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Fail-Proof Fire-Building Tips & Techniques

Follow these basic guidelines, and you'll be lighting up the night like your Stone Age ancestors in no time
By Mike McQuaide
Published: May 1, 2012
fire building techniques tips
One of the best outdoor experiences you can have is sitting around the campfire, perhaps strumming the old favorites on the guitar or telling a few spine-tingling ghost tales, all while getting your s’mores on.

If only you knew how to make a fire that didn’t burn like the Towering Inferno one minute only to flame out into a smoky pile of charred bits the next. In short, if only you knew what the heck you were doing.

Actually, it’s quite simple (not to mention, fun) to build a safe campfire that burns consistently. Follow these steps, and you’ll be hunkered down by a cozy flame in no time.

First, you’ll need to hunt for the proper campfire ingredients: tinder, kindling, fuel logs and some sort of ignition source to get things going. A fire is built in steps. Any trained Boy Scout knows he can’t just hold a lit match to a 5-inch-diameter log and expect it to catch on fire. That’s where tinder and kindling come in.

Tinder catches the initial spark, producing the first smoldering or small flames, which then transfer to kindling. Sheets of newspaper may be the most common tinder sources because they ignite quickly and they temporarily produce a sizable flame that transfers easily to kindling. Paper towels, pieces of egg carton and dryer lint work well also.

If you want to try something different and/or impress your friends, use cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly. They’re easy to pack, and they produce a focused, longer-lasting flame as well. Before you leave for the cabin next time, just take a handful of cotton balls, pull them apart, apply some petroleum jelly and mix them together. Place them in a zip-top bag, and you’re set.

If you want your friends to think you’re Bear Grylls or Survivorman, gather tinder from the great outdoors. Search the ground around your cabin or campsite for dry grasses and leaves, dead plants, cattail heads, tiny twigs, needles, dried mosses and the like, with the emphasis being on the dry and dead aspect. Form this into a small mound, and there you have it: your nest of tinder.
LEAF-BURNING SAFETY – Dead leaves make great tinder, but don’t put them on a well-established fire. They may float away while burning and start another fire!
Next, gather your kindling. These are the larger twigs and small branches that will catch the tinder’s flame, establishing the fire so that it can be transferred to the larger fuel logs. Again, search your site, this time looking for dried wood pieces about 1 foot long and less than 1 inch in diameter. Be sure to gather dead pieces, limbs and branches that have already fallen to the ground, and look for a variety of widths and sizes – from skinny, pencil-lead size to pencil size to foot-long ruler size to everything in between.

Never cut live branches; they don’t burn well and it’s also not good outdoor etiquette. If it’s wet out or outdoor conditions don’t allow you to gather your own kindling, most supermarkets and convenience stores near campgrounds and vacation-rental spots sell kindling, usually narrow cedar slats that easily catch fire.

Fuel logs
For the final fuel source, you’ll need bigger logs and branches. Gather dried pieces of wood, about 2 to 5 inches in diameter. As with kindling, campfire logs can be purchased at a nearby store or campground. Remember that bigger is not necessarily better; fuel logs that are much bigger than an adult’s forearm take longer to catch fire.

Read on to learn how to arrange your tinder, kindling, and fuel logs in one of these three fail-proof configurations. No matter which style you choose, you can either light the fire after you set up the tinder and kindling, or wait until you’ve arranged a starter layer of fuel logs as well.
teepee fire configuration
Pros: Teepee fires burn very hot and are great when it’s especially cold out. They’re also effective if your wood happens to be wet or recently cut and is still a bit green inside. If a large bonfire is your eventual goal, a teepee works well.
Because they burn so hot, teepee fires tend to burn through fuel logs quickly.
Tinder & kindling: In the fire pit, place your tinder nest in the center, and arrange the kindling pieces around it in the shape of a teepee. Leave an opening at one side of the kindling teepee so that you’re able to light the tinder. (Obviously, matches or a lighter are the easiest ways to light the tinder, but see “Campfire Safety Tips" for some cool alternatives.) 
Fuel logs: Place fuel logs atop the kindling in a teepee formation. As the outside logs burn, they’ll eventually fall into the center of the pile, thus feeding the fire by providing more fuel.
log cabin fire configuration
Pros: The log cabin configuration is especially fun if you enjoyed Lincoln Logs as a kid. The square shape acts like a chimney, allowing heat and flames to escape through the top in a somewhat uniform fashion; as such, it’s more conducive to cooking food than a teepee formation.
Cons: Doesn’t burn as hot as the teepee, so it won’t keep you as warm.
Tinder & kindling: Arrange your tinder and kindling just like you did for the teepee configuration.
Fuel logs: Make walls with your fuel logs by stacking them in an alternating square-ish cabin formation around the kindling teepee.
lean-to fire configuration
Pros: Useful when it’s particularly windy out.
Cons: Doesn’t look as cool; kind of one-dimensional.
Tinder & kindling: Place a single log (or even a rock) in the fire pit. Lean kindling against the log, and position the tinder beneath the kindling. The single log acts as a windbreak and will help you ignite the tinder.
Fuel logs: Once the tinder and kindling are aflame, stack fuel logs on top of them against the starter log.

Mike McQuaide is a writer and guidebook author who lives in Bellingham, Wash. He has become an expert at building campfires (mainly because he’s experienced every conceivable way NOT to build one).
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