Fire building tips for backpackers: What You Need to Know

build a fire

Fire is a chemical response when specific circumstances are met. When heat, fuel, and oxygen are mixed, fire is produced. This happens because of combustion.

Before starting a fire, specific safety measures must be taken into consideration. Whether you choose to build your fire in the woods, on a campground, or in your backyard, different precautions must be taken for each situation. 

If you are starting a fire in the woods, you must choose a space that meets specific guidelines. The space that you choose should be clear of dangers like tree branches. It would be best if you also cleared anything else that could quickly catch fire. 

When building a fire on campgrounds, ensure that it is in authorized areas. If there are fire pits on the campground, use those. If you are building a fire in your backyard, you can use a circle of stones, a safety blanket, or build your own fire pit. These methods are efficient at maintaining the fire and keep you safe.

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How to build a fire when you’re out in the wild?

Specific steps must be followed to build a fire when out in the wild. 

Create a fire bed 

When building a fire, always consider safety first. You don’t want to be the person that starts a furious wildfire. If your camping site has an assigned fire area, use it. 

If you’re camping in a more hilly area that lacks fire sites, you’ll need to make your own. Select a location away from trees, bushes, and other plants. Your fire bed should be on bare ground, not grass. 

If you can’t find bare ground, make your own by cleaning and clearing away plant material, taking appropriate responsibility in removing them.

After you’ve cleaned the space, it’s time to make the fire bed. Collect the dirt and place it in the center of the cleared area. Form the dirt into a platform that’s about 3 to 4 inches thick.

Gather woods

You’ll need three primary materials to build your fire: tinder, kindling, and fuelwood.

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Tinder

Tinder is any substance that is very flammable and can easily catch fire from sparks or a flame. When building a fire, a tinder is your foundation. Useful forms of tinder can be obtained from nature, made at home, or you can use commercial tinder.

Natural kinds of tinder include materials such as:

  • River birch – River birch contains resin (natural oils) and will light quickly and burn longer.
  • Pine needles
  • Cattail – A piece of cattail can be twisted, so the fibers are released to create a small nest. Cattail catches fire instantly, so it’s great to use when you want to start a fire quickly.
  • Dried thistle – Like cattail, thistle catches fire very quickly.
  • Cedar bark – Break cedar bark into smaller bits so it will light easier.
  • Fatwood – This material comes from the end of pine trees. 
  • Dead leaves and grass
  • Dried orange peels, potato chips, corn chips
  • Tree bark
  • Dry grass

Kindling

Kindling is small bits of twigs or sticks that are used in lighting a fire. After igniting the tinder, kindling is set on the tinder to help build a fire. The twigs usually are from one-quarter to one inch in diameter and six to twelve inches long.

Kindling can be seen on the ground or retrieved from branches of dead trees. Other materials used for kindling include:

  • Feather sticks – these are thin bits of wood shaved down into curls.
  • Pine cones.
  • Larger pieces of wood are crushed into smaller pieces.

Fuelwood

Fuelwood is what keeps your fire hot and burning. Contrary to popular belief, fuelwood doesn’t have to look like the huge logs you use in a fireplace. If you go too big, it will take a long time for the wood to catch fire. Look for branches that are about as wide as your wrist or your forearm.

When gathering wood for a fire, collect wood that snaps and breaks easily. Dry wood burns the best. If your wood bends, it’s too wet or “green.” If you try to make a fire with this sort of wood, you’ll get a lot of smoke. Unlike tinder and kindling, fuelwood can be a little damp. The fire will dry it out, but it’s still not ideal.

Collect twice as much tinder, kindling, and fuelwood as you think you’ll need. You’ll be surprised how fast you’ll go through tinder and kindling when you’re starting your fire.

Wood stacking designs

When building your fire, you can choose from different types of designs. Each design carries advantages and disadvantages. It’s best to have your tinder, kindling, and wood ready beforehand with all the designs.

Teepee Design

The teepee design is made by placing your kindling and firewood in the shape of a tent. You can add the tinder first, light it, and then pile the kindling and firewood in the form of a tent, or you can leave a little door to put in the tinder after you have constructed your teepee. Some people find it hard to build the teepee design as it tends to fall into a big pile.

One way to evade this is to use a large pile of debris, like leaves, to structure a solid form. Once completed, add the lighted tinder through the small doorway created earlier. You will need to keep adding fuel logs and kindling with this design, as the wood will burn quickly.

Lean-to Design

This design is suitable if you are building a fire where there is wind or rain, and you need a method that will help get your fire going before it has the chance to be extinguished by the elements. 

You can build the lean-to by using a large log to hinder the wind or rain. If you are building the lean-to on the dirt instead of building it on a barred platform like a rock, dig a small area around your tinder to allow more air to flow. 

The next step is to place your kindling so it leans over the tinder against the big log. Once you have the fire going, you can add your fuel logs to the lean-to.

Pyramid or Log Cabin Design

This design will burn longer and require less maintenance than the lean-to or teepee design. 

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To start, you will need to start with your base logs. Place two logs about six inches in diameter about a foot apart and place your tinder bundle and kindling in the center. For best results, set your kindling in a teepee style.

Once that is done, you will pile logs on top of the base logs in an alternating design. From this point, there are variations in the construction of this design.

You can place the logs on top of base logs by two, three, or four. Be aware that the more logs you put in a row above the base logs, the more you will limit airflow.

As you proceed to stack the fuel logs in an alternating manner, you have the option of using logs that reduce in size or logs of the same size. Using logs of different sizes allows more airflow, so your fire will burn higher and hotter.

Dakota Fire Hole Design

The Dakota fire hole design enables you to build a fire that won’t be seen from a distance, is great for cooking, and is very easy to put off. You will have to dig a hole in the ground up to three feet deep. The depth of the hole depends on the size of the fire you want to build.

If you plan on building a Dakota fire hole, it is a great approach to bring along a shovel. After creating the first hole, you will have to dig a hole about twelve inches away and approximately half as deep as the first hole.

An underground path that joins the two holes will need to be constructed to give the highest oxygen flow. Once you have completed digging the second hole, dig a hole that directs to the first one.

Once you are done with the holes, build a fire in the first hole, just like building a fire in any wood stacking design. Then, add your tinder, kindling, and fuel logs on top. 

Self-Feeding Design

Out of all the designs mentioned so far, self-feeding is the one that will last the longest. It also does not need much maintenance compared to the rest. 

This design is similar to the design of the log cabin fire with slight differences. You begin constructing this design by putting logs on the bottom as a base, but these logs are set close together.

Once the base is finished, you stack logs on top of the base logs in the same way you do with the log cabin design. These logs will be close together, with three to four logs per layer.

With this design, you will put your tinder and kindling on top instead of setting it on the bottom. Instead of burning from the bottom upward, the self-feeding burns from the top down, and it burns slowly.

Places Where You Should Not Build a Fire

  • Anywhere that wood supplies are insufficient (e.g., above tree line).
  • In the region of remote villages in developing countries. The locals need the wood more than you do.
  • Anywhere that fire danger is a possibility. Always be aware of fire regulations and restrictions in the area in which you are hiking.  Be mindful of any changes in weather conditions. 

Emergency fire starters

Sometimes dry tinder and kindling can be difficult to obtain. That being the case, it is wise for the backpackers always to carry an emergency fire starter. Listed below are five lightweight and reliable choices:

  • Vaseline coated cotton balls
  • Light my Fire
  • Trick birthday candle
  • Dryer lint
  • Corn chips 

Maintaining the Fire

To keep your fire going, you have to remember the three necessary components to make a fire. To make fire, you need air, heat, and fuel.

Air

When oxygen is cut off, your fire will be extinguished. You can quickly test this by lighting a candle and covering it with a jar or cap.

Likewise, if the fuel is smothering the fire you build because you’ve placed them tightly together and cut off airflow, it will go out or be very difficult to maintain.

No matter which wood stacking design you choose, make sure that there is enough space between the kindling and fuel to allow oxygen to circulate.

Heat

Heat is another thing to consider when maintaining a fire. If you’ve started a fire and only have a few coals or embers burning, heat is not being produced in sufficient quantities, and your fire will go out. If your fire is dying, add kindling to it and add more fuel logs to get the fire raging higher and hotter.

Fuel

Tinder helps get your fire started, kindling is the next step to grow bigger, but your fuel logs will ultimately sustain the fire. If you are trying to maintain your fire with only kindling made from small twigs or small branches, you will continuously run out of fuel, and trying to keep your fire will be a real chore.

Good fuel logs have a diameter at least the size of your wrist. You can increase the size depending on the wood stacking design you choose and the length of time you want the fire to burn.