This Is Your Complete Guide to Building and Starting a Fire in a Fire Pit (without using a blow torch and gasoline)
Sitting around a fire is one of my favorite things to do.
Whether it’s at home, the cottage, or a campsite, there is nothing more relaxing for me at the end of the day then to watch a fire snap and crackle away.
The smell, sound, and heat of a good fire just can’t be beaten. With that in mind, we’ll go through the steps of how to start a fire in this article.
Whether you are building a fire inside or outside, knowing how from scratch takes a bit of know-how and some practice. Let me walk you through everything you need to know, including step by step instructions on starting a fire in a fire pit.
A fire needs three things – AIR, HEAT, and FUEL.
If anyone of these items is removed the triangle will collapse and your fire will go out.
If you have adequate ventilation, enough fuel to keep it going, and a hot enough source to ignite the fuel, you will be successful in starting a fire.
Let’s start with everything you’ll need for FUEL.
Tinder is the most important part of getting a fire going. It is any material that will easily ignite. It takes just a bare minimum of heat to make it catch and it is highly flammable. Its purpose is to catch quickly and burn long enough to ignite larger pieces of kindling. Good tinder will only need a spark to get it going. Before attempting to light a fire, prepare some dry tinder. What would make great tinder? Here’s a good list to get you started:
- birch bark – look for this at the base of a birch tree (birch trees have white bark)
- resin shavings, “pine-gum” or pitch from a coniferous tree – look for this on old pine trees, especially trees that died on the stump. Resin will likely have flowed down to the bottom part of the tree. It is yellowish in color and fresh resin is very sticky.
- Dried grasses or dried crushed leaves
- Fine wood shavings
- Pine needles and dry cones that have been crushed up
- Dry rot – knock open the outer portion of a rotting tree and scoop out the insides
- Fire starters like lint (see our DIY fire starters below)
- Fire sticks
- In an emergency, an old bird’s nest, field mouse nest, dry moss, dry animal droppings, shelf mushrooms growing on tree trunks, woolly material from plants (think pussy willows or cattails)
Prepare your tinder by breaking it up into small pieces, roll it in your hands, and if possible, make it powdery which will allow sparks to heat the smallest of surface areas. Keep your tinder dry for future use. I always carry a stash of my DIY fire starters in a waterproof container every time I head out on a camping trip.
Kindling is a step up from tinder in size. It is used to catch the flames from the tinder to begin burning larger, longer burning, and more robust materials. The best kindling is small strips of dry wood or larger twigs. Softwood kindling is preferable as it ignites quickly; however, softwood itself should not be your main source of fuel as it tends to burn quickly and gives off a lot of sparks. If a good supply of wood kindling is not available, all of the materials in the tinder list above can be used as kindling as well – you would simply need a larger quantity of these materials in order to keep the fire going until your main fuel ignites.
The main fuel to get your fire going should consist of dry, seasoned wood (see how to season wood below). Greener wood can be added once your fire is established. As a general rule, heavier wood or “hardwood” makes for a better fire. It will give off more heat and burn longer, yielding longer-lasting coals than it’s lighter counterpart called “softwood”. For a long-lasting fire, mixing green and seasoned hardwood is your best bet – this type of fire is one which will last through the night.
Types of Wood
Hardwood comes from trees that have broad leaves, which most of them lose in the fall. These are called “deciduous” trees.
Excellent hardwoods for use as firewood are:
- Hickory – burns well, great heat, long lasting coals, easy to split when green
- Beech – burns well, great heat, long lasting coals, easy to split when green
- Oak – burns well, great heat, long lasting coals, red oak burns slowly in its green state, white oak may shoot out embers; all are excellent fuel
- Chestnut – when seasoned, gives off a hot fire, but little to no coals; will burn when green (outside only – see the section below called “Seasoning Your Wood”)
- White Ash – good long lasting fire, easy to cut, split and carry, lighter than most hardwoods, will burn when green (outside only – see the section below called “Seasoning Your Wood”); this is one of our favorites
- Locust – good long lasting fire, burns slowly, long-lasting coals, easy to cut and split, makes for excellent night wood
- Mulberry – good long lasting fire, burns slowly, long-lasting coals, easy to cut and split, makes for excellent night wood
- Maple – good long lasting fire, ignites easily, long lasting coals, gives a clear flame, may shoot out embers, easier to split when green, the sugar maple is one of our favorites
- Birch – good long lasting fire, natural oils assist is combustion, easy to split when green, will burn when green (outside only – see the section below called “Seasoning Your Wood”)
- Dogwood – good long lasting fire, easy to split when green
- Applewood – good long lasting fire
- Northern Poplar (Aspen) – intense heat, virtually smokeless, long lasting, excellent for cooking over, will not burn when green
- Sycamore – good long lasting fire when well seasoned, does not split easily, will not burn when green
- Buckeye – good long lasting fire when well seasoned, does not split easily, will not burn when green
- Alder – burns easily but does not last long
- White Elm
- Slippery Elm
- Scarlet Oak
- Willow Oak
Softwood trees have needles and cones. They are called “coniferous” trees. Most of them are evergreen which means they do not lose their needles with the exception of the larch, tamarack, and cypress. Softwood makes for excellent kindling and burns a hot fire. It splits well, shaves well and ignites quickly. Softwood burns too quickly and won’t last; it is usually a poor choice for fuel unless it is available in large quantities. It also gives off sparks.
Examples of softwoods are:
- Balsam Fir – ignites quickly but is short lived
- White Pine – ignites quickly but is short lived
- Tamarack – must be well seasoned to be acceptable
- Spruce – ignites quickly due to high resin content, short-lived, great for kindling
- Pitch Pine – must be well seasoned, ignites quickly due to the high resin content
- Yellow Pine – must be well seasoned, ignites quickly due to the high resin content
- Red Cedar – must be well seasoned and cut small, hard to ignite
Never, ever burn pressure treated wood, railway ties or other chemically treated wood for your fire. These are filled with noxious chemicals that are bad for you and the planet.
Best Wood for a Crackling Fire
If you’re looking for the quintessential beautiful crackling, snapping fire, choose one of the following woods:
- White Cedar
- Red Cedar
- Chestnut – must be well seasoned
- Yellow Poplar
- Box Elder
- Soft Pines
- Sugar Maple
- White Oak
- Some Hickory
While these do provide excellent, crackling fires, beware that the crackling means flying, hot embers which can potentially burn holes in anything they touch. Our trampoline sits about 20 feet away from our outdoor fire pit and currently sports about 10 small burn holes from flying embers.
Seasoning Your Wood
Knowing the difference between “seasoned” and “green” is important when it comes to wood you will be burning at your fire pit or in your fireplace.
When a live tree is cut down into logs it is said to be “green”. Once the wood is dried it is called “seasoned”. The more exposure to summer sun the less time it will take to season your wood.
Last year in the early summer, we cut down some apple and white ash and stacked the logs on the south side of our shed. The area received plenty of sun and had good ventilation. By winter, this wood was ready to be burned in our wood stove.
An overall good rule of thumb though is that medium-sized logs will generally season in about one year.
Some types of hardwood (as mentioned above) will burn when green. Others do not. Refer to our list so that you know which ones. Burning green wood usually results in a longer, slower burning fire with more smoke. For an outside fire, if you’re running out of seasoned wood, layering in a bit of green wood would be okay.
It is important to note that green wood should NOT be burned in a wood stove or indoor fireplace as it will cause a rapid build-up of soot and creosote. This could lead to a chimney or flue fire.
How (and Why) to Create a Smoky Fire Outside
As strange as it may sound to some, creating a fire for the purpose of using the smoke can be a useful skill to know. Why? Let’s tackle that question first and then I’ll tell you how to do it.
There are many reasons why someone would want to create a smoky fire, like:
- to repel insects
- to repel unwanted animals
- to send a signal
- to smoke meat which in turn dehydrates and preserves it
Creating a smoky fire is not difficult. Once you have a good fire going, begin adding lots of green foliage.
Another material you could use would be wet, or damp, punky pieces of wood. If flies, mosquitoes or midges are bothering you, this will greatly help.
Keep in mind, however, breathing this smoke into your lungs is not healthy and will have the same effect that cigarette smoke has on the body.
Choosing a Site Outside for Your Fire Pit
Choosing a site for an outside fire pit is important. Let’s break down everything you need to know.
But first a quick personal story…
When I was 12 years old, my older brother was tasked to burn some brush in our outdoor fire pit. I’ll never forget the moment he burst into the house and yelled for help. The wind had suddenly picked up and blown some of the burning brush out of the fire pit and sent it right into the forest behind our house. It was a terrifying sight to see the trees and dry leaves on the ground all begin to catch fire. Everyone scrambled outside to help but our efforts were in vain. My Mom called the fire department who rushed in to save our forest from burning down completely.
To avoid a disaster like the one we almost had, you’ll want to avoid windy areas.
Build It Far From Trees.
Keep your fire pit at least 10 to 20 feet away from trees, shrubs, and any other structures (shed, home, fence).
Never build a fire pit in an enclosed space or under a roofline.
Be aware of nearby trees. A fire pit should never be close enough to a tree where flames or even sparks could potentially reach it. This was part of our problem when our forest caught on fire…our pit was too close to the forest.
Also, consider prevailing winds…the last thing you’ll want is for your seating area to be downwind and have smoke hurting your eyes.
Encircle your fire pit with stones, rocks, or bricks. This will help contain the fire and the stones will pick up the heat and radiate it outward, keeping you warmer on a cool night.
If you plan on building a fire pit in your deck, check your local building by-laws first. Also be aware of how close people will be able to sit to the fire…a good rule of thumb is 10 feet from the outer edge. This may impact the size of your deck.
A good idea is to locate your pit within “hose” distance. We live on an acre of land and have one seriously long hose to water gardens and animals. Our hose is also long enough to reach our fire pit and surrounding trees.
If a long hose is not possible, consider having a fire extinguisher close by (and know how to use it).
Keep a bucket of water handy as well. You should never leave a burning fire unattended. When you’re packing it in for the night, fully extinguish the fire so that no hot coals remain.
Check with your local fire department to ensure you are allowed to have a fire pit. Some counties have by-laws indicating where fire pits are allowed or they may require you to purchase a permit. In our area, we are required to purchase a $20 permit every year. This ensures proper safety measures are taken and that people are aware of fire safety protocols.
Matches are the easiest way to start a fire.
If you’re heading out on a camping trip and plan on having some campfires, carry your matches in a waterproof container. The “strike-anywhere” type of matches are a smart choice as are water-proof ones. I even have a set of windproof matches.
If you’re a keen DIY-type, you can try your hand at waterproofing regular matches by dipping the head about one inch into melted wax. Before you’re ready to use a match, scrape the wax off the head.
Starting a Fire without Matches
It doesn’t happen often, but there may be times when you run out of matches or a lighter and need to start a fire. Personally, I’ve done a lot of wilderness camping and have experienced the frustration of damp or wet matches.
Using a Flint and Steel to Start a Fire
Having a flint and steel handy has saved me a number of times. Flint is a stone found in various place around the world.
It takes some practice to get the hang of using it to start a fire but this disadvantage is overcome by the fact that a flint and steel can be used thousands of times without wearing out, even if it’s wet or damp.
Using a flint and steel is one of the best methods to light tinder if you don’t have matches. When it is struck vigorously with a piece of steel, tiny pieces of fresh iron fly out. When the fresh iron makes contact with the oxygen in the air, it spontaneously ignites – these are the sparks you see. These sparks will then ignite your dry tinder.
Thankfully, you don’t have to scour the earth for flint. A number of companies make small kits available for purchase at very affordable prices. We really like this one.
Using a Magnesium Fire Block to Start a Fire
Somewhat similar to the flint and steel method is using a magnesium fire block.
Most outdoor sporting goods stores carry mag blocks which are used by the military and survivalists. Reliable and waterproof like the flint and steel, it is an ideal fire starter to carry in your gear.
With a pocket knife, scrap some of the magnesium off into small shavings and put it in your tinder. It is going to help augment your tinder by acting like a “super fuel”.
Turn the mag block over to the flint side and strike it with the steel or the dull side of your knife. The magnesium will quickly ignite and burn rapidly reaching 5610 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of seconds.
Your tinder will ignite rapidly so be ready to add more tinder and kindling once it gets going. Like the flint and steel, this method will take some practice.
Using the Sun and Glass to Start a Fire
As a boy, I used to regularly burn wood using the sun and glass method.
A camera lens, a glass from a binocular or telescope, the bottom of an old glass pop bottle, a magnifying glass – all of these can be used to start a fire.
Position the glass so that the sun shines directly through the glass. The glass will concentrate the sun’s rays. Aim the beam of light that comes out the other side at your tinder and it will quickly ignite.
The spot of light needs to be very small and exceptionally bright. That means it’ll burn through hardwood. Yes, I’ve done it many times so I know it works on a sunny day – especially around mid-day.
How to Start a Fire in the Wind
If you absolutely need to start a fire in the wind, there are several hints that will make your job much easier.
But as I mentioned above, starting a fire when it’s windy can be very dangerous. Follow the tips above in the section entitled “Choosing a Site Outside” to ensure maximum safety.
- Dig a trench and light your fire in it.
- Consider building a windbreak…this serves double duty as a reflector as well, reflecting heat back to you and sending smoke upwards, due to hot currents of air.
- If you’re using matches, hold the match with its head pointing downwards. The wind will send the flame up the match which will give it something on which to feed.
- Windproof matches are available at most outdoor stores.
DIY Fire Starters
All winter long I dream, and prepare for, my next wilderness expedition. The cold months give me ample time to prepare things I will use during the next camping season.
One of those items is a fire starter. I love carrying these with me as it makes the job of getting a fire going at the end of a long day of paddling that much easier. Following are some favorite DIY starters:
(These first five all require melted wax – the best method to melt wax is to place some wax (an old paraffin candle is just fine) in clean metal can (like a soup can), place the can in a pan and fill the pan to halfway up the side of the can, being careful not to get any water in the can. Place the pan on the stove and turn the heat up to medium. Watch for the wax to completely melt. It’s now ready to use!)
#1 – Using a paper or cardboard egg carton, stuff lint from your dryer into each egg compartment. Pour a thin layer of melted wax over the lint and let it set. Cut or break each compartment apart. Light a section. It will burn anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes.
#2 – My favorite method and the one I still use today is to cut strips of newspaper about 1 inch wide and about 10 inches long. Dip the strip of newspaper into melted wax completely (except for the part you’re holding). Then, pull it out immediately and lay it down on a piece of old paper or cardboard and begin rolling it up into a coil so it looks something like one of those fly traps that hang like a ribbon from your ceiling. Over the next few minutes, it will dry hard so it’ll be protected from water and it’ll be sturdy enough to store in any canoe pack. To light it, just stick a match under it; if you can, unroll it a bit and ignite. It should burn for quite some time (several minutes) and be able to start your tinder and kindling easily.
#3 – Another great method is to use cotton balls or cotton pads and soak them in the melted wax; let them dry completely. These are very lightweight and are the perfect choice if you are concerned about how much weight you will be carrying in a backpack.
#4 – Gather up some dry pinecones and tie a string around one end. Carefully dip them into melted wax. Let them dry completely before storing them. You can also dip dry pinecones into used cooking oil. Let them soak up the oil for a minute before taking them out to dry completely.
#5 – Shred up some old newspaper with a pair of scissors. Place some of the shredded paper into a paper cupcake holder. Carefully pour melted wax over the paper and let it set.
Non-Wax DIY Fire Starters
#1 – Dried out pine cones make an excellent fire starter. Sprinkle some hand sanitizer on them (the kind with alcohol in it) and your fire will ignite even more quickly.
#2 – Duct tape – is there anything it can’t do? Cut some into strips and light it at one end.
#3 – Dried citrus peel is an excellent, natural fire starter as it contains oil. Once you’re done juicing your lemons, oranges or limes, leave them to dry somewhere until they are hard shells. When you’re ready to start a fire, place the dried peel in with your tinder.
#4 – Wooden coffee sticks make for an easy, lightweight option.
#5 – If you have Vaseline around your home, work some into a few cotton balls. Store these in Ziploc bags as they can be a little messy. Vaseline is highly flammable and the combination of it and the cotton make for an excellent fire starter.
#6 – A bag of chips? Yup, if you’re having trouble getting your fire started, throw some greasy chips on and watch how quickly your kindling will catch. The more fat the better!
Alternatives to Wood
Are there alternatives to wood when it comes to building a fire? Yes, but the jury’s out on whether or not you will like using some of them! Here’s a list of a few that will do the job:
- Dry leaves can work as an alternative to fuel but you would need a fairly substantial pile.
- Charcoal makes for a very hot fire. It is virtually smokeless and is lightweight.
- Coal is another alternative source and is found in tundra areas around the globe. It should not be used for cooking purposes as it will poison your food.
- Dry seaweed is an unusual but efficient fuel.
- Peat moss is an accumulation of partially decayed organic matter that is often found in potting soil. It makes up about 2% of our land mass and is found in well-drained moors in Canada, Russia, and Finland. It is soft and springy underfoot and looks black and fibrous. Those concerned with the environment say that peat is not a sustainable resource; however, others suggest that with proper care, peat bogs can be sustainably managed. Whatever your position is on the matter, just know that it makes an excellent alternative fuel source for those times that you run out of wood…which is probably never.
- Also, high on the “likely to never use this ever” list, is animal droppings. Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the fresh stuff, okay? “Buffalo chips” or dried buffalo poop was used regularly by the pioneers as fuel to start a fire. So the next time you run out of wood, head to your local off-leash dog park for a walk…and bring home some, um, “fuel”.
Starting a Fire in a Fire Pit – Step by Step Instructions
I mention in my video (coming June 23/18) that you’ll need to remember THREE important terms; TINDER, KINDLING, FUEL.
Tinder is basically the material that you will ignite first in order to set the whole process in motion. It contains the smallest and most combustible items you can find. As mentioned above, some examples are wood shavings, dried leaves, birch bark, dry newspaper, etc.
Kindling is the second stage of burnable material and it’s basically similar to tinder, except it’s bigger, like thicker sticks or pieces of wood that are the thickness of a pencil, right up to about 2 inches in diameter.
Fuel is really the largest and longest-burning wood you have. This would include pieces of larger branches, logs, and chunks of wood that might be sold in a cord of wood for use in a wood stove or indoor fireplace.
Once you have the ingredients for a fire, the next step is to compile them effectively. It’s easy to just think that because you have the right ingredients, you can just chuck them all together and throw a match at it. That won’t work! Unless you combine them properly, you’ll be lucky to get the flame to light anything at all and stay lit for more than about 15 seconds.
As an optional “pre-step”, you can lay down a few kindling sticks (or fuel) on the fire bed and then 2 more crossing over those to form a kind of base upon which you can build the rest. This base will allow you to put the match flame underneath the whole pile of ingredients when the time comes.
So, once you have a base (or you can just start right on the ground itself – it’ll work fine either way), lay down some tinder in a loosely formed clump or group.
If you make it too tight of a ball or group, it won’t be able to breathe and ventilate well and you won’t be able to start a fire. If it’s too loose and scattered, it won’t burn all the elements at the same time to make a substantial flame (which is needed to ignite the kindling).
Gently lay across the top of the tinder, a few smaller items from your kindling pile. I like to use a really basic “teepee” style of construction which allows for great ventilation and it keeps a portion of all the kindling elements it perfect position to ignite once the flame from the tinder grows.
Light the tinder with a match or lighter (you can use lots of other methods like flints, fire steel or magnesium fire starters to name a few – but I don’t use these unless there’s a real need – matches are always close by as is a butane camping lighter)
Once the tinder and kindling are sufficiently burning and the need for more fuel becomes evident, place your fuel wood more or less on top of the current fire without crushing or destroying it if possible.
The rest is up to you! You can easily get a “feel” for the fire at this point and judge whether or not you need more fuel, and when.
Also, remember that to get the fire roaring and growing quickly, use smaller pieces of wood, and be sure they are very dry softwood pieces. For a longer-lasting fire with potentially more smoke, try a less dry or seasoned wood, and the harder the wood, the slower it will burn and the longer it will last.
That was a lot of information about how to start a fire, and you need to take a break! We always welcome your feedback and we hope you have gleaned something useful! Let us know!