Fire fundamentals: How to start one, and how they behave

Last fall I was camping with friends in Arkansas. It was one of those trips where a slow system of rain moved through and lingered for days.

Thankfully, one morning during a brief pause of rain, I took time to build a healthy fire—one that kept burning even when the rain returned. Note that we didn’t use any accelerants other than what nature provided.

It was a fire that was built with a simple understanding of what fire needs, and how it behaves.

We could literally walk around the campground and grab fully drenched branches, limbs, and left-behind logs, and within moments, they would be crackling happily in the fire.

Here are the fundamentals for a healthy fire.

1 — Fire needs 3 things:

  • Fuel
  • Oxygen
  • Heat

If you provide those 3 things, your fire will thrive. If you remove just one, your fire will die.

2 — Fuel consists of 3 types, arranged by size:

  • Tinder (starter)
  • Kindling
  • Fuel wood

You can think of tinder a bit like carbs in the human body—they burn quicker than other forms of fuel.

For tinder, we like to take a plastic baggie of old dryer lint. You can take cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly. Or, you can look around for tiny, dry twigs, thin bark, dry straw, etc. If things around you are too wet, you can even use Doritos or Fritos Corn Chips in a pinch (not kidding; they burn really well).

When dryer lint isn’t with us, I like to look for pine pitch. Pitch is normally found around wounds on trees. For example, if one tree fell against another, then the tree might weep pitch. Or, if a tree had a bug infestation and the bugs burred holes, those holes might weep pitch.

(The level of pitch in the wood at the campground in Arkansas is one of the magic ingredients in how we were able to build such a strong, hot, fire that could endure the rain.)

Kindling is the progressively larger pieces of fuel, until to are finally able to burn full fuel wood (firewood).

3 — Fire likes to climb.

In fact—did you know that a fire burns faster uphill? According to firefighter training materials, this is because “the flames can easily reach more unburnt fuel in front of the fire. Radiant heat pre-heats the fuel in front of the fire, making the fuel even more flammable.”

While that is terrifying in a wildfire situation, it is beneficial when building a controlled campfire.

4 — There are practical methods for building a fire.

  • The Teepee Fire
  • The Pyramid Fire
  • The Log Cabin Fire
  • The Star Fire
  • The Long Fire
  • The “T” Fire
  • The Keyhole Fire
  • The Dakota hole Fire
  • My version—The “A” Fire

The most common methods are the Teepee, Pyramid, and Log Cabin fire methods. Each has its pros and cons.

The Pyramid

The Pyramid Fire is handy when you want a hands-off fire. Stacked with the heaviest logs at the bottom, and getting progressively smaller as you go up, until you reach the tinder at the peak, it burns down in layers, and it doesn’t require much tending.

It is particularly well suited to situations where you want a bonfire.

However, the Pyramid can be tough on windy days. It doesn’t have shelter at the top if you have a light rain or mist. And, if you didn’t bring a lot of wood for your fire, it can burn through quite a bit of wood quickly depending upon how hot the fire burns.

The Teepee

The Teepee fire is the one you see most people use. When I was a boy, this is the one I learned in clubs. You start with small kindling, tinder, and progressively larger fuel until the fire is burning.

It allows for plenty of Oxygen.

However, this fire method does require a bit more tending. I have also found that if you aren’t accustomed to building fires, it can be easy for it to collapse under its own weight and suffocate the fire you are trying to build.

The Log Cabin

The Log Cabin fire is a great option for newbies. It provides structure, but plenty of room for Oxygen. It also provides decent protection against sudden, strong wind without sacrificing Oxygen flow.

When I started camping, the Log Cabin was initially my preferred method because of the balance it provided between Oxygen, structure and being slightly hands-off.

The last several years, my fire starting method has evolved to use something that is a bit of a cross between the Log Cabin and the “T” fire methods.

I call it the “A” fire method.

The “A” Fire

I start with dry firewood (of course).

I place 2 pieces of wood in the shape of a V, with the opening facing the direction of the wind. This allows for Oxygen flow.

I then stack 1 piece of wood on top of the V, creating what looks like an A. In effect, this looks like a triangular Log Cabin fire.

Then, I construct a tiny teepee fire within the small triangular opening.

The end result allows Oxygen to enter at the bottom of the fire (Oxygen). The wood V allows the heat of the fire to reflect back into itself (Heat). The cross-beam for the A allows structure to lean progressively larger pieces of fuel against without obstructing the Oxygen (Fuel and Oxygen). And lastly, it provides the structure to give the fire what it really wants—the ability to climb.

Final Notes

One of the most common things that people do to douse a good campfire is stacking fuel too quickly. They think it’s good to add more wood while the fire itself it just an infant. But, it ends up suffocating the flame by blocking the availability of Oxygen, and sometimes causing the structure of the fire to collapse.

When building a good fire, patience is key. Start with a great fuel that can burn easily, quickly, and with a fair amount of heat.

Once you have a flame, you have to gently feed it with small twigs. Give it plenty of breathing room. As the heat grows, you can add slightly larger twigs. Repeat this exercise until the fire is healthy.

Once a fire is going, I like to keep a fire stick handy. I’ve used the same one for 5 years, and it gets a tad shorter with each trip. But, I use it to periodically shift the wood into that same A shape, allowing Oxygen to enter the fire underneath, and keeping a structure for future logs.

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