Mom Goes Camping

How to Make a Fire in the Woods

Making a fire (aka caveman television) is by far one of the most fun parts of camping.  There is even scientific evidence showing that we love campfires because fire sparked the evolution of the human mind, but we won’t get into that here. 🙂  What you want to know is how to make a fire in the woods.

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Start with Your Fire Pit or Circle

No matter what, you ALWAYS must contain your fire.  This usually means digging a fire pit or making a circle with rocks.  Seriously, do not skip this step.  No matter how immune to forest fires you think you are, it is best to play it safe.  Plus, that pit or rock circle will be a good resting point for your poker sticks.

See all of that dry brush? That's why you need a fire ring or pit!

See all of that dry brush? That’s why you need a fire ring or pit!


Tinder vs. Kindling vs. Fuel Wood

Once I went camping with a complete newbie and took it for granted that some people don’t know how to make a fire.  Here’s what happened:

The fire I’d built had died down.  We were in the tent getting ready to sleep.  Well, it turns out that my super-macho friend was scared out of his mind of bears (nevermind that there weren’t any bears where we were camping!).  He was getting on my nerves, so I reassured him by saying, “Don’t worry.  Even if there were any wild animals out there, they would have been scared off by the fire.”

Two minutes later, he gets out of the tent to refuel the fire!  Except that the fire had died down to embers and he put giant logs on top of them.  Well, you can’t light a giant log with embers.  Within a few minutes, there was smoke all over the place and making me gag.  I had to go out and (trying not to laugh at him 😉 ) explain that first you put on little sticks, then you put on bigger sticks, and only then you put on the big logs.

So, to break it down technically, here’s the type of wood you need:

  • Tinder: This is very dry, very small pieces of wood or fluffy items like dry moss or bark. Tinder is what you use to start your fire.  Some people bring their own tinder when camping.
  • Kindling: These are small sticks and twigs. Once you’ve got your tinder burning, you use the tinder to light the kindling.
  • Fuelwood: Contrary to what you might think, you don’t need big giant logs for your fire. Sticks and branches about the circumference of your arm are ideal for more campfires.  Once your kindling is burning, you put the fuelwood on.
This is ALL Kindling!

The wood on the left is kindling.  The wood on the right is tinder. 


Gathering Firewood

As I talk about in this post about things to never bring camping, DO NOT USE AN AX TO CUT FIREWOOD!  Aside from destroying nature, cutting trees for firewood is a bad idea because the wood is still alive.  You want dead, dry wood for your fire!  It really shouldn’t be that hard to find branches that have fallen.  If you are at a popular campground which has already been picked clean, then you might need to walk a bit further to find firewood.

Make sure you GET A LOT OF KINDLING.  In fact, get 3x more kindling than you think you will need.   You’d be surprised how quickly a campfire burns up all that wood, and you don’t want to go gathering more wood after dark.  That’s a good way to sprain your ankle!

This stack of firewood lasted us a few hours.

This stack of firewood lasted us a few hours.


Breaking Wood

You just found a great piece of firewood but it is 15 feet long? Never try to break branches with your arms.  You’ll end up with a lot of scratches.  Instead, try these methods:

  • The Under-Foot Break: Get your boots on. Leave the branch on the ground and put your foot at the point where you want to break it.  Then pull the branch upwards with your hands.
  • The Over-Knee Break: Bend one knee up in the air. Hold the branch over your knee and pull both sides towards you.  It should break over your knee.
  • Use the Fire: If a branch is too big to break, then you can just lay it over the fire. The fire will eventually burn away the middle of the branch so it breaks.  Then you can just push the branch further into the fire.

Laying Your Fire

There are five main ways to lay a fire.  In most cases, you’ll probably be using the teepee fire lay (aka tipi fire lay).  However, there are some pros/cons of each of the ways of making a fire you need to know.

1) Teepee Fire Lay

To make this fire, you first put some tinder on the ground.  Then you build a teepee configuration around it.  Start your tee with your smallest sticks and work up to your larger sticks.  Remember to leave a little gap in the teepee so you can light the tinder!  Once your teepee is built, use a match or lighter to light the tinder.  You’ll have to keep adding kindling to the fire until you’ve got a solid bed of embers.  After that, you’ll be able to easily keep the fire going and add your fuelwood.

Pros:  Very easy

Cons: Requires a lot of fuel

Tipi fire lay

Tipi fire lay


2) Lean-To & A-Frame Fire Lay

This is a good fire to make when it is raining or very windy.  The configuration will prevent the wind from getting in and also keep rain from getting to the tinder and lower kindling.

To make the lean-to fire, you first need a big log or an edge of your pit.  This is where you will prop your lean-to against.  Put a bit of tinder down.  Then prop some small kindling over top of it.  Then add bigger kindling on top of this.  When you light your tinder, it will light the layer of kindling above it.  If it is raining hard, you’ll have to keep adding kindling/fuel on top so the lean-to doesn’t collapse and get exposed to the rain!

*If the ground is wet, put a layer of sticks flat on the ground.  This will create a platform to keep your tinder away from the wet ground.

Pros: Good for rainy and windy situations

Cons: It restricts airflow, so may not light very easily.

Lean-To Fire Lay

Lean-To Fire Lay on a very windy day


a-frame fire lay

Here’s an A-frame fire. It’s drizzling rain in this picture but the fire stayed lit so long as we kept putting wood over the “frame”


3) Log Cabin Fire Lay

To make this fire, you first make a teepee fire configuration.  Then you surround the teepee with a “fence” by stacking kindling sticks on top of each other.  The idea is that fence will fall in on the teepee, creating a self-feeding fire.

Pros:  Once built, it requires less effort to maintain.

Cons: Takes longer to build.

log cabin campfire


4) Star Fire/Cross Fire

This is the fire you always see in cowboy movies.  You start by making a small teepee fire.  Instead of laying your fuelwood across the fire, you just put the ends of the fuelwood into the fire.  This makes a small fire that uses less wood.

Pros: Uses very little firewood

Cons: Fire might go out; makes just a small fire

cross fire lay

star fire lay

And this is what the star fire looks like in real life. Yes, I’m breastfeeding my baby in this photo! 😮


5) Council Fire aka Upside Down Fire aka Pyramid Fire

To make an upside down fire, you first put one layer of fuel wood down.  Then add another layer in the opposite direction.  Repeat. A s the stack grows, it should get smaller to make a pyramid shape.

When you’re satisfied with your pyramid, you build a teepee fire on top.  When the teepee fire burns down, it will light the fuel wood below it.

There are two reasons to make an upside down fire:

  1. You want a huge fire that you don’t need to tend or
  2. All your fuel wood is wet.

The reason is works for wet wood is because, as the teepee fire on top burns, it will dry out your wood Ingenious, huh?

Pros: Makes a big, long-lasting fire. Dries out wet fuel wood

Cons: Requires a lot of wood; don’t use in places where there’s a high risk of forest fires!!!

council fire

Here’s a drawing of how the upside down fire looks.


upside down fire in the rain

Here’s a small upside down fire. It had been raining for days so everything was wet.

lighting an upside down fire

Here’s the upside down fire being lit. I used tons of tinder because everything was so wet.

Image credit:”Kindling, pseudo kindling, not quite tin” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  V’ron 

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About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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