A Survivalist Guide on How to Build a Campfire

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Knowing how to build a campfire is a necessary skill for any survivalist to have in their toolbelt. Without fire, it’s more difficult to stay warm, cook food, or boil water, meaning that your odds of staying alive are significantly reduced. While the process seems as easy as gathering wood, lighting a match, and enjoying the warm glow, there’s a lot more that you need to take into consideration, especially as a survivalist. That’s why we’re about to lay out everything you’ll need to know to build a campfire, from finding a location, to starting your fire with minimal resources, to putting it out when you’re done.

Getting Started

Knowing how to build a fire is one of the 10 essentials for staying safe in the wild. But before you go making embers or lighting matches, there are a few things you’ll want to double check. First, know what the local regulations are when it comes to starting a fire. Depending on the time of year, fires might not be allowed, and you can get in trouble because of the increased risk of wildfire or other environmental impacts.

If you do decide to start a fire, make sure you have a way to put it out in case it starts getting out of hand. It’s always a good idea to have a shovel, or a container and nearby water source to quickly douse the fire before it spreads.

Find A Good Location

clearing next to a forest

As nice as it would be to make a fire wherever you want, that’s not a good idea if you want to keep yourself safe. Find a large space that’s made of gravel or dirt, and that’s well protected from wind gusts. When it comes to making your own firepit, avoid digging underneath any low hanging branches. Ideally, you’ll be close to a water source if an accident happens, so you can put out the fire right away. Surround your pit with stones for some added protection, and remember to keep your shelter and any flammable objects far away from the fire!

The Three Types Of Firewood

Now that you’ve decided on your location, it’s time to find stuff to burn. We can break firewood down into three different categories: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

Tinder is what you’ll use to start your fire. This includes things like twigs, leaves, grass, needles, or anything else that’s easy to get burning right away.

Once you’ve got your tinder burning, you’ll want to start incorporating some kindling to build that flame. Kindling refers to small sticks that are about an inch in diameter. They should be a little bigger than the twigs you were using as tinder.

Finally, once you’ve got a decent fire going, start adding in the fuel. These are larger logs that will sustain your blaze as the smaller sticks start burning out.

Avoid taking wood from live or dead trees. Live wood won’t burn very well, and dead trees are home to birds and other wildlife. Scavenge around the ground for dead branches that have fallen off the tree, and make sure it’s dry or you’ll be frustrated when it comes to starting a fire!

Building Your Campfire

teepee style campfire burning

There are a few different ways to build your campfire, and what you choose depends on what you’re hoping to do. Looking to cook? Build a teepee or lean-to. Want a long lasting fire? Go with a log cabin. Let’s check each of these out in more detail:

Teepee

One of the more popular methods, start by placing your tinder in the center of your fire pit. Then, take your kindling and start leaning them together in the shape of a cone around your tinder. There should be gaps to allow airflow and access to the tinder for lighting. The cone shape will eventually collapse, at which point you can start adding in some of your bigger logs for fuel. This is the style I would recommend using for survivalism especially, because the teepee allows more oxygen to reach the ember, making it more likely that your fire will grow.

Lean-To

Find a long kindling stick and push it into the ground at a 30-35 degree angle. Gather your tinder and place it underneath this support stick, laying some other small pieces of kindling around it. Find some other smaller kindling and lay it against the support stick before adding another layer with larger kindling. Light the tinder, and enjoy the heat!

Log Cabin

Start by making a teepee campfire. Once you’ve done that, take some larger kindling or small logs and build a “fence” around the teepee. It should look like you’re building a Jenga tower. The idea is that as the fire grows, the bigger pieces of wood will collapse into the fire, making it last longer.

Starting Your Fire

man starting a fire

You’ve built your wooden structure, and now the sun is setting off in the distance. Time to light it up!

The easiest way would be to use a lighter or matches, but we’re going all out survivalist here and assuming that you won’t have access to these items. Figuring you at least have a knife on hand, let’s take a look at a couple methods you can use for starting your fire.

The Classic Bow Drill

For this one, you’ll need:

1. A short, dry stick to use as a spindle
2. A knife
3. Shoe laces, paracord, or string
4. A fire board (flat piece of wood, a little under an inch thick)
5. A curved, dry stick to use as a bow
6. A dry leaf
7. A rock or piece of wood to use as a handhold

Start by removing any twigs or nubs on your spindle with your knife, and then sharpen both ends. Then, take your knife and carve out a small hole in your fire board, cutting out a notch in the side of the hole – place the dry leaf next to the notch, as this is the pathway the ember will take to reach the leaf. Once you’ve done this, place one end of your spindle in the hole you just made and the other in the handhold. Your spindle should be vertical at this point. Finally, loop your string around the spindle and tie it to both ends of your curved stick.

Now that you’ve got everything set up, it’s time to put some sweat into it. Put your foot on the board to keep it steady, and start pulling the bow back and forth as if you were playing an instrument. It’ll take some time, but eventually you’ll start to see smoke rise and an ember being born. Once you’ve got enough smoke rising, push the ember through the notch you cut out and into the waiting leaf. Fold it into your tinder, and you’ve got yourself a fire!

The Classic Hand Drill

This method will require the following items:

1. A short, dry stick to use as a spindle
2. A knife
3. A fire board
4. A dry leaf

It’ll take some effort, but the hand drill is a proven way to start a fire. The process is exactly the same as the bow drill above, except you’ll be using your hands to twist the spindle instead of a bow. Follow the same steps listed above to clean up your spindle, cut out a hole and notch, get your leaf ready, and start rubbing your hands back and forth to create friction. Give it some time, and eventually you’ll have an ember to start your fire with.

Once You’ve Got Your Ember…

Gather up that tinder and start it on fire, blowing gently at the base of the flame. Fires need fuel, oxygen, and heat, so softly blowing on your newborn flame can help it to grow.

Once you’ve got a good blaze going, keep an eye on it. The fire will consume the kindling and fuel you’ve added, so you’ll want to keep tossing in more, if you want to keep your fire burning. Just remember not to go overboard with this, as the fire can get out of hand. Keep it manageable, and have a way to put it out if necessary.

Managing Smoke

If you’re like me, part of the fun of making a campfire is coming back smelling like wood smoke. Sadly, like all smoke, breathing in too much of it can be harmful for your health. If this is a concern for you, there are some tricks that will help you manage the amount of smoke coming from your fire.

Green wood or wet wood will emit a lot of smoke once lit, so try to find plenty of dry, dead branches.

Also, try to find hardwoods like ash and oak to burn. Not only do they burn cleaner, but they also burn longer, so they’re a better option all around. Using softer wood, like pine, as kindling is still a good idea though, as it lights easier.

Putting Out Your Fire

campfire embers

Arguably the most important part of this process is putting out your fire. As a rule of thumb, never leave your fire unattended. All it takes is a random gust of wind for it to get out of hand.

Grab your container of water and start pouring it out until everything is completely drowned. Take a large stick and start stirring the ashes and embers around until they’ve been completely covered in water. Once you’re satisfied that everything is wet, hover your hand over the embers to see if there’s any heat coming off of them. If there is, keep adding water until everything is cool to the touch. If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave!

If you don’t have easy access to water, dirt or sand is another viable option. Make sure you have a good shovel or stick to mix it around, and keep doing the heat test until you’re sure everything is cool to the touch.

Be Responsible, Stay Safe

When done properly, a good bonfire will help you stay alive and well. Not only is it great to have to help you stay warm during chilly nights, but it’s also necessary to cook any food that you’ve picked up. Hopefully these tips have helped prepare your for your next outing, and allow you to enjoy a pleasant time in nature. As always, just because you’re on a survival trip doesn’t mean you’re free to do whatever you like – remember to follow local regulations, and take proper precautions to stay safe.

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Jason Strohl

Jason Strohl

An introvert at heart, Jason has spent most of his life exploring the outdoors as a way to escape the rush of daily life. When it came time to go to college, he got his BS in Psychology because of his desire to help people in every aspect of life. Now he takes his expertise to The Daily Survivalist in order to teach even more people how to make it through the challenges we see, as well as the ones we don't.

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