Beginner’s guide to lighting a fire

It's a skill humans have had for millennia - but do you know how to get a decent, safe fire going on your next camping trip?

When you envisage your next camping trip, there’s one element that impacts all the others. We use it to cook food; we use it for warmth; we use it for light when we’ve arrived late and the torch is playing up. It’s what we sit around when we’re swapping stories and looking over a map to plan the next day’s activities. It is, of course, a campfire – and most people don’t know how to light one properly.

Oh sure, when the weather is hot and dry it can be as easy as collecting some leaves and twigs and tossing a match on them, but how long will that last? And what if it’s raining?

Whilst we’re not going to go full-on Bear Grylls-survival on you, lighting a fire is a critical skill for anyone who heads out into the great outdoors. Should you find yourself in trouble, it could even act as a signal of your distress. So for anyone who’s a little unsure of their pyro-ability, here’s a beginner’s guide to lighting a fire.

For cooking, warmth, light or just decoration a good camp fire can make a camping trip

Essential camping items

Let’s take things like a tent and water as a given. In terms of lighting a fire, there are a few essential items you should always pack when setting off on a camping trip:

Waterproof matches
Several lighters (different types)
Folding saw

The first two things on that list might seem obvious; when it comes to lighters, we recommend taking a classic Zippo lighter due to the ‘chimney’ around the flame making it wind-proof, as well as a butane torch lighter, which gives you a flame by pushing down a button and will stay lit in both rain and high winds.

Keeping some candles handy is something you might not think to do, but they’re great for when you need to keep a steady flame going. And speaking of keeping the fire going, we definitely DO NOT recommend using lighter fluid, petrol or any other flammable liquid on your fire. You might want to get your fire going immediately, but if you use flammable liquid the fire is going to be far more difficult to keep under control.

The folding saw comes in handy during the preparation of the fire, so let’s get to that.

Campfire preparation

What are you going to burn? Forget things like newspaper – this will give you a smoky fire which can be uncomfortable to sit around. Dry branches, twigs, and dry grass are the best things to build your fire out of, and are widely available in most places people choose to set up camp.

Do check local rules about collecting fuel - you may have to bring it with you in some places. Also, don't chop down any trees or snap off branches from live trees. This is not allowed almost everywhere and fresh green wood burns very poorly and generates a lot of smoke.

Soft woods like pine tend to burn fast with large flames, whereas hard woods like oak burn slower and less flamboyantly; both are effective. A recommended size for dead branches to collect would be around three inches wide, and around wrist thick. Using your folding saw you can cut the branches into smaller five - ten inch pieces. Splitting the wood to expose more dry areas helps larger logs catch more quickly and burn more evenly - you can do this with a hatches or a heavy knife using the batoning technique.

Split, dry wood is ideal for a hot fire with little smoke

Split, dry wood is ideal for a hot fire with little smoke

When you know you can find the necessary materials, now you should look for the best spot by your campsite to set up the fire. For daytime fires that you’ll use to cook food, look for a sheltered location on solid ground away from overhanging branches. Dry rocks will come in handy as you can rest your cooking utensils on them, and they’ll contain the flames. For overnight fires, you want a location near enough to where you’ll be sleeping for warmth, but not so close it starts to present a danger.

Arranging the fire

For a safe and successful fire, it takes more than just throwing stuff on the ground and taking a lighter to it. Doing it right might take more effort, but it can also be fun – like building a house of cards.

Begin by taking some of split wood and laying it down to create a platform on which you can build your fire. Criss-cross some smaller twigs, scatter some dry grass over the foundation and make a pile of light wood shavings you’ve cut with your folding saw in the centre. Over this, begin to construct a pyramid or teepee shape with smaller branches, and stuff bunches of dry grass between the pyramid structure. Remember not to completely surround the area you’re about to light as the flames will need oxygen. Around the structure, lay some dry stones if possible to prevent spreading, or lay the fire in a fire pit.

Make sure you are well away from tents, overhanging trees or any other flammable materials.

A metal fire pit is safer and gives a good base

A metal fire pit is safer and gives a good base

Setting it alight

Begin by lighting the dry grass between the twigs using either a lighter or match. As it begins to burn, you could try blowing on the flame gently to help it spread to the tinder in the centre and eventually to the wood in your pyramid structure. This might not happen on your first attempt, but keep going and eventually it will light up. Keep an eye on it, as once lit it’s likely it could go out before it is substantial enough. Feed dry wood shavings to the flame as it grows.

Once it’s going, you could poke in some dry twigs and when lit place them on other areas of your structure that are yet to begin burning. As the flames grow and begin to consume the wood, push the large pieces of your structure into the fire towards the centre. At this point the fire should be in full swing and you’ll be able to place your larger pieces of wood on to the blaze. By adding new wood as and when, it should be all you need to keep the fire going.

Because you’ve split the wood to reveal dry areas, this method will work even when it’s raining (as long as you keep the materials dry before adding them to the fire). It might not be instantaneous, but it’s reliable.

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Kindling alternatives

Sometimes there just isn’t enough decent material available to you, so you might need to use alternatives for kindling to help get your fire alight. Some items you might have with you that will set on fire easily and can be used for kindling include:

  • Crisps – due to the fat content, they set alight and burn relatively easily (although it means going hungry until you start cooking your dinner on the flames!)
  • Cotton balls and Vaseline – catches fire very easily and will burn for a long time like a candle due to the Vaseline acting as fuel. The Two Blondes recommend tampons + hand gel as emergency firelighters.
  • Pine cones – if you can gather up a bunch, pine cones are very effective as they’re quick to catch fire and they actually smell rather nice when burning.
Dry pine cones are easy to find and make good firelighters

Dry pine cones are easy to find and make good firelighters

Read more:

Fire safety when camping
Cooking over a camp fire