With the right materials and tools just about anyone can learn how to start a fire on their own. As long as you know the basic structures like the teepee, log cabin, and pyramid you will do just fine in the outdoors. Starting a fire can take 10-20 minutes but knowing how to safely put one out is what is most important. Learn how you can stay warm while still keeping the safety of your community in mind with this how to start a fire for beginners article.
Take a few moments before getting started to consider what you will need, where you should start your fire, and safety precautions.
What You Need
The essential elements of starting a fire consist of tinder, kindling, firewood, and some kind of firestarter like matches or a lighter.
Bring wood from the store if you can. Wood that you forage can be wet and unusable for a fire and some campsites actually don’t allow you to pick up wood from the site. You can call your campsite ahead of time if you can’t find the information you need and they will be able to tell you if you need to bring your own.
You also need to check if the site is allowing fires at this time. I know in Texas we go through dry spells so there are often times when a fire ban is in place throughout the county preventing anyone from starting fires because they could spread too quickly.
The first piece of your fire building is going to be tinder. Tinder can be any small pieces of material like leaves or grass that are easier to catch fire and will help you to get the rest of your fire going.
Leaves, grass, wood shavings, small strips of cardboard, newspapers, and even tortilla chips can do the trick!
Kindling is going to surround the tinder and be the next material that burns in your fire. Kindling can be anywhere from the size of a toothpick to a pencil.
Firewood should be at least the width of your thumb or larger. The larger pieces you throw on your fire the longer it will burn.
Where To Start A Fire
Keep your fire at least 6 feet away from your tent in case there are any sparks that fly towards your tent.
Clear away the area you are going to use for your fire. Grass, branches, leaves, or other flammable material can be used as your tinder too. But you don’t want these to actually catch fire if they are around your pit and catch a flying spark.
Rake the grass away if needed because your fire should start directly on top of the soil. Watch for low branches above your fire because these can also catch and spread to other trees.
You might even find a pre-built fire ring at some campsites you can use. This helps to contain the fire and prevent any accidents.
If you don’t have a fire ring then surround your fire pit with rocks at least the size of a softball.
If your fire is getting out of control have a bucket nearby to douse the flames with.
If you have a shovel this can work as well to pour dirt over the fire. There’s a complete video from the USDA Forest Service on how to put out a fire at the end of this article.
Remember that the coals will remain hot even if buried under soil for a long period of time.
You also want to make sure you have the local emergency numbers available and easy to reach.
For more campfire safety tips you can check out and download a document from the National Fire Protection Agency here
Building A Fire
If your campsite allows wood gathering don’t break off branches from a tree. Keep the outdoors as you found it and focus on fallen debris that’s already laying on the ground.
Use the following three methods to build a fire depending on whether you are cooking or trying to stay warm. The video below should give you some more information on how to build these structures but I’ve taken photos to help you understand how it’s supposed to look.
This is the most popular way to structure your fire and it’s also one of the best to use for cooking. The way the flame concentrates in the middle of the structure is perfect for making your meals.
Start by putting a couple of handfuls of tinder in the middle of your fire pit.
Then, take your kindling and stack them in a teepee formation around your tinder. Leave a small hole on one side of the teepee, sort of like an entrance to the teepee that we will use to light the fire.
Next, start stacking your firewood in the same teepee formation around your kindling.
Now all you have to do is stick a lit match or lighter inside the teepee to ignite the tinder. After a while the structure will eventually fall but you can add more firewood to keep it burning.
Pro Tip: If your wood isn’t wanting to stay upright in a perfect teepee then rotate the end of the wood closest to the ground into the dirt causing a small hole. Do the same with another piece of wood right across from the original piece. Do this one more time with a third piece and you should have a solid enough foundation to rest more wood on top.
You might have already built this structure in your early school days with popsicle sticks.
We will be following the same process and it’s perfect for keeping warm throughout a long, cold night.
Place the tinder in the middle of the fire pit. Then start stacking the kindling in a teepee type of formation. Leave an entrance to your teepee that you will use to ignite the tinder.
Next, place two firewood logs parallel to each other on either side of the kindling. Make sure the firewood logs are hugging the kindling teepee.
Then, turn 90 degrees and place 2 slightly smaller pieces of firewood on top of the other two pieces.
This should form a square. Continue to build your log cabin with smaller and smaller pieces of firewood until you get to the top.
Now use your lighter or matches to ignite the tinder at the center of the pit and your log cabin should burn for hours.
More like an inverted pyramid, this method is best for staying warm because it can burn for a long time.
Place several large firewood logs at the base of your fire pit all facing the same direction and stacked next to each other.
Take several more slightly smaller logs and place them on top perpendicular and on top of the previous pieces. Sort of like building a Jenga set.
Continue building till it gets as tall as you want and then place some kindling and tinder at the very top.
Ignite the tinder and enjoy the warmth for the next few hours. This is great for providing some heat for long periods of time because of the density of the build.
Lighting the Fire
The easiest way to start a fire is to use a fire starter but there are also some more methods if you find yourself in a pinch.
Matches or a lighter will be the easiest way to start your fire. Waterproof matches are ideal because you want to be as prepared as possible when heading to the outdoors. That’s also why you want to make sure to use a camping checklist so that you don’t forget anything.
I recommend getting a multi-purpose lighter. These are longer and work better when sticking them in the middle of your wood structures.
As tempting as it may be, do not use lighter fluid to start your fire! This can be extremely dangerous and can cause accidents in the middle of the woods where help may be far away.
Light your tinder from several angles if possible so that you get an even fire started. Once the tinder is lit blow on it to make sure it catches the rest of the structure instead of going out.
This is not the ideal route you want to take when lighting a fire, especially if this is your first time.
But if you forgot your lighter or your matches got soaked when you accidentally spilled your water all over them, then you don’t have a lot of options.
Flint and steel
The easiest way to light your fire without an actual firestarter is the flint and steel method. But you will need to make sure you remember to bring this on your trip as a backup.
Strike the steel against the flint several times directly over the tinder for best results. Since the tinder is the easiest to ignite a few sparks should start the party and give you some warmth in no time. This means if you want to pre-build a structure then you will want to leave extra room to transfer your tinder into the base.
Take a magnifying glass, eye glasses, or binocular lenses and point them at an angle facing the sun. You should see a concentrated beam of light that hits the wood from the lens.
You might have to wait several minutes but the heat from the sun’s ray will ignite the tinder and start your fire. In the picture above the lens is trying to burn the actual firewood. This is probably not going to work and will not be your best option. Make sure to light the tinder instead. I’ll have to retake that picture soon!
This method only works on sunny days and you need to have the patience for it to start. But if you are in a jam and need an alternative method for lighting your fire this may do the trick.
There are a couple of ways to start your fire using friction but I recommend saving these as a last option.
The amount of effort and time this method takes usually exhausts most campers before they get a spark going.
Since most people reading this article will not use these methods I won’t cover them in-depth.
These methods involve using friction to create heat that will turn into embers/sparks that you can use to light your tinder.
Unless you are an experienced camper this method will be difficult.
Putting The Fire Out
Make sure to schedule 15-20min of time before you leave your campsite to put your fire out. You should already have a bucket of water nearby if you followed the safety part of this article.
Do not pour the entire bucket of water at one time on your fire. This will drown your fire pit so that no one else after you can use it.
Instead, you want to pour out the water slowly over all the embers and wood. Make sure the water covers all parts by stirring the embers and wood pieces while pouring.
Once all the steam and hissing sounds have stopped then your fire is just about extinguished. Move the back of your hand close to the embers so you can tell if there is still heat or if the fire is out.
Remember to leave your site as close as possible to how you arrived.
It can be easy to forget about the rest of the world when you are outdoors but remember that by being safe you are protecting your entire community.
Knowing you took all the extra precautions to be safe is going to allow you to have the best time in the great outdoors.