you want to keep a fire going all evening, you literally have to have someone keeping the fire going. You need to add wood when the fire is starting to get low and you need to make sure that there is good airflow to keep the fire hot. Prop logs on top of the current fire so that air can get between them.

  • How do you start a fire with wet wood?

This one is tricky. Find the driest wood that you can, if you’re allowed to harvest wood check under pine trees or find a dead branch that you can snap off of a tree. If your wood is all soaked, it’s still possible to get a fire but it will be a long process.

Look for leaves at the bottom of a pile for dry tinder if it’s just started raining. If it’s been wet for days, the leaves on the top of the pile may be the driest. Birch bark will light when wet, an dried leaves usually will as well, as long as they’re not dripping wet. Pine needles or dried grasses are also usually good even if damp.

When the ground is very wet or if you’re building a fire in snow, try to start your fire up off the wet ground if you can. A fire pit with a grate in the bottom works really well, otherwise build a log cabin style of fire built on flat logs or bark as the base.

A lot of campers swear by fire logs, especially if they know they’ll be needing to start a campfire in wet weather. These usually light quickly and burn for a long time, so surround it with kindling and small logs to start with and build from there.

You only need a tiny bit of these amazing fire starters

Get a lot of tinder and kindling and a great fire starter. We either make our own from home with wax and dryer lint, or use an awesome BlackBeard fire starter. Get everything assembled before you light anything. Use the tips above for starting the fire, but add wood very slowly. Once you get the smallest flame going, you don’t want to snuff it out.

Wet log drying out over a campfire
Drying out wet wood for our campfire

Lay your wet wood along the edge of the fire to help dry it out. Add wood as it dries and then place more wood along the edge to dry it. If you’re at a campsite that has a grill or grate over the fire pit, this is an excellent way to dry out damp or wet logs. Literally roast the water out of your wood!

  • How do you light a fire in the rain?

If you have dry wood but it’s actively raining the best way to start a fire is quickly. Keep everything as dry as possible with tarps, and start your fire fast. Don’t smother it, but the quicker you can get big flames, the better. This isn’t the time to try our your new flint and steel, this is the time for the trusty campfire lighter or even a blow torch.

Once you have a fire going, don’t let it go out. Keeping a fire going, even while it’s raining, is much easier than starting a fire while it’s raining. Read more tips for camping in the rain here.

  • How do you build a fire in snow?

This is much the same principle as building a fire in the rain. If there is snow on the ground try to clear some away to make a fire pit. If you have an actual fire pit, clear the snow out of it and around the edges. Try to estimate which way the water will run when the snow melts and pile the snow on the downhill side.

You can even use snow to make a wind break for your fire if needed.

Use a good fire starter and the driest wood you have and go for it. Having a campfire in the snow is always a magical experience.


Be safe and watch those firebugs in your family. A stick that goes in the fire stays in the fire.

We hope this helps you figure out how to build a great campfire! Tell us about your favorite fire starting method in the comments!

May you all have many warm, successful campfires!

Happy Camping!

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