10 Ways to Screw Up a Campfire (and How to Fix Them)
Avoid these tempting shortcuts, and you’ll have a blazing inferno in no time
You’ve built a couple hundred campfires, so you figure you can cut a few corners. Skip a few steps. Especially with the sun dropping, and the kids whining, and a cold night on the way.
So, tell us: Has that ever worked?
We didn’t think so. Here are the 10 most common campfire cheats and why they fail—and how to buck up and build a blaze that makes both dinner and memories.
1. You Bring a Wimpy Lighter or Half-Rotten Matches
A trigger torch will help you get a fire going quickly. Bernzomatic
We all need to know how to start a fire with basic materials, and while practice makes perfect, that doesn’t mean you need to start every fire with a spark and Vaseline-soaked cotton balls. Why handicap yourself if you’re truck or boat camping? Pack a waterproof jet lighter or, better yet, a hand-held propane trigger torch, the kind you’d pick up cheap at the hardware store. In addition to plenty of other outdoors tasks—melting the cut ends of parachute cord, searing the pin feathers off a plucked duck—a trigger torch will supersize your fire-starting abilities like no other tool.
2. You Build Your Fire on the Soggy Remains of a Fire Ring
Yes, you should build fires in established fire rings when possible, but laying a new fire on top of a sodden carpet of old ashes and half-burnt green twigs is asking for failure. The layer of gray glop and who-knows-what in established fire rings is often wet and just a little nasty. Lay your fire-starting materials directly on top and humid air will be sucked into your infant blaze. Instead, take 5 seconds to scrape away the old ashes, and 20 seconds to build a small platform of dry sticks to hold your fire-starting materials.
Read Next: How to Build 10 Blazing Infernos
3. You Scrimp on the Tinder
Tinder is the dry, fine, easily shreddable material that catches a spark or a match’s meager flame and burns quickly, with tall flames, to light the larger kindling. Tinder is the building block of every fire, but it’s a pain in the butt to gather and we all tend to gather far too little. Don’t stop gathering until you have two hands full.
4. You Crumple Up a Cereal Box for Fuel
Big wadded-up blobs of paper sure do burn pretty. Until they peter out, and leave behind large sheets of smoldering black ash that do an awesome job of smothering the very fire you’re trying to build. If you have to resort to the cardboard tube inside a roll of toilet paper or your last box of Lucky Charms—no shame, we’ve all been there—then at least tear the paper/newsprint/cardboard into thin curling strips, and use them sparingly until you have a steady flame.
5. You Don’t Split Wood
A stout survival knife is more than capable of batoning firewood. ESEE Knives
It’s a hassle to split firewood, which is why we try to skip this step from time to time, and tell ourselves that our time-proven fire-making skills will make up for our laziness. But the rough inner surface of split wood lights more quickly, and while some bark makes a great firestarter, the bark of many trees has at least some fire-retardant properties so it protects the tree in a wild fire. Split wood whenever possible. And even the smallest sticks will catch fire quicker, and burn hotter and more completely, if you split them. Use a hatchet if you have one, but you can also use your knife to baton sticks into smaller pieces that present a rougher texture for greater flammability.
6. You Try to Mess with Green or Wet Wood
The scramble for firewood in the last minutes of light always leads to corner-cutting, and perhaps nowhere is this more common than in the search for dry wood. Tinder and kindling needs to be very dry, so snap twigs and branches with your hands, and discard any that bend or split lengthwise. That’s a sign of green wood. On family camping trips, I had to tell my kids a million times: “If you have to ask me if it’s dry enough, then it’s not.” You know when you’re cheating.
7. You Cut the Wind
Too much wind makes it tough to light a fire. But just enough of a breeze will turn a coal into a blaze. For starters, build the fire so the wind will come from the upwind side. That will make it easier for the breeze to blow your flames into the fuel. Then get a gentle breeze flowing through the embers. Use a pot lid or paper plate to gently fan air into a stubborn fire. A low, steady supply of fresh oxygen works better than an off-and-on puff. Make sure to get on ground level so the breeze doesn’t create a mushroom cloud of ash, and keep it up at medium speed. If you have a battery-powered mattress pump, aim it towards the center of the fire, and hose down the meager flames with a blast of oxygen. Works every time.
8. You Run Out of Firewood
The answer to the question, “How much wood do we need?” is always, “More.” And sometimes, “Twice as much.” In areas where it’s permissible to gather your own firewood, a lot of the good stuff around most camping areas has been scrounged over, and the stuff left to burn are the larger pieces that require working over with a saw or axe. But there’s an easy, safe way to turn a 15-foot-long branch into campfire-handy smaller pieces. Find a sturdy Y-shaped tree crotch about as high as your waist, and insert a dead tree branch into the crotch so that a couple of feet stick out the back side. Now push or pull to one side until the wood breaks. You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can stack up a pile of campfire wood.
9. Your Stash of Cut Firewood Gets Soaked
A wet log might look like a non-starter, but there’s a way to turn a wet round of hardwood into a stack of usable tinder, kindling, and fuel. As long as you didn’t forget the hatchet.
Split a log into quarters. Lay one quarter on the ground, bark side down. Cut two 1-inch deep cuts, 4 inches apart, into the exposed inner edge of the quarter. Shave thin 4-inch-long dry wood curls and splinters. Pound these curls with the back of the hatchet to break up the wood fibers and separate the smallest slivers. This is your tinder.
Next, split pencil-size pieces from the wedge corners of a remaining quarter. Break these into 6-inch pieces for kindling. Continue to split the quarters, utilizing the innermost and driest pieces. Use these as small and large pieces of fuel.
10. You Forget You Have Duct Tape in the Truck
Duct tape has a million-and-one uses—including as fuel for a campfire. Lockport Store
When all else fails—or even as a Plan A—duct tape is simply the best, most readily available, fool-proof, fire-catching material on the planet. If you don’t have duct tape, you should be inside watching beach real estate shows in the first place. Otherwise, go grab a roll from the truck.
There are several ways to use duct tape to bring on the blaze. You can loosely wad up a fist-sized ball, which is easy to light and will burn long enough to dry out tinder and kindling. Or use a small square of duct tape—sticky side up—as a base for tinder. The adhesive holds wispy magnesium flakes and fine grasses in place, and serves as a fire accelerant. Or twist strips of duct tape into tinder sticks 6 to 8 inches long. The adhesive side catches fire more quickly, so be sure to have as much sticky surface exposed as possible.