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5 Steps for Building the Perfect Fire

With the right materials and knowledge, you can ensure a reliable blaze for any gathering. Follow these tips to build a great campfire this spring.

5 Steps for Building the Perfect Fire

(Author photos)

Whether you’re staying overnight in the woods, stopping for lunch along the shore, or just hanging out in the backyard, a campfire is the perfect complement to springtime activities. A good fire quickly becomes the centerpiece of any outdoor gathering, providing warmth, sparking conversation, and serving as an essential element in a celebration of being outside.

Although a fire pairs well with many pursuits in the spring, conditions can make it tough to build a good blaze. For one, the ground and any wood lying on it may be damp from rain or late-winter snow. Combine that with fickle breezes, and tinder and kindling gathered on the spot can be seemingly impossible to light and keep burning. With some knowledge of the best materials to use and attention to key fire-building principles, however, you can count on creating first-rate flames whenever you want them. (Side note: In some areas, conditions can be very dry in the spring with gusty winds. Avoid building a fire in such situations and, of course, whenever there are fire restrictions.)

HOW TO BUILD THE PERFECT CAMPFIRE

Step 1: Gather the materials.

It can be tempting to just grab a handful of twigs and light them, but it’s not a good plan for building a sustainable fire—if the twigs even start in the first place. Instead, spend some time gathering all the materials you’ll need for a fire before starting it so you can efficiently keep the flames going and growing.

The essentials include tinder, kindling and fuel wood, but before we get to those, keep in mind that a good fire also has some means of containing it. If a firepit isn’t present and you’re not able to arrange a ring of rocks, clear away the leaves, sticks and any other combustible material from an area at least twice as wide as the fire you plan to build. Tinder is what you light, what you use to convert a single flame or shower of sparks into a fire. There are two excellent natural sources of tinder. The first is birch bark, as it contains an oil that is flammable and catches fire even when damp. Peel the loose, thin, paper-like bark off the trunk of a tree. It’s easy to collect a nice wad before a trip and carry it with you for when you need it. Another dependable tinder material is the tiny, dead twigs found close to the trunk of conifers such as hemlock, spruce and fir. They’re usually very dry and catch fire easily. Other tinder options include commercial fire-starting pellets, the fluffy cotton inside cosmetic pads, and paper. Whatever you choose, the more tinder you have, the better. Don’t assume a handful of bark or twigs is enough; whenever possible, have several handfuls ready to light.

Preparing the perfect campfire

From tinder the flames move on to kindling. Gather different sizes of kindling, starting with sticks about the diameter of a pencil and moving up to branches about the diameter of your forearm. Look for kindling that isn’t in direct contact with the ground, as it will be drier. Any dead standing timber or branches that are elevated above the forest floor will provide good kindling.

Finally, gather several armfuls of fuel wood. This is the wood that sustains the fire—the stuff you burn long into the night. It’s also the wood that provides the most heat and forms the coals for cooking. Again, look for dead standing timber and branches or logs that are elevated above the ground for the driest sources of fuel wood.

Step 2: Build the base.

After you’ve gathered the tinder, kindling and fuel wood, it’s time to build the base of the fire. Place the tinder on the ground (or on several large pieces of kindling) and arrange the thinnest pieces of kindling over and around it. You can build a teepee or cabin structure or any variation of the two, but the important thing to keep in mind is to make sure there is good airflow around the kindling. Don’t overload the tinder by piling on too much kindling. Keep the structure sparse and loose; you’ll add more kindling as the flames grow.

Step 3: Light the tinder.

While flint and steel and other striker mechanisms are neat to use when everything is dry, a simple disposable lighter is tough to beat for a steady, reliable flame that will get the tinder going quickly. If you want to use matches (or carry some as a backup to the lighter), go with the wooden-stick style instead of paper because they burn longer.




A tip for getting a fire going when everything, including the tinder, is damp: Light a small candle and use the flame from the candle to light the tinder. It’s easier to keep a steady flame with a candle.

Step 4: Feed the flames.

Once the tinder is lit, give the flames some air by fanning them with a hat or blowing on them. A little air goes a long way to start. Increase the amount as the flames grow. The same applies to adding wood to the fire. Give the flames four or five pieces of kindling at a time, and don’t force the fire to burn the big stuff right away. Ease it along, gradually increasing the size and the amount of kindling, progressing to two or three pieces of fuel wood when the flames completely envelop the largest pieces of kindling. Always make sure there is good airflow. Don’t smother the flames by throwing on a big pile of kindling or tightly stacking fuel wood on the flames.

Yellowstone Select by campfire
When the work is done, it's time to enjoy a good bourbon around the campfire — such as Yellowstone Select.

Step 5: Tend and enjoy.

It’s finally time to enjoy the fire you built. Kick back and reflect on the day with those sharing the flames. Tell some stories. Laugh. It’s times like these when a good bourbon, such as Yellowstone Select, can only enhance one of the best parts of the day. Pour it either on ice or take it neat—there’s no need to be fancy about your drink when gathered around a fire. Yellowstone Select is a blend of 4- and 7-year bourbons, smooth and complex, providing that traditional bourbon taste that is ideal for enjoying outdoors.

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But while you’re reveling in the warmth of the flames and the company of friends, remember to be diligent about continuing to add fuel wood. Keep the wood lowered over the hottest part of the fire, not just suspended in the flames. This will ensure the fire burns as long as you care to sit around it, making memories that will linger long after the embers fade.

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