Choose the Right Materials to Make an Outdoor Fire

Find the right logs, sticks, kindling, and fuel to make a campfire.
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Find the right logs, sticks, kindling, and fuel to make a campfire.
Illustration of twigs, kindling, sticks for fire by David Danz

(Illustration by David Danz)

1. Tinder
This fine, flammable material easily takes a tiny spark or flame and accelerates and spreads it. Many hikers bring tinder from home, but if you’re foraging for it (see far right), nab at least a handful.

2. Kindling
Gather enough finger-thick sticks that you need two hands to hold it all. Kindling transitions your fire from a flicker to a roaring blaze and quickly creates coals, which raises the temperature and brings wood closer to its combustion point. Your fire isn’t assured until you start seeing coals. Pine and other softwoods (such as cedar, spruce, and aspen) light fastest. Pinecones can add a flammable punch.

3. Thin fuel
Thumb- to inch-thick wood is best for perking up the fire if it begins to wane and for producing good cooking coals. Collect about three times as much fuel wood as kindling for 45 minutes of fire.

4. Wrist-thick wood
Look for slow-burning hardwoods (such as oak, hickory, ash, and birch), which will throw out heat for hours.

5. Big logs
Downed behemoths combust for hours, rarely burn completely, and are difficult to extinguish; skip them except in survival situations.

6. Prep your wood
Break all your collected wood into uniform, 12- to 18-inch sections away from your fire to avoid hitting others. Arrange sticks by type and keep them close at hand, so you don’t have to hunt around or divert your attention from your fledgling flame.

Troubleshoot This: I can't find dry wood.
Look for dead twigs, branches, or boughs high and dry, says Tim MacWelch, founder of Earth Connection School of Wilderness Survival. Wood snagged in the forest canopy will be drier than stuff resting on the ground with the damp leaves and soil.

Troubleshoot This: There's Snow Everywhere
Stamp down a 4-foot square area in the snow. Next, build a square platform of green logs, arranged flat, to keep the fire off the wet surface and prevent it from sinking.

Troubleshoot This: It's Raining Hard
If you didn’t bring your own tinder, scavenge for dry grass or bark near the roots of downed trees, which act as a weather shield. Find a large piece of bark (dry on the inside) to use as a platform to keep the wood off the wet ground. If you can set up beneath a tree without risking setting it ablaze, do it. Otherwise, lay a large piece of bark across your fire pit to shield your nascent flame.