Whether you’re camping in the woods, out in the desert, or on the beach, knowing how to start a fire is an essential part of being a badass outdoorswoman. A fire essentially needs three things in order to work: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Don’t know where to start? After reading through our how-to guide, you’ll be a fire-starting pro in no time – just don’t burn anything down!
Step 1: Assemble Your Fire Kit
Here we’ll explain what you’ll need to acquire for your campfire. Are you a Naturalist or a Pyrotechnician? You decide!
Get your sticks together!
⚠️Fire Etiquette Tip: Make sure when gathering wood and fire-starting supplies you are complying with campground rules and using your best judgment. As a rule of thumb, you should never use live wood or break branches off live trees. Look for dead, dry wood that has already been broken off and is lying on the ground. Nature is a beautiful thing and we want to respect and preserve mother nature – not destroy her.
No packing space? Keep it simple with mother nature’s basics.
- Wood – make sure it’s dry!
- Matches, Lighter, or Flint
- Toilet paper – Unused, Ideally…
- Dried Grasses
- Cotton Balls
- Birch Bark
- Wood sticks – Certain types of wood burn faster or slower than others
- Dried Mosses
- Crushed Pine Cones
- Fungus – Those that grow on trees ? ?
Who are we kidding, you know your way around a fire. Show it who’s boss with the fire bending tools below.
- Fire Gloves – For moving hot logs and grabbing hot pots
- Large Tongs – For stirring coals and rearranging logs
- Small Shovel – To extinguish your fire safely and completely
- Knife/Blade – To shave wood for kindling or to create a spark
- Axe – To chop wood like a badass
- DIY Firestarters
- Water & Wind-Proof Matches (see instructions below)
- Battery Fire Starter (see instructions below)
- Wax Tinder Cups (see instructions below)
- Greasy Chips
DIY Firestarter – Water & Wind-Proof Matches
Cut a square of toilet paper in half and roll match up tightly inside, keeping the head free! Then dip entire match in melted wax. Let dry. When ready to light, scrape match head clean of wax and strike as usual.
DIY Firestarter – Battery Powered Bow Ties
Cut a small piece of foil or foil gum wrapper, into a small elongated bow tie shape. Hold the wide ends down onto the opposing ends of the battery. This will cause quick ignition of the narrowed center point of the foil. Be ready with your tinder, it lights and burns fast!
DIY Firestarter – Wax Tinder Cups
Use an old cardboard egg carton and fill each slot half full with old dryer lint, cotton balls or newspaper. Pour melted wax into each cup till filling is well coated. Cut each egg cup apart for individual starters. To light, hold a flame to cardboard corner, it will light quickly and burn longer than normal tinders.
Step 2: Build Your Campfire
Now that you have your supplies, it’s time to set up your fire ring and pick a campfire formation.
If you build it, then you need to put a ring on it!
⚠️Fire Etiquette Tip: Before you start a fire, make sure it is in a legal fire-burning area and be aware of fire season. If you see a sign that prohibits fire, do not start a fire! These warnings are placed for a reason, and starting a fire in dry conditions could result in disaster – trust us, we live in California.
Establish a Safe and Legal Fire Ring
The most important step to building a proper campfire is establishing a solid fire ring. This keeps the fire safely contained for the surrounding habitat and fellow campers. If your campsite already has an existing fire ring, use it!
If you are not in an established campsite, you can assemble your own by placing medium sized rocks in a circle and beating your chest like an ape. Make sure to choose a location that is away from overhanging branches or other brush that could catch on fire, or where people can see you being a weirdo. Large, flat patches of dirt are a safe location to build a fire. Your rock ring should be at least 14” tall, and should not have any gaps that fire may slip through.
Build Your Campfire Formation
Choose the formation that best suits your resources and desired fire size. Explore our three favorite formations below.
The teepee fire lay is one of the easiest and most common formations. This is a great option for when you only have small pieces of wood and tinder around. Build your pieces of gathered wood into the shape of a teepee around your tinder.
Log Cabin Campfire
The log cabin lay is great for minimal maintenance, large pieces of firewood and when you want your fire to last all night. Simply stack the wood pieces alternating like Washington’s House and be sure to place the tinder of your choice in the middle.
Cowboy Star / Indian Campfire
The Star Lay or Indian Fire is the old school method from the Wild West that cowboys and Indians used for all-nighter fires. All you need are a few longer pieces of wood laid out in the shape of a star, as seen in the image above, with some tinder and kindling in the middle.
Step 3: Start a Fire!
Your fire ring is set up and your formation is looking good. Now for the fun part – lighting the fire! Forgot your matches? There are several other ways you can ignite the fire within you, and maybe even start a campfire. Below are a few ways you can, with little to no resources.
Just don’t burn anything down!
⚠️Fire Etiquette Tip: When you’re getting ready to spark your flame for your fire, be sure that you are only using burn-friendly wood, tinder, and kindling. No trash in your fire! Be mindful of harsh chemicals that you could be combusting into our atmosphere. Let’s protect the health of ourselves and nature around us as much as possible!
Method #1: Strike your Match, Lighter, or Flint – Too Easy!
This is where your match, lighter, or flint will come in handy! If using a lighter, be sure to check that it is full of lighter fluid before leaving for your trip. This will make it a whole lot easier to spark your flame.
- Build your Tinder Nest – Gather your tinder and create a small nest to catch your spark.
- Strike the Matches, Flint, or LIghter – Spark your fire to get the flame going.
- Ignite your Tinder – Make sure to hold a flame long enough to light your tinder.
Method #2: Steel & Flint – You got this!
When it comes to sparking a flint and creating a flame, the steel pocketknife is literally a girl’s best friend.
- Gather Materials – You will need a steel pocket knife (carbon will work better than stainless) and a very hard, sharp rock. Look for granite, chert, quartz, jasper or obsidian.
- Build Your Tinder Nest – Gather your tinder and create a small nest to catch your spark. See our preferred tinder under “The Naturalist”.
- Strike the Flint – Holding a palmful of tinder between your hand and the rock, strike the blade or butt of your pocketknife against the sharp edge of a rock. With proper girl power, you’ll be able to shave off bits of molten steel from your knife.
- Transfer Your Tinder – Your handheld tinder will start to glow and you can transfer this to your tinder nest.
Method #3: Hand Drill Method – Roll Those Sleeves Up, Ladies!
The hand drill method should be reserved for when you’re really in a pinch for supplies. This method is very tough and requires quite a bit of determination. A popular choice for Indigenous peoples of The Americas, Africa, Australia and has even made appearances in early Chinese histories. (Sorry Europe, your wood is often too damp!) Grit your teeth, roll up your sleeves and spin that stick till you see smoke. This takes practice. Good luck!
- Create the Drill – Find a straight branch (it should be about a foot long and the width of your thumb), a piece of flat plank-like wood, and some tinder. Sharpen the tip of the stick. Use your knife to create a small hole or fork in the wood.
- Roll the Stick – Place the sharp end of your stick onto the hole or fork. Place your hands at the top end of the stick and rub it between your palms as fast as you can.
- Blow on the Smoke – With a bit of luck and a lot of determination, the friction will eventually create smoke in the tinder. Gently blow onto the smoking tinder until a flame is created.
Method #4: Fire Plow Method – Tried n’ True.
The Fire Plow method is also very difficult to achieve a flame, but all that hard work is rewarding if you can stick to it (pun intended). This method was mastered by our Polynesian and Maori ancestors of the South Pacific.
- Create the Plow – Find a straight branch (it should be about a foot long and the width of your thumb), a thicker branch or plank of wood, and some tinder. Sharpen the tip of the thin stick to a dull point. Use your knife or axe to split the thicker length of wood, being careful to not fully split apart, you’re looking for a V-shape or a long slot in the middle.
- Push the Stick – Set the sharp end of your stick against the splice within the wood at an angle. (about 45 degrees) Get a good grip and push it back and forth against the slot.
- Blow on the Smoke – With a bit of luck and a lot of determination, the friction will eventually create its own tinder at the end of the slot and start to smoke. Gently blow onto the smoking tinder until a flame is created.
Step 4: Put Out the Fire
You came, you saw, you conquered. Now you’re ready to keep adventuring. Read through this next section t o make sure you know how to safely put out your fire.
When in doubt, put it out!
⚠️Fire Etiquette Tip: Sometimes your fire lay formation will be dependent on weather conditions. Adding more wood will cause your fire to grow in size. If there are high winds and very dry conditions, be cautious as this can easily cause an uncontrollable fire in a matter of seconds. (Don’t underestimate this prehistoric force of nature!)
Safely Extinguish the Fire
Making sure your fire is completely out is the most crucial part of this process! Below are a few examples of how to put your fire out the right way based on your surroundings:
- Douse the Fire – Douse your fire with water slowly and carefully. Remember you’ll create hot steam! Pour low and slow till the coals are cooled enough to touch.
- Stir the Coals – Use dirt and sand to stir and separate the coals. Essentially smother and snuff out the fire. Don’t just bury it! This can create a hot pocket that can build heat and reignite, or worse, remain unseen and trodded on!
- Double Check – Once extinguished, hold your hand over the coals to make sure there is no more warmth. Always make sure your embers are completely out before walking away. Think of the little critters!
🔥💃 Congratulations! You now possess the epic fire skills needed to start a fire and dance around it all night long.
You’re a regular pyromaniac ready to venture out into the wilderness with your newly refined campfire etiquette. With this knowledge comes power… stay away from the dark side! Do your best to always take mother nature into consideration and preserve her beauty for future generations.
Looking to hone your outdoorswomanship?
What a mouthful! Whether it’s rigging a slackline or gearing up for a backpacking trip we’re curating various blog posts about how to outside like a boss. Check out some of our outdoorsy stories from the Women of the Collective:
- Betsy Dionne on body confidence, mental health, and wildlife
- Cheyenne Sukalski on backcountry ethics and crafting silver jewelry
- Jessica Maviano on BASE jumping, overcoming fear, and abuse
Have a suggestion for an outdoor tip? Reach out below!
Disclaimer: Têra Kaia is not responsible for your questionable fire-making tendencies. Please always use caution and common sense when starting a fire in the outdoors. This booklet was designed to be a fun, instructional tool for your general knowledge only and is not a pass or permit for lighting everything you can on fire. Have fun!