Despite being one of the most important outdoor skills, I’ve seen firsthand just how many people struggle with building a campfire. Whether it’s smothering a new fire with too much green wood, failing to properly prepare, or not creating a base that allows air to flow, all of these are mistakes that will work against you as you try in vain to get yours to light. It’s not rocket science to start a fire, but you’ll have a lot more success if you avoid these mistakes.
Don’t start a fire anywhere
For starters, you need to choose the right location. Don’t start a fire under the base of a tree, or in an area where nearby grasses or other materials may catch and spread. A rough rule of thumb is to have at least 10 feet of space around your campfire, free from anything that can burn, or be a hazard (like rocks you can trip over and fall into the fire).
Don’t make it too hard
Sure, using a flint and steel will create the sparks you need to start a fire, but why make it any harder on yourself than it needs to be. Keep a lighter in your bug-out kit (or two) so you’ve always got a flame within easy reach. It’s much easier to get your fire burning if you’ve got a ready flame that’s available at the flick of a switch.
Don’t build it on wet ground
If you’re trying to get a fire going on wet, soggy ground, you’re going to have a difficult time. My advice is to clear an area until you reach a drier layer of dirt underneath, or to create a base out of flat rocks that you can start your fire on. Otherwise the water will soak into the fire from the ground up, making it much more difficult to get started.
Don’t use wet materials
It seems obvious but it also needs to be said. Whatever you collect to burn needs to be dry, otherwise the water content inside the wood will smother your budding fire. Once it’s roaring you can of course throw on the occasional bit of wet wood, but be wary of putting too much. It will kill the fire you’re building if you use wet (or green) firewood.
Don’t skimp on the kindling
You can’t expect a small handful of paper to create enough heat for a log the size of your wrist to start burning, but that’s where many people go so wrong. Take the time to collect dry grasses, twigs and even carve slices off larger branches for your kindling. The more kindling you have, the easier it will be to get a fire started.
Don’t forget about oxygen
A fire needs to breathe, just like we do, and one of the best things you can do in the early stages is to feed it plenty of oxygen. You can do this manually by blowing into the burning tinder, or use your hat, a pot lid, or whatever you’ve got to fan the flames. Take care you don’t blow it out, but the general rule is more airflow is better.
Don’t run out of firewood
If there’s one thing I can say about firewood, it’s that you can never have enough. Whatever you’ve collected so far, you’re going to need two or three times that amount to keep your fire burning overnight. It’s much easier to scout and bring back bigger logs in daylight, so this should be a key priority while it’s still light outside.
Don’t just throw the wood on
Piling the wood on at the first signs of life in your fire is a sure way to kill it off before it catches alight. You need to take care, especially in the initial stages, that each piece of wood you add to the fire is the right size (remember to start small), and that they’re stacked in a teepee style that allows enough oxygen to reach the flames so it can burn.
Don’t stop checking the fire
Keeping a close eye on the fire is important for safety, but also to ensure there’s enough wood to burn. It will slowly die and fizzle out if no new fuel is added, which can be a pain overnight if you need the heat your fire offers. But it’s important to keep checking the fire, and adding more wood as you need to ensure it has plenty of materials to burn.
Don’t let kids run around it
The burning flames can draw a child’s attention like a moth to a flame, and they will be curious and want to play with the dancing flames until they burn themselves. You need to teach any kids with you the importance of fire safety, especially not to run around the fire pit. One fall, and the burns they’ll suffer will quickly put an end to your camping trip.
Don’t leave it burning
Finally, and this should be pretty obvious, but once you’re breaking camp make sure to put your fire out. Dousing it with water is the best way to ensure its completely extinguished, or if that’s not an option spread the coals out as best you can and cover them with a deep layer of dirt. They’ll smolder, but at least the risk of a bushfire is gone.
If you’re able to overcome each of these mistakes when you’re making a fire, I can guarantee you this. You’ll find it much easier to build (and keep) a roaring fire going when you’re in the outdoors, and your friends will be suitably impressed with your “fire-master” skills. It doesn’t take much to master all of these with your campfire, but too many people will either skip steps or not bother entirely, and that’s why their fires will fail. Yours wont.