The Happy Camper: Fire Lighting 101

Kevin Callan talks about how best to light a campfire, and what it really means to do so.


Having a campfire during summer is more of a recreational pleasure than a survival factor; it’s a way to make s’mores and a setting for ghost stories.

However, in the early season, or when the leaves start to change, and the temperature drops and rain can suddenly change to snow, huddling around a fire becomes a campsite necessity. It’s also when your fire-starting skills will be put to the test. 

Having fire-starting skills beats being able to catch the biggest fish or being able to carry the heaviest load every time. On my late-season trips, my campmates and I have ongoing wagers (extra rations of rum) regarding getting the fire lit, and the stakes get higher the more foul the weather. 

The first step is to head far back behind the campsite and collect a handful of dry, pencil-sized twigs under the canopy of conifer (evergreen) trees. Even in the hardest rain, this tinder will be relatively dry. Next, locate dry, standing wood no bigger in size than the thickness of your arm. Any larger and you’ll have to split it with an axe. (Wood lying on the ground will most likely be rotten throughout.)

Before placing the wood in the fire pit, use a good fire-starter as a base to help get the flames going. Strips of birch-bark work like a charm due to their oily-resin. A glob of pitch squeezed from balsam blisters, a piece of dried lichen, dry pine needles or cattail fluff work great as well. You can also purchase some top-notch starters like Instaflame. Or you can make your own fire-starters with dryer lint, steel wool, Duct Tape with a squirt of bug repellent, strips of inner tube, pieces of wax paper or cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly or lip balm. (Wood shavings soaked in paraffin wax work amazingly well, even when wet.) 

Now it’s time to get things going. Place the pencil-like twigs at a crisscross pattern over the fire-starter. Then place the larger pieces on top, but make sure there’s plenty of space for the fire to breathe. (There are two designs: log cabin or tipi. I prefer the log cabin.) Place a few more smaller bits of wood on top and then ignite the fire starter. 

Getting a fire going with one match is the Boy Scout classic challenge. However, I rarely use matches. A butane lighter is a much better gadget to pack along. If you do use matches, make sure to store them in a waterproof container with a cotton ball on top — and briskly run the match through your hair before it igniting it to draw out any moisture. 

A notable quote to remember while gathering wood is one from Henry David Thoreau: “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” The citation is derived from Thoreau’s famous dictum on the subject of pleasures with wood gathering. Edward Abby noted the pleasure as well; he exulted in the act of gathering-up desert juniper to kindle a campfire. Since I’ve never been to the desert, my favourite literary statement about wood-gathering was made by Sigurd Olson. His preference for fueling a fire was the weathered pine knots of Canadian Shield country:

“In the fall, I like to gather these blackened old nuggets of energy so that I have a good supply for the long winter evenings ahead. They are far too precious to burn often, and only on special occasions, when a fine bed of coals has formed and friends are sitting around talking and laughing in its glow, do I bring one in, push it carefully into the waiting embers.”

Whatever the statement made about the pleasures of gathering wood for the fire, it must be noted that the only true way to know what works and where to get it is for you to be comfortable with your surroundings. It’s true what they say: practice does pay off in the end. 

I camp a lot near my home in Peterborough, ON. It’s part of what’s called the Great Lakes Forest Region. And my favourite fuel for an evening fire in that area is dead, dried maple, oak or ironwood. It’s a piece that’s too old to be considered a sapling but too young to be mature. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across pieces still standing; the ones that can easily be pushed down, dragged back to camp and sawed up into arm-sized chunks. When cut up and burned, this wood has an extended flame-time, great for cooking or just keeping the chill out during a late autumn night or two. 

Campfires give us a lot of pleasures but the very idea of sitting around a campfire, whether it’s in a group or alone, is what signifies that you’ve finally begun to slow down. Your senses open up. A campfire starts to sound good, look good and smell good. You can distinctively hear the snap of exploding resin, see the flames change colour as they absorb oxygen and smell the woodsmoke being emitted from logs of maple, birch or pine.

Put simply, the lighting of a campfire signifies that your time in the wilderness has begun.

This article was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue.