Unlike how Hollywood portrays it, learning how to build a fire isn’t as easy as rubbing two wooden sticks together until one of them catches fire or even holding a lighter to a dry branch. Learning how to build a fire takes time, practice, and sometimes even luck.
Building a fire isn’t just about impressing your camping buddies with your wilderness skills. Sometimes it can mean the difference between life or death—your last connection to civilization.
That’s all to say that learning how to build a fire is important survival knowledge. So keep reading to learn all the different methods!
Gathering the Materials
First things first, fires need to eat something. In other words, you need burning material, which you should gather before you even start thinking about how to build a fire. After all, wouldn’t it suck to successfully light a fire, only for it to go out because you didn’t collect enough tinder ahead of time?
So what do fires eat, anyway? Ideal tinder is any material that catches fire easily. In nature, that means dry grass, small twigs, leaves, pine needles, tree bark, and more. If you come prepared, you might use newspapers, other scrap paper, or even use lint from your washing machine. And, of course, you can always buy pre-made tinder.
The idea is anything dry enough to catch flame quickly and get the fire going. Keep in mind that fires can consume tinder very quickly and will run out of steam if they run out of food! So the general rule is to collect twice as much tinder as you think you’re going to need.
People who aren’t used to building fires are usually caught off guard by the amount of tinder that’s actually necessary. For example, to keep a fire burning for a full day, you might need up to a car-sized pile of wood.
In fact, if you’re learning how to build a fire for an overnight camping trip, I suggest you collect enough firewood for 24 hours.
The second material you will need is stones to build the fire bed. Find about two dozen medium-sized dry rocks, avoiding any that might have moss or earth stuck to them,
Last but not least, keep in mind that you’ll be feeding your fire small tinder first (twigs, pine needles, leaves, etc.), and only start throwing in the heavy-duty sticks when it’s been nurtured into a big, roaring flame.
Preparing the Firepit
The next step in learning how to build a fire is building the firepit.
First of all, locate a dry and relatively clear location—or at least a location that you can clean manually without too much of a hassle. The spot should be six feet or more away from anything that might catch fire. That means any trees, vegetation, and, most importantly, your tent.
Never build a fire on the grass, especially not dry grass!
Next, clear the area of any other material that might catch fire unintentionally. That means any grass, leaves, or other natural debris that isn’t a part of your tinder pile. Ultimately, the firepit should sit on bare earth.
If there isn’t any readily available bare earth for you to build a fire on, you’ll have to dig one for yourself, taking care to clear away all plant material that might be hiding in the soil.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the spot should be as dry as possible. The damper it is, the harder it will be for your fire to maintain its flame. Once the area has been cleared, assemble your stones into a large circle, and build a small, raised pile of earth in the center.
Voila! You have your firepit!
Different Methods for How to Build a Fire
The next step in learning how to build a fire is preparing your materials for lighting. This step is variable because there are several different ways to do it. Let’s look at the most common ones:
1. How to Build a Fire with the Teepee Method
If you have any familiarity with building a fire, it’s probably related to the teepee method. That’s because the teepee method is the fire building method that’s traditionally taught to girl and boy scouts. It’s also a great option for an even heat source when cooking.
Plus, it’s the foundation of other fire building techniques, which you’ll learn about later in the post.
But first, back to the teepee method. Make a ball of your most flammable material. Next, build small branches and slabs of bark into a traditional teepee shape around it, like a cone. Start with a frame, and then layer it with other materials to make it a bit sturdier, leaving a small part of the cone open, like a door.
The great thing about the teepee structure is that the instructions are the same, no matter how big a fire you’re building. The rules apply whether you’re putting together a small campfire, as well as building a huge bonfire.
You can even make the teepee structure bigger after starting the fire if you add to the teepee structure.
The last step is lighting the fire. Who brought the s’mores?
2. How to Build a Fire with the Log Cabin Method
The next method for learning how to build a fire is the log cabin method, which is a great choice for long-burning fire needs.
This is one of the fire building methods that builds upon the previously explained teepee method. So, as you might expect, the first step is building a tinder teepee in the middle of your fire pit.
Next, lay two parallel thicker sticks on both sides of the teepee. Once they’re aligned, repeat this step with two more sticks, but place them perpendicular to the first ones. You should now be looking at a square shape (or a tic-tac-toe board), with the teepee structure in the center.
Place about eight to twelve more branches in this same alternate fashion. It should start to look like a small cabin, just without a roof. And you’re done! The final step is actually lighting the fire. Light the teepee part of the structure. The fire will eventually spread to the cabin part, too.
3. How to Build a Fire with the Star Method
This third method for learning how to build a fire also depends on the teepee structure, so check back to that earlier section if you need a reminder. The star method is a great option for slow-burning fires to keep you warm throughout the night and to avoid burning (literally!) through all your kindling too quickly.
As usual (you’re probably an expert by now!), start by building your tee-pee structure. Next, place several bigger logs around the tee-pee in a star shape—with one of their ends pointing towards the cone and just touching the kindling.
I personally think it looks more like a sun than a star, but no matter what celestial body you think it represents, the next step is the same: light that baby on fire!
As the fire grows and eats at the logs, push them closer to the heat source. This should keep it burning for a long time yet!
4. How to Build a Fire with the Platform Method
Though this next way of learning how to build a fire might sound a little wacky, I promise it’s a great option. Especially if you don’t like having to get up to feed your fire every couple of minutes!
If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that in every fire building method listed before this one, the first step was always to place the tinder material into a ball or pile and then build the actual wooden structure around it.
This method is a little different because we’ll be laying the thicker firewood down first.
Take several thick logs, and lay them in your firepit, parallel and touching. Do this again with several other slightly thinner logs, but lay them on top and perpendicular to the first set. Repeat this process as much as you want—you decide how tall you want your fire to be!
You’ll notice that in this method, the fire eats its way down the firewood, which means that once it catches well, you don’t need to worry about feeding it as often as other fires. For this reason, it’s sometimes also called the upside-down fire.
5. How to Build a Fire with the Lean-To Method
Last but not least, we have the lean too method. Though this method of learning how to build a fire doesn’t depend on the tee-pee structure, the idea is pretty similar.
The basic structure of a lean-to method is exactly what it sounds like: leaning smaller logs against a bigger one, to shield your kindling from the wind. Like a lean-to shelter, but much smaller.
There is a slightly more complex version of the lean-to method, however, that might get your fire burning faster and for longer. Instead of leaning your smaller branches directly against a big log, do so with a single long, thin green branch (green branches are less likely to burn).
As seen from above, the thicker log and the thinner green branch should now look like a T-shape.
Next, lean the rest of your tinder against the long green branch in an A-frame shape. Once the first layer of thinner branches has been created, add additional layers of thicker firewood.
During this process, make sure to leave an opening through which you can reach the pile of tinder within the lean-to, just like you did for the tee-pee structure.
How to Put Out a Fire Pit
If you’ve reached to this section of the post, then hopefully, it means that you’ve learned at least one new way for how to build a fire.
But the truth is that you should never learn how to build a fire without first knowing how to put it out safely. You never ever want to leave a firepit that hasn’t been completely extinguished!
Here are things you should keep in mind when putting out the flames after learning how to build a fire:
- First, let the fire smolder to embers. Don’t leave it unattended while it dies down—a stray spark could still cause massive damage.
- If you’re in a rush, your instinct might be to speed up the process by dumping a bunch of water on the flames all at once. While this does help things go faster, it could also ruin the fire site and make it unusable as a firepit anymore.
- Once the fire has smoldered (or drowned) to embers, start the final process of extinguishing them 20 minutes before you have to vacate the area.
- Even when it comes to just embers, it takes longer than you might think to put them out, so I like to set an alarm on my phone to help me remember.
- The best way is to slowly and steadily pour a little bit of water into the embers. You can do so with a water bucket, a watering can, or even a simple water bottle.
- When you think the embers are completely wet, use a stick to move them around. Usually, there are still pockets of heat beneath them or in hidden corners. Sprinkle water again, and continue pouring and moving them until you are certain that every side of the embers has cooled.
- Last but not least, give a final check before you pack up completely and leave. If the fire is completely extinguished, there shouldn’t be any more heat, steam, or hissing noises rising from the firepit. That means you should be able to touch the embers with your bare hands.
- If you hear hissing noises, that means some of the embers are still burning, so you have to continue pouring water and stirring them.
Now You Know How to Build a Fire!
I hope that by the end of this post, you feel comfortable enough to set out and build your own fire. Learning how to build a fire is important, not just for outdoor recreational activities—sometimes it’s a matter of survival! No fire building method is better than any other, but some are more appropriate for certain situations, so make sure to keep in mind what exactly you’re building a fire for.
Want more fire content? Next, read more about starting fires for survival.