The process is easy, yet frequently misunderstood. Fire needs 3 things: oxygen, fuel and heat.
Preparation for building a campfire:
- Use the right tools for the job. Yes, a lighter can work. But they frequently break, run out of fuel, etc. Get a proper flint & steel, ideally with a magnesium stick. And when I say proper, I mean not one of those $5 survival trinkets. Get a flint several inches long, thick enough to not break and a good steel for striking and then PRACTICE using it. I stumbled across the impressive FireSteel (apparently used by US Military, no affiliation), mine is 3/8″ x 5″ which is works amazingly well. Since I don’t have a softbox stashed away in my camping gear, you get an in-the-field shot instead.
- Get an axe, preferably two. I have a small tactical axe and it works well for simple jobs, but fails to split all but the smallest logs – even with a full overhead swing, there’s just not enough momentum to split anything decently sized. A small, sharp one (similar to what I have) and a large, heavy log splitter would be perfect. Oh, and learn to use these too.
- Prepare your fuel. You will need a range of sizes of wood to properly prepare for a fire. This is your tinder, kindling and larger logs.
- Tinder is DRY, light and fluffy. Something that is easily lit, not wet or compacted. My preferred source is dryer lint and I have a ziplock bag full of it in my camping supplies. I save it from doing laundry at home, or in a pinch run into a laundromat and raid all the dryer trays… you might get a few looks, but it works. Other examples include dried grass, wood shaving and certain types of bark. This is the MOST important fuel.
- Kindling is the size of smaller sticks, no bigger then a pencil. I make mine with the axe: looking for sharp angles on the edges of firewood bundles, then hacking away to make various-sized piles of shavings from tiny matchsticks to cue-sized splits off of a larger log (this is used after the kindling). DRY tinder should SNAP in half with your hands (as opposed to be wet and bending or too large to break with your hands)
- I like to have slightly larger sizes as well, a minimal amount is usually required here. Cue-stick to flute-sized pieces here.
- The first few times you do this, sort these out into separate piles; it’ll make your job a lot easier.
Now prepare your campfire. There’s many different styles and ways you can go about building it once it’s bigger, but start off simple.
- Start with a pile of your DRY tinder (a bit smaller then a ping-pong ball if you are new), fluff it up and place on dry-ish ground, or even better on a single or between two logs. Make sure air can get to it easily (not shoved underneath or tightly between other wood). A way that usually works well is to lie a larger sized log in your campfire ring, then place the tinder next to it on the ground.
- Bring your flint next to the tinder and strike! This should be easy… you did practice, didn’t you? If it doesn’t light either your tinder is wet, your flint (or you) can’t make a good spark, or your flint is too far away – it should be CLOSE so the sparks can easily land on the tinder while still hot and burning. If things are prepared correctly, it usually only takes me a single strike to get it lit.
- Gather your smallest piece of kindling (no bigger then matchstick) and lay on your burning tinder. Small pieces and SLOWLY! You do not want to suffocate the fire, which is very easy to do at this point. Add a few of your smallest and wait until they light. After a few seconds and they are burning, then add slightly larger but again be careful not to suffocate. The fire is most fragile when it’s small.
- Get to know the balancing act between feeding the fire enough to fuel to stay alive, but not smother it. A trick I learned is to try and expose new fuel to as much heat as possible (close to the flames), but without laying it directly on the flames (this tends to suffocate it). You can use other pieces of wood to prop up others you want to burn, which is why I suggested laying your tinder next to a large log, you can lay small pieces against the large log above the tinder and being close to the flames, but not directly laying on the tinder. A small gap goes a long way.
That about sums up. It may seem like a lot, but when you make fires regularly having the proper equipment makes the job simple.