Vintage shot of the U.S. Army gathering around the campfire in 1916. (Image courtesy WikiCommons)

U.S. Army take pause around the campfire during the Pancho Villa Expedition, 1916. (Image courtesy WikiCommons)

Evidence suggests that man has been making fire for over 1. 2 million years, but practice still makes perfect. Before you light up that campfire or beach bonfire, here’s a refresher on how to start, maintain and put out your fire.

First, be certain you have a safe area to start the fire, whether it’s a concrete or stone fire ring that has been provided at the campsite or beach, or a small dugout hole encircled with rocks that’s at least five feet from anything flammable, including your tent, belongings and surrounding trees and foliage.

Then, gather the three types of materials you’ll need:

1. Tinder: substances that will ignite easily, such as small twigs, dry leaves, newspaper, cardboard or even dryer lint from natural fibers.

2. Kindling: small sticks and thin branches measuring 1/8 – ½ inches in diameter that easily catch fire.

3. Firewood: the primary fuel for your fire, you want it to be as dry as possible. Firewood ranges anywhere from 1-5 inches in diameter.

According to Smokey the Bear, there are four configurations in which to arrange your kindling:

  • Lay your kindling in the shape of a tent or tipi over a handful of tinder. The upside-down cone shape creates plenty of airflow to start and maintain a fire.
  • Place the kindling over the tinder in the shape of a cross for a long-burning campfire.
  • For an even longer burn, stack your kindling on top of each other at right angles, as if you are building a cabin out of Lincoln Logs. The smallest kindling goes on top.
  • The lean-to is especially suited to cooking. Drive a long kindling stick over a compact pile of tinder at a 30-degree angle into the ground, with the free end of the stick facing the direction of the wind. Lean the smaller pieces of kindling against either side of the angled stick, like a rib cage.

You can add the firewood either before or after lighting the tinder and kindling, mirroring the method in which you’ve laid the kindling. Once you have everything ready, ignite the tinder with a match, lighter or magnesium fire starter. As the fire grows, add more tinder and blow lightly at the base of the fire to encourage the tinder and kindling to catch the flames. After that happens, begin adding firewood (if you haven’t already).

Detail of a roaring campfire. (Image courtesy Doug Beckers via Flickr)

A healthy flame. (Image courtesy Doug Beckers via Flickr)

A fire requires three elements: dry wood, adequate airflow and continuous heat. When adding more firewood, never toss, but gently place new logs onto the fire. Tossing the logs into the flames may create dangerous sparks and alight an unwanted fire elsewhere. This could also cause shifts and collapses in the overall balance, causing the fire to either flare up or die right down. To encourage the fire, blow gently on the embers on the side of the fire. Never blow from above.

Be mindful of how much wood you are adding, as well as your timing. Place your last log about one hour before you want to end your campfire, allowing time for it to burn out completely.

Pour enough water on the burned out fire to drown all the embers. Stir the ashes and the embers to ensure that the fire is completely out, until the ground is no longer hot, but cool to the touch.

Always check on specific tips and rules and obtain necessary permits from the park in which you will be camping and creating fires. National, state and privately run parks each have their own guidelines to follow for the protection of the land and its ecosystem.

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  1. Mary
    Posted August 3, 2014 at 3:06 PM | Permalink

    Very helpful hints. Thanks!

  2. Smokey Eyes
    Posted May 18, 2016 at 11:40 AM | Permalink

    … or perhaps consider not having a fire at all. burning wood emits harmful pollution in the form of particulates and carries other risks to both ourselves and our environments. think low impact

  3. Ranger Rick
    Posted May 18, 2016 at 3:18 PM | Permalink

    …..or perhaps build a HUGE fire to share with all your fellow friends. Knowledge of fire building skill are essential to survival. Thanks. Practice often. Enough with those that use resources (wood, metal, live in a house or a tent, wear clothes, eat with a spoon, cut with a knife, shop in any kind of store, use the internet, ride in/on a car, a bike or bus, etc.) and preach the opposite to others. We all use resources from the earth unless you live naked in the woods with no tools.

  4. Mr. Mojo Risin'
    Posted May 19, 2016 at 10:35 PM | Permalink

    Sorry. I’m not used to using the internet.

  5. Greg Atchason
    Posted May 20, 2016 at 1:18 PM | Permalink

    Or how about stacking up all of the liberals that advocate now having live fires and burning them! Lower carbon emissions and cleanse the gene pool!

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