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How to Build an Outdoor Fire

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls.

(Image credit: Indrajit Das)

We know, we know— Og and Gog had this one figured out a million years ago. But just in case you haven’t…


There is a very good chance that at some point in your life— even if you’re the most home-loving, easy chair– sitting, gelatinous blob of a human that ever lived— you’re going to have to make a fire outdoors. The kids will demand it. Or the spouse will kick you out of the cabin one night while you’re staying in the mountains on a winter vacation. With this in mind, you’re going to need some tried-and-true tips for starting a fire in the great outdoors. So here you go.


(Image credit: Flickr user Nina`H)

If you’re at a campground that provides a fire pit, you should use it, as this is the safest and easiest way to go. If none is available, you’re going to have to build a fire ring or pit yourself. Here’s how:

• Pick a flat spot with little or no vegetation, and be sure to look out for any low, overhanging tree branches. Clear all debris around the fire area to a diameter of 10 feet.

• For a fire ring only: Collect several rocks— brick-sized or larger and flat or flattish on two opposite sides. Arrange the rocks in a ring in the center of your clearing. The ring doesn’t have to be big— just a few feet across is fine— although it can, of course, be bigger in you want a bigger fire.

• For a fire pit: A fire pit is the ideal choice because it’s less likely wind will carry any flaming material out of the fire. Dig a pit three or four feet across (larger for large fires), and six to eighteen inches deep, depending on the tools you have available and the amount of work you’re willing to do. (A tire iron works pretty well to break up packed dirt, which you can then scoop out by hand.) Then place the same kind of rocks collected for the ring around the pit.


 (Image credit: Thomas Kees)

Water. It’s the last thing you’d think, right? But it’s the first thing to make sure you have handy, not only to douse any flames if the fire jumps and spreads, but to put the fire out completely when you’re done for the night. No fire should be left burning with nobody awake and in attendance. Most experts recommend at least a bucket of water for this purpose. Others recommend a bucket of water and a fire extinguisher.

Fire starter. Matches, lighter, flint and striker stone, magnifying glass— whatever you’ve got.

Tinder. This is the very flimsy stuff that you light first to get the fire started. It can be any number of things, including pine needles, grass, wood shavings, or paper; the important thing is that it must be very dry.

Kindling. This is the slightly larger stuff that the flames from the tinder will light. Most people just use dead, dry twigs from trees, one to two feet in length, but you can also make kindling yourself by chopping larger pieces of wood down to very thin pieces.

Fuelwood. This is the heavier wood that will be lit by the kindling, becoming the actual fuel of the fire once it gets going. It doesn’t have to be huge— anything about the thickness of your arm will do, although you can of course use big, bulky logs once the fire really gets going.

Important tip: Stack your tinder, kindling, and fuelwood in separate piles, not too close to the fire ring.


Now throw all the tinder, kindling, and fuelwood into your fire ring, douse that sucker with a whole can of lighter fluid, and toss a match in there.

Most people are familiar with the “tepee” method of fire building, but there are actually several other methods, some of which you may not have heard of. We’ll start with the tepee style, then give you some info on a few of the others.

Tepee: Make a pile of loosely assembled tinder in the center of the fire ring. The size of the pile depends on the size of the fire you want: For an average fire, make a pile about the size of half a basketball. Now stand pieces of kindling— thinnest pieces first— around the tinder, with their top ends meeting above the pile, forming a tepee shape. Don’t stack the wood too densely. Fire feeds on oxygen, so you want air to be able to move freely through the structure. Make sure you leave an opening that you can reach your fire starter through— and if it’s not too windy, make it on the windward side: The wind will help spread the fire through the structure. Use gradually thicker pieces of kindling as you add layers to the tepee, and then finish with four or five pieces of fuelwood about as big around as your wrist. Now light the tinder. Monitor the fire’s progress— be ready to throw more kindling on the fire if it seems like it will be used up before the fuelwood catches. Add larger pieces of fuelwood when the fire gets going. As it burns, the tepee will eventually collapse into a layer of coals. Once the fire is burning strongly, add fuelwood by laying it on the fire, preferably in crisscrossed layers, to allow plenty of air to feed the fire.

Log cabin: For this one, build a tepee just like above. Then take two pieces of fuelwood about as big around as your arm, and lay them at the base of the tepee on either side of it. Then lay two more across them, making a square shape around the tepee. Then add two more across those two pieces, again on either side of the fire. Continue building up like this, building a “log cabin” around the tepee. When you’ve gone high enough, build a roof on the cabin by placing a layer of relatively thin fuelwood across its top. Light the tinder (you may need to fashion a torch of sorts with rolled-up paper or a long piece of tinder to get to it). Add larger fuelwood when the fire gets going.

Lean-to: Stick a pointed piece of thin fuelwood or stout kindling into the ground at an angle, so that just two to four feet of it sticks out of the ground. Make a tinder pile underneath it, and then lay a small tepee of kindling directly on the tinder. Next, lay larger pieces of kindling so they lean on either side of the stick you’ve stuck in the ground. Add a few layers of thicker and thicker kindling over the first layer, and then a final layer of thin fuelwood. (Remember to not pack it too densely.) Light the tinder, let the fire get burning, and slowly place more fuelwood in the fire, building it up until it’s the size you’d like.

Parallel: Also called a “hunter’s fire,” this is a small, simple fire built between two logs placed on the ground just six inches or so from each other. The logs protect the small fire from wind— and provide a surface for pots and pans.

Council fire: This one’s a biggie, requiring a good supply of large logs, the largest a foot or more in diameter and four to six feet long. Place four or five of the largest logs parallel on the ground, and a foot or so apart from one another. Make a second layer by laying several slightly thinner logs across these. Make a third by placing several still thinner and shorter logs atop and across the second layer. Repeat this process using smaller and smaller logs, until you have a pyramidal structure four or five feet high. The last layer should consist of fairly thin pieces— just an inch or so in diameter— and should make a platform at least a couple of feet across. Build a tepee fire on top of this last layer, and light it. The fire will burn from the top down, lighting each new layer as it goes. Council fires are slow, steady burners that last a long time. So they’re often the choice for large groups performing ceremonies, and also a favorite for scouting groups.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Nature Calls. From hornywinks to Dracula orchids, from alluvium to zymogen, Uncle John is embarking on a back–country safari to track down the wackiest, weirdest, silliest, and most amazing stories about the natural world.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Stack the wood any which way you want, grab all the kindling you can, and you'll still probably never get a fire started (without lighter fluid or a starter log) with such worthless vague tips.

The key is to get the heat from the kindling in as small of a space as possible, confined against as small a part of a log as possible. You really need a tight, six sided box around your kindling, made up of the fire ring/pit/rock, several logs, and possibly rocks or sand. You can't possibly make it too tight with the materials you'll be using, so don't worry about intake air our exhaust openings. Go to extremes to hold the flames from that kindling in, and those logs will fire up that much faster.
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