Your Guide to Safely and Efficiently Starting a Campfire

Put the liquid accelerants down and use these expert tips instead.

Knowing how to safely build a campfire is an important back-pocket skill for just about anyone. It can come in handy while camping, lounging around your home's outdoor fire pit, and in the event of an emergency. And while anyone can ignite a lighter or strike a match, setting fire to dry wood, it's important to understand how to start a fire safely. To that end, we spoke to the pros and asked them to share their advice on building a safe, successful campfire and the items you need to start one with ease.

woman lighting campfire on a mountain at dusk

How to Start a Campfire

When it comes to starting a fire, Tyler Weathers, outdoor expert and instructor at the Trail Blazer Survival School, says that preparation is key. "To burn properly, a fire needs flash tinder, tinder, kindling, and fuel (logs larger than an inch thick)," he says. "Whenever possible, it's best to gather a good amount of these materials before you attempt to start your fire." If you don't have a lighter, Weathers says matches will work. "Or you can start a fire fairly easily with the spark from a Ferro rod or flint on steel." All you need is some flash tinder (like cedar bark, cottonwood seeds, or cattail seeds) ready to catch the spark. "Once you have your spark, you'll want to light the smallest piece of combustible material first, then use that material to gradually light larger pieces of wood," Weathers adds.

Where to Start Your Fire

Mary Peralta, volunteer and certified outdoor trainer, Girl Scouts of the USA, Arizona-Cactus-Pine Council, says that when it comes to the location of your campfire, you should follow the "Girl Scout leave no trace principle number five: minimize campfire impacts," by using an existing fire ring. "Safety is the priority," she says. "Ensure you are not making a campfire during no-burn advisories." And before you begin trying to light your fire, Peralta says you need to make sure you have a bucket of water, a rake, and a shovel in case you need to quickly put it out.

Finding the Right Wood

Once your fire is started, you'll want to keep it going with larger logs. "To find dry wood, look for logs that are sheltered from rain by thick foliage," Weathers says. "You can also use an axe or saw to cut the wet outer bark off of thicker logs, in hopes that the inside will be dry." For a quick and easy check, he suggests trying to snap the branches or logs before you attempt to use them. "Wood that is too fresh won't exhibit a crisp snap, and wet wood won't snap much at all," he says. "If your kindling and tinder is wet to the touch, it is likely to be wet all the way through." However, this is not the case for standing deadwood. "Wood cut from a standing dead tree may be quite dry at the core if you have the tools to reach it," he says. "As a rule of thumb, standing dead wood will burn better than any wood that's already fallen on the ground." Just be prepared to do the work to get it into your fire ring.

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