How to Start a Campfire in Under Five Minutes

Have you ever been in a situation where you had to get a fire started in a hurry? Maybe you’re a day into a fishing trip with your buddies and it started raining just as you made it to camp. Or you forgot your trusty lighter fluid at home and it’s getting dark. Either way, you’ve got to get busy fast. Do you know how to get a campfire going efficiently? 

If your answer was something along the lines of “throw some sticks in a pile,” do not worry, we’ve been around the block a time or two when it comes to fires. Here’s everything you need to know to get a cozy campfire going in a jiffy. 

Start With Sparks

Step one: grab your lighter. Where’s your lighter? Wait, you do have a lighter on you, right? 

No ignition source, no fire. Simple as that. And yes, we could get into how to use a bow drill or a lens. But these methods are hard to learn, dependent on the conditions, and not that reliable. For example, to use a lens, you need full sun. Chances are if you’re in a hurry to start a fire, it’s either raining or dark. 

So obviously the best solution is to make sure you’ve got something you can use to get a fire going. The three best options you can keep in your car or backpack are matches, a lighter, or flint, and steel. Lighters are great but can be susceptible to rain. Matches can be finicky with the wind. Flint and steel require some practice to use correctly. They all have pros and cons, so pick one and familiarize yourself with it. Then, most importantly, don’t leave home without it!

Prepare Your Woodpile

Step two: Gather what you are going to burn and put it in a pile.

We need to get a pile of wood to burn. When you are gathering firewood, there are three things you’re looking for: tinder, kindling, and fuel. “Tinder” is generally defined as being smaller in diameter than a pencil, but also can include paper or cardboard. “Kindling” is up to the width of your pinky finger and “fuel” is about the width of your wrist. These classifications tell us how quickly different pieces will catch and how long it takes them to dry out after the rain. 

We want to start our fire with tinder. Some folks like to sub in other items from home for tinder, because it can be hard to find good starter material around camp. Anything from paper to dryer lint to steel wool can work. We recommend corrugated cardboard. It catches easily like paper but produces more heat allowing you to climb the “energy ladder” quickly. 

Your kindling will most likely be made up of sticks. If you brought wood with you, you can chip smaller pieces off to use for kindling. If you’re handy with a hatchet you can also split the logs until they’re thin enough. Another trick for this is using a knife and hammer. Essentially, you’ll hold the blade of your knife against the short end of the log and pound it carefully with your hammer. This is a good way to get thinner pieces to come off with more precision. 

Lastly, you want a couple of large pieces of fuel. You can go larger than your wrist, just be aware that they won’t burn as evenly and you’ll have to turn them periodically. Once you’ve got everything together, arrange it by size. Once we get going you’ll need everything at hand quickly. 

Build Your Structure

Step three: Arrange your flammables. No, not like that, the other way.

If you’re a former (or current) boy scout, you’re probably already picturing how you’ll build your fire. People are most commonly taught to make a “teepee” with the fuel meeting in the center of a wide circle, standing upright. But you don’t have to pick this method. We are going on the record and saying the teepee isn’t even that good of a fire setup. 

Now before you start punching out an email about how wrong we are, hear us out! We have done this about a million times before and tried them all. Teepee fires have two main issues. First, they put too much space between your tinder, which is in the center of the circle, and the kindling or fuel. The fire will try to go straight up and catch the kindling where the sticks meet, at the top of the “teepee”. But more often than not, it will not have enough energy to do it and will burn out. 

The second issue is that once you do get your kindling burning, the sticks will burn to the point where they’re holding each other up and fall apart, leaving you with a disorganized pile of smoking wood chips. This is decidedly not what we want. 

There are about a million other ways to arrange a campfire, and in our humble opinion, they all work better than the teepee. We recommend you give them a try, specifically the log cabin and our personal favorite: the lean-to. Why these two? Because they both give us a sturdy structure that won’t fall apart while letting lots of air into the fire. When building a fire, we have to consider how it will breathe, because if it can’t, it will suffocate. 

For this example, let’s use the lean-to. You’ll start by laying a large piece of fuel flat, and then piling your tinder loosely next to it. Next, lean your kindling across the large piece of fuel over the tinder, leaving enough space so that the fire can breathe.

So, we’re all set. We have a nice organized pile of wood, our structure is built, and we’re ready to go. Somebody grab a timer; five minutes starts now. 

Get Stoked!

Step four: light it up and keep a close eye on it. 

Light the tinder on each side of the lean-to. You should be able to do this with one match (if you’re using matches). Watch carefully as it spreads through the tinder and starts to reach the kindling. Once the kindling begins to catch we need to start stoking (fun word for “blowing on”) it. 

Be gentle at first. We need to help it along, giving it more oxygen without blowing it out. Blowhard enough so that the flames get brighter, but don’t go out. Each time you pause to inhale, you’ll see it jump up higher. Embers will start to form on the kindling and the fuel. This is a good sign, but we’re not done yet. 

Keep stoking the flames. As your kindling breaks, push the broken pieces under the lean-to with a stick and add more. The bigger the fire gets, the harder you can stoke it. You might want to switch to fanning the flames. A wide-brimmed hat, a camp chair, or a plastic tote lid can all make good fans. Add larger and larger pieces of wood and before long, you’ll notice a small bed of coals forming under the lean-to. 

At this point, we’re almost done. Add some larger pieces of wood, between “pinky sized” kindling and “wrist sized” fuel. Give it one last blast of air to get your new pieces of wood started burning and it should be good. Once you have a solid bed of coals going, the fire will continue to burn with momentum. 

Aaaand, time! How did we do? If you’ve got your routine down pat and your wood is somewhat dry, you should be able to go from sparks to a happy little campfire before anyone has time to complain that it’s taking too long. 

Rolling Coals

Step five: Maintain.

All you will have to do from here is add wood periodically. If you maintain a lean-to shape, the fire will continue to pull air from both sides. As the “backbone” log of the lean-to burns down, you can lay a new one parallel to the leaning sticks, laying new sticks across it so that the new shape is perpendicular to how you started. Continue like this as long as you like. 

Now it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the magic of camping. Bust open some marshmallows, grab that old guitar, and let the good times roll. There’s nothing better than finding a little peace in the woods with friends and a warm, crackling campfire. And now that you know how to do it, you’ll be able to get a fire going anytime, anywhere. 

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