Camping for beginners: how to build a cooking fire.

I'm sorry to point out the obvious to those of you who know, but for the first-time camper building a good fire can often be a challenge. These are my trusted methods, materials and tips that work (nearly) every time. 

Cabo Blanco, Peru- building a cooking fire on the beach.
Cabo Blanco, Peru- building a cooking fire on the beach.

You will need:

  • A flame: possible options are a lighter, matches or if you are very clever a spark from sticks or rocks. 
  • Tinder: Dry leaves (possible alternatives paper, dry grass, dry moss, bog cotton, eucalyptus leaves...)
  • Kindling: Small sticks 
  • Bigger sticks 
  • Logs
  • Possible cheats: a candle, oil or fat, firelighters...
Tinder ^
Tinder ^
Kindling ^
Kindling ^
Bigger sticks and logs ^
Bigger sticks and logs ^

Method One

1. Make a small pyramid with your tinder and kindling putting the thinnest, driest most flammable things on first and leaving a gap in the sticks to light the tinder from.

2.  Build up your pyramid with bigger sticks remembering to leave the gap.
3.  If you are unsure as to whether your fire will start, it is best to light it now and see whether it takes. Once most of the material is starting to burn, begin to add your biggest sticks and logs. Otherwise, continue your pyramid with the bigger sticks and logs and then light.

Tinder ^
Tinder ^
Tinder and kindling with a gap left in sticks for lighting dry leaves. ^
Tinder and kindling with a gap left in sticks for lighting dry leaves. ^

Method two (better if you have more big logs or are somewhere windy)

 

  1. Place two big logs, parallel with each-other between 20 and 40 centimetres apart (depending on how big you want your fire and how much small wood you have).
  2. Place your tinder in the gap starting, as above, with the smallest most flammable material first.
  3. Using a careful criss-cross pattern continue to add some kindling, then bigger sticks resting the ends on the two side logs. As above be sure to leave the edge of your tinder accessible for lighting.
  4. Light your tinder and if it takes, continue to slowly add bigger and bigger wood until you think it's hot enough to add some logs on the top. Continue to use your two big side logs as a frame to rest the ends of your big pieces of wood to allow airflow.

Important tips: 

Protect your fire.

  • Choose a sheltered spot, dig a hole in the sand or make barriers to block the wind.

Choose the right sticks.

  • As far as fire-lighting material is concerned, brown is good, green is very bad. This obviously doesn't apply to flammable plants such as eucalyptus, pine and other evergreen, oily leaves (though these are usually only good for a quick blast of heat). 

Don't drown your fire!

  • Be sure to allow your fire time to heat up and catch most of the existing material alight before adding more. Excess can block the airflow. If you put lots of leafy material on top of your small sticks, the leaves will block the air and if they do light, their falling ash can also drown the fire below.

Give it some extra oxygen.

  • A good way to encourage your fire if it seems to be struggling, is to blow at the base and provide more oxygen. Ideally the flames should catch again before you pass out! If you loose the battle, you can always add more tinder to start it up again.

Think ahead.

  • If you have slightly wet wood, dry the sticks and logs around the edges of your fire before attempting to burn it.

So, when is it a cooking fire?

  • For cooking, you will usually want to wait until enough big sticks and logs have been burning for a decent amount of time before letting it die down to a red, smouldering state. If you attempt to cook over big flames you will probably find that your food burns before it is cooked through!

Be Safe!

  • I won't patronise you too much, but make sure your fire isn't going to spread anywhere it shouldn't. Be extra careful near children, pets and flammable materials such as tents and synthetic fibres (fleece will melt onto your skin). Check whether you are allowed to burn wood in that area and use your common sense to avoid being the idiot who started a forest fire. Don't leave it unattended and extinguish with water once you have finished. 


These are the two simplest ways of building a fire that I know, if you prefer another method I'm eager to hear. Please explain below in the comments!


Write a comment

Comments: 10
  • #1

    Charlie (Friday, 06 February 2015 03:43)

    You know what, I read the title of this post and was like: I have absolutely, totally no idea! I've now read the whole post and have a better idea, though also have the distinct impression that I wouldn't be able to make it work haha.

  • #2

    featherytravels (Friday, 06 February 2015 15:12)

    Haha, I'm sure it would as long as you had dry wood. Try it some time- you might surprise yourself! Thanks for the comment Charlie. :)

  • #3

    Sophie (Friday, 06 February 2015 22:57)

    Really helpful tips! I would add - never, ever be tempted to use petrol to "help" as it can leave an invisible vapour trail between your fire and the container of petrol, with obviously disastrous results.

    I haven't tried the second type of fire building, so I'm going to give that a go, but I might wait until the nights are a bit warmer!

  • #4

    Becky Padmore (Saturday, 07 February 2015 19:09)

    Great information and lovely photo! I want to build a fire on the beach now :-)

  • #5

    featherytravels (Saturday, 07 February 2015 20:28)

    Very good point Sophie! That photo of me on the beach was actually shortly after some Peruvian friends tried to 'help' us with the fire and caught fire to their petrol can.

    Thanks for the comments!

  • #6

    Shikha (whywasteannualleave) (Thursday, 12 February 2015 15:16)

    What a great idea for a post! These tips would have been so handy back in my school D of E expedition days - I was hopeless at all these things and I must admit, I haven't been camping since but these things aren't always as obvious as people realise!

  • #7

    Cez (Saturday, 21 February 2015 11:02)

    Thanks for the great post and tips. Building fire is difficult and easy at the same time. And most people just don't realise that.

  • #8

    featherytravels (Saturday, 21 February 2015 15:03)

    Shikha- you should have another go now! Thanks Cez. :)

  • #9

    Agness (Monday, 07 December 2015 17:42)

    You go girl, go! :) I have two left hands (that's a typical Polish saying) and I would never know how to build a cooking fire, even if you showed me! :)

  • #10

    Katie Featherstone (Monday, 07 December 2015 20:27)

    You could do it Agness! I promise!

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