How to Build the Best Campfire — With Science and Pizzazz

How to Build the Best Campfire — With Science and Pizzazz

Why you should care

Because building a fabulous fire is a lit summer skill.

After another lazy day of fishing and Frisbee, the crisp campsite air is suffused with smoke. They say there’s no smoke without fire but … The guy in the metallic orange pickup over there has a pile of logs big enough for a Hindu funeral pyre (if only he could get it to burn), and that chap under the big tree seems to be performing CPR on a heap of pine needles. Talk about a twisted fire starter.

My fire’s burning, though, and without a moment of chest beating. My Granny Angela showed me how when I was 5, and I honed my skills as the “gear guy” for a leading South African outdoor magazine. Lighting a campfire isn’t rocket science, but it is science. In celebration of the estimated 40 million U.S. households who plan to go camping this season— especially the 89 percent who associate camping with campfires — some foolproof fire-starting tips are in order, including some out-there methods championed by everyone from blow-drying Swedish hipsters to stick-twirling Kalahari bushmen.

Take one side of the fire triangle away, and you’re left with a pile of blackened sticks and a dented ego.

“Lighting a fire is not difficult,” says Ushe “Arrie” Raats, a 47-year-old Nu Bushman (the term currently favored by Raats and his people), from Andriesvale in South Africa’s Kalahari desert. He only needs two sticks — not even a match! — and fewer than 10 minutes to get a fire going.

Granted, Raats is something of a grandmaster, but the facts remain. All fires require three ingredients to survive: heat, fuel and oxygen. Take one side of the fire triangle away, and you’re left with a pile of blackened sticks and a dented ego. In 2019, there are loads of gizmos that can allow you to cut some corners (more about these later). But your triangle still needs three sides, Pythagoras.

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Using yesterday’s breakfast packaging to start a fire.

Source Getty Images

Unless you’re on a submarine, oxygen is usually quite easy to find — but still, people suffocate their fires. Two fire types lend themselves to good oxygen flow: the “teepee” (logs leaning toward the center like a pyramid) and the “log cabin” (logs laid two-by-two in alternating directions).

Fuel, aka wood, must be dry and suit your burning intentions. If you’re planning on cooking over your fire you’ll want the hard wood that comes from slow-growing trees — in the U.S. that’s maple and oak — and is (take note) harder to light. Softer wood is fine, however, for toasting marshmallows and warming cockles.

Once you understand the rules, heat is the one place where you can cut some corners. Try these four funky fire-starting methods.

campfires (egg)

  • Use yesterday’s breakfast packaging. Pour regular cooking oil (used is best) into the “nests” of an egg carton and light the cardboard. The resultant blaze will give you plenty to cluck about, so steer clear of overhanging brush and synthetic toupees.
  • When the kindling is hard to come by. The propane fire starter attachment emits talons of flame from scores of tiny holes along its length. Purists might call this cheating, but wave a 12-inch wand of fire in their direction and they’ll change their minds. Abracadabra. Note: You’ll need a propane source for this.
  • Wow with technology. The Looftlighter ($80 on Amazon), a Swedish hair dryer on steroids that pumps out 1,100˚F air (that’s two sides of your triangle sorted), works best with charcoal. Simply hold the hot end next to your still-black coals and watch as they spark — sometimes spectacularly so — into life. If using charcoal you’ll be ready to cook in five to 10 minutes, but the Looftlighter can also kickstart a properly constructed log fire or provide life support to a badly made one.
  • Follow an ancient tradition. Raats is one of the last custodians of the traditional Bushman method that involves “hand-drilling” one stick (the mannetjie or husband) into an indentation made in another larger stick (the wyfie or wife) and using the resulting embers to ignite some dry grass. “They can’t just be any sticks,” warns Raats, explaining that sponsbos— a spongy Namibian shrub similar to the syringa — is where it’s at. Once the grass is smoldering, pick it up and gently blow on it before transferring the flaming handful to a pre-prepared fire in a wind-sheltered location.

campfire looftlighter

While not strictly a fire-starting method, the impressive BioLite CampStove also deserves a mention. Small and orange, this new-age camp stove uses only twigs, leaves and pellets as fuel. Its built-in, battery-operated fan means you can boil a liter of water in fewer than five minutes. The heat from the fire doesn’t just recharge the fan’s battery — it can also juice up your smartphone or GoPro.

Whatever method you choose, there’s nothing stopping you from constructing a properly built fire that only requires a single spark to get going. Start with thin, dry kindling at the bottom and gradually work your way up to sticks and logs on the top. If kindling is in short supply, split some logs or use tumble dryer fluff (I always take mine camping – don’t you?) and/or bellybutton lint (you might need to crowdsource this).

Now put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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