Do You Know How to Light a Fire?

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small child sitting in front of a fire in a kettle in the woods

© Johnson

Here's my guide, steeped in personal experience, to lighting a good fire that catches consistently, burns without smoking, and establishes itself quickly.

My husband is a wonderful man who can do many amazing things, but when I first met him, he could not light a decent fire. Whether it was a woodstove, fireplace, or an outdoor campfire, his fires inevitably turned into smoking heaps of partially burned sticks – and I morphed into a seething, frustrated wife who fought the urge to take over immediately and do the job right.

You see, I consider myself a fire-building expert. As he would say, “You’ve been lighting fires since before I was a tickle in my daddy’s pants!” Except that he’s older than me, so the math doesn’t really compute; but you get the point, which is that I’ve been building fires for years and I’ve got it down to a fine art.

I spent the first four years of life in a 400 sq. ft. cabin heated by a small woodstove. Then I moved into a slightly larger house heated by a wood-burning furnace, a cook-stove, and a fireplace. Later, I was homeschooled in the original cabin, now heated by a cook stove that had to be lit every morning at 6 a.m. so it would warm up in time for lessons. Homeschooling’s version of phys ed often consisted of stacking fresh wood in late spring for drying throughout the summer; hauling wheelbarrow loads of wood from the pile to the house; and chopping kindling with a hatchet.

Until I met my suburbia-raised husband, I took my fire-building skills for granted and considered them to be as normal as chopping holes in the frozen lake to check ice depth, coaxing a car up a slippery driveway with pails of ash, boiling maple sap, and evading rutting moose in early spring. (Wait, those aren’t normal, either?)

As I watched my husband fail repeatedly at building a fire, often reaching for a dash of white gas to “get it going,” I realized that he just didn’t grasp a few basic concepts. He’s not alone. A reader on The Simple Dollar blog submitted this question last week:

“I feel dumb asking this but here goes. I really struggle to start campfires. I’ve watched I don’t know how many YouTube videos about starting one and yet I continually fail. The only way I can get one consistently started is to buy one of those ‘starter logs’ and use that, but they’re ridiculously expensive. You can buy three nights of firewood for the cost of one of those logs. Do you have any tips for this?”

This is not a dumb question. Unless one has good reason to practice building fires over and over again, it’s not a skill many people learn anymore. It is unfortunate because fire-building is fun, deeply satisfying on a primal level, and it could spell the difference between survival and great suffering in an emergency. So I taught my husband how to do it. Here’s my well-honed approach.

Fire-building Methods

My dad always described two methods for laying out wood – the teepee method or the log house method. I use a combination of the two. I place two medium-sized logs side by side. Leave a couple inches between them, stuff with newspaper, then build a teepee on top of the logs, with more bunched newspaper surrounded by a pyramid of kindling. This way, there’s space to let in some air and a base that will burn and become established as the teepee burns down.

Christmas fireplace
Here you can see the teepee shape in my parents' fireplace at Christmas. There are a couple logs on the bottom inside, which means there will not be a gaping space left once the outer logs burn down.

© K Martinko

The Wood Must Be Dry

I gauge it by weight, always choosing the lightest logs, as well as the roughest ones with spiky bits sticking out all over (the stuff that will give you sliver nightmares). These catch quickly and encourage the log to burn. Kindling should be split in various sizes so they burn at different rates. Newspaper is ideal, never glossy magazine paper, and I find scrunching is the best method, although my family members dispute this. Some believe in ripping strips, while others claim twisting is key. Don’t listen to them. Scrunch.

Now, even with dry wood and a good setup, you’re not out of the woods yet.

Watch the Fire Constantly

Fires consume wood faster than you expect, and they must be fed heavily and steadily for a good length of time. I usually squat there for a good 10-15 minutes, adding pieces of kindling or twigs that get progressively bigger (this is important!), eventually moving to small logs. You must find that sweet spot between feeding and not suffocating it. If this is annoying, remember: putting in the time now will save you frustration and time later.

If you are in the forest, then dead sticks are the way to go. Never cut live branches off a tree. Not only is this mean, but it's also dumb because live tree branches are green and wet. They will smoke, as will damp cedar boughs. Go for dead sticks that snap cleanly and easily in your hands.

Make Sure There Is Enough Air Flow

Air must always be able to flow into the teepee, or else the fire will splutter and die. You can encourage air by blowing, but this isn’t sustainable. Use it only to revive or rearrange wood if needed.

Add Larger Logs After Fire Is Established

Eventually, you’ll be able to lean a few larger logs against each other, forming a ‘roof’ over the base, or you might be able to lay them perpendicular to the bottom logs, depending on how well-established the fire it. (The latter risks suffocating immature flames.) But until that fire has been going for a while and there’s a good bed of white coals on the bottom, do not stop watching it like a hawk.

It’s been eight years since I first discovered my seemingly-perfect man’s gaping flaw, but I’m pleased to say that his techniques have improved considerably. Now I am (almost) able to relax in a camp chair with a beer and let him do it, though I still quell the urge to align sticks into more optimal positions.