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8 steps to building a better campfire

  • 7/15/2020 11:12:00 AM
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Camping isn’t complete without the fire, but getting it started doesn’t have to be a tricky process. Here are some tips to build a successful fire: 

The fire triangle

First things first, it’s important to know how a fire works. Fire requires three elements — oxygen, fuel and heat. If one element is lacking, the fire will eventually extinguish itself. If your fire starts to struggle, try to identify which part of the fire triangle needs help. Try blowing on the flames or waving a plate or adding more tinder. 

Camping isn’t complete without the fire, but getting it started doesn’t have to be a tricky process. Here are some tips to build a successful fire from the Iowa DNRFind your spot

In Iowa State Parks, camping spots have a designated place to build your fire - and that's the only place where building a fire is allowed. But you'll want to make sure the fire ring is free of trash, dry and warm. Warmth is an important element because a cold base can cause an imbalance in the triangle, causing the fire to struggle to start. If the ground is cold in the fire ring, you can also use a base of a dry board or wood. 

Think small

A successful fire will start with tinder - the smallest material you’ll use. In order for the fire to start creating its own heat, it needs the chance to burn, so find about twice as much tinder as you think you’ll use. 

Wondering where to find tinder? Check out your campsite. Other campers have likely broken down bigger logs and mowing breaks up sticks, leaving behind pieces of wood that make great tinder. 

If you can’t find small pieces of wood near you, there are some alternative options. Fire builders have successfully used Doritos, hand sanitizer and cotton balls dipped in Vaseline.

After finding ample tinder, it’s time to grab some kindling. This wood can vary from the size of a pencil lead up to the size of an adult’s thumb.

But remember, in Iowa state parks, you can only use downed wood - you can’t cut any wood for a fire.

Structural options

There are different ways to set up your wood for a fire, such as teepee, log cabin and lean-to styles. Everyone has their own opinion on which style is best, so feel free to try them all to find what works best for you. 

The teepee style of building a fire begins with laying tinder in a pile in the middle of your fire spot. Then, build a teepee out of kindling around the tinder, beginning with your smallest material, up to pencil-sized twigs. You should leave an opening in the teepee on the side the wind is blowing to ensure the fire gets the oxygen it needs. After the kindling teepee, build a larger teepee around it with fuel wood. Place a match under the tinder, and the wood should start burning. The structure will eventually collapse, and then you can continue to add fuel logs to the fire.

To build a log cabin style fire, start with a small teepee styled structure. Then, use large pieces of fuel wood placed on opposite sides of the teepee. Find smaller pieces of wood and put them across the first set of wood fuel, like you would do with Lincoln Logs. Repeat to build a cabin or pyramid shape, light the tinder and enjoy your fire.

For lean-to style fires, stick a long piece of kindling into the ground. You should try to angle it at about 30 degrees with the end pointing into the wind. Place a pile of tinder underneath the stick with some kindling around the tinder. Then, lay small pieces of kindling against the support stick with another layer of larger kindling on top of that. After you light the tinder, the fire should burn. 

Lighting the fire

Add the kindling slowly, as cold, unburning wood can take away the heat element of the triangle, causing the fire to extinguish itself. Once the kindling is burning, you can continue to add bigger pieces of wood, keeping in mind to add logs slowly to allow the wood to build heat and not smother the flames. 

While it’s tempting to pour some gasoline on your wood to get the fire going, don’t do this. Gas is volatile and evaporates quickly, making it extremely dangerous. Instead, use lighter fluid, fire starting fluids, newspapers or Fat Wood. Even when using a fire starter, start with the smaller materials that will ignite rather than bigger logs that can struggle to stay lit. 

Put it out

It’s always a good idea to put out your fire once you’re done with it, but it’s not such a great idea to pour a bucket of water on top to do so. This method can cause the fire to spread outside of the designated fire spot or even on to you. Instead, you should break the fire down with a stick or shovel and spread out the remaining ashes and logs. Then, slowly sprinkle water, preventing a large burst of steam coming back at you. After you’ve added plenty of water, mix it all around to create a mud, ash and log slurry. 

Finding supplies

Even though it’s not illegal to transport firewood within the state, it’s strongly recommended to get your firewood in the county you’ll be burning it to help prevent the spread of forest pests, like the emerald ash borer. Iowa is currently under a federal firewood transport quarantine, and transporting firewood from a quarantined state to a non-quarantined state is illegal. 

firewood stacked next to a campsite fire ring  | Iowa DNR