In the wintertime, a roaring fire can mean the world. In some instances, it can be the difference between life and death. In many instances, at least in today’s world, it makes for a really romantic atmosphere, which is still worthy of appreciation. Whatever the reason for starting a fire, there is definitely a more efficient, reliable and overall successful way of building it.

Nothing says novice like throwing on more and more kindling or newspaper to keep a flame going. And, to be honest, this is just wasteful and unnecessary. Building a fire isn’t at all difficult if the right (natural) materials are put together in the right order in the right way. Haphazardly throwing a bunch of wood and newspaper into a fireplace or firepit isn’t going to get it done, nor is dangerously dousing things in some sort of flammable liquid.


Anyone can build a fire like a pro, so now is perhaps the time to devote a few minutes to learning how to make a fire and set the mood (or stay warm).


Source: coniferconifer/Flickr

The Materials

The most important materials for building a fire are readily available. And, we aren’t talking the corner supermarket here. These materials can be gathered in the forest or the typical suburban backyard or vacant lot. Those compressed logs aren’t good for the environment, nor do they make for an energy-efficient fire (think of how much energy went into producing, packaging and shipping them).

  • Tinder, such as twigs and bark, make getting from match to flame infinitely easier. The stringy shavings from cedar bark or papery birch bark are great natural tender. Indoors, we can use things like newspaper and dryer lint.
  • Sticks, both large and small, are what’s going to keep the fire moving from little flame to log-devouring conflagration. Less than one-inch diameter can be considered kindling, and anything above that is something like a small log.
  • Logs are the longevity of the fire. They, ultimately, are what we are wanting to see burning, both for sustained warmth and starry-eyed ambiance.
  • A match. A lighter works, too. But, a match does the job just fine and doesn’t require plastic or lighter fluid, nor does it produce trash. Lighters, however, are waterproof so might be better in camping situations. In serious survival situations (god help us all) without matches or lighters, the lens-based method using the sun is the easiest, much more so than friction (rubbing sticks), for creating fire.

Source: Wesley Fryer/Flickr


Safety Measures

As important, if not more so, as the right materials is the right place. Nothing will ruin the mood faster or threaten survival faster than a runaway fire, be it inside or out. Inside, we’ll presumably be using a fireplace or, even better, a wood stove. With the old-style open fireplaces, it’s important to have a fireplace screen to prevent sparks from bouncing out and causing trouble. The other important thing to remember with indoor fires is to open the flue damper all the way when starting them; otherwise, smoke will fill the house.

Outdoor fires involve a little more consideration. They should be set up in areas without hanging branches, lots of wind, or an abundance of dry debris. A pit should be created, typically via digging a small depression and lining it with stones. Campgrounds and backyards often have permanent versions of these. In addition to being safer, pits protect the fledgling flames from the wind. And, the fire should begin small and be built up so as not to create something too large to control.

Source: keith.bellvay/Flickr

The Construction

Building a fire like a pro starts long before a match is ever struck. It begins with tinder, a few pieces of crumpled newspaper or a couple of handfuls of shredded cedar bark in a small pile in the center of the fireplace or fire pit. Kindling, and it must be dry, should be built around the kindling like a tipi. Then, around the kindling, stack slightly larger sticks in a square log cabin style construction. Done this way, the fire should go from nothing to blazing in a matter of minutes with just one match.


Once the initial construction burns down to coals, with just a few small flames, it’s time to add larger logs. However, they should be added slowly. The first log can just be lain lengthways across the coals. From there, logs should overlap diagonally to allow sufficient airflow to keep the fire going. From here, it’s just a matter of keeping enough fuel (wood) on the fire to maintain a pile of coals.

In reality, there are many methods and theories for building good fires, but without a doubt, this method works. It works even better if the wood is dry, “cured” or “seasoned” ideally for a year.. Starting a roaring fire with one match will impress even well-versed aficionados. Then, after it’s all said and done, chemical-free wood ash will impress the garden with its nutrients.


Lead Image Source: USDA/Flickr