Making a fire is a skill that has existed as long as civilization, maybe even longer, yet so many people struggle with this simple skill. Building a campfire today is easier than ever. Campers have access to everything from a simple match to candles designed to start a fire. Long gone are the days of rubbing sticks together. Even with these technological advances, I still see some campers struggle when building a fire. Building the perfect fire is a bit of an art. Each fire you make will have to be different. The approach you take to building a fire in the summer is different from the way you build one in the winter. Also, the purpose of the fire will play into how you build it -- you wouldn't build a bonfire to boil water. It's very hard to cover all the different approaches to fire building in one article, so the purpose of this article is to highlight some common mistakes I have seen. Usually you can get away with making a couple of these mistakes on a dry sunny day. When it's raining and snowing, these are the things you have to avoid to successfully build a campfire.
1: Not having enough tinder, kindling and fuel
Tinder is the driest, fluffiest stuff you can find. It's what you'll first ignite to catch the rest of the wood on fire. It can range from pine needles to wood shavings to dryer lint. You can never have enough tinder, especially because some sources, such as pine needles, burn out before they can catch the kindling on fire. What separates kindling from regular fuel wood is its size. Kindling should start off small as twigs to about the diameter of a quarter. Your twigs should be dry, but if they're a little wet it won't hurt it. Before you add any larger wood, your kindling should have burned down to nice hot coals. That's not to say that you should let it burn down to coals, but there should be very hot coals under your fire. A good way to judge this is that the fire feels much hotter than it looks. Then you're ready to start adding larger wood. This entire process falls apart if you don't have enough of one of three kinds of fuel. A good rule of thumb to have is if you think you have enough fuel, go get some more.
2: Building the fire improperly
When you see pictures of fires, you sometimes see that the wood is stacked in a specific way. The common pictures are pyramids, log cabins, and lean-tos. If you stack the wood the way you want it look when it's burning, it will not light. The fire needs room to grow and breathe, and if you cramp it it will die. I start almost all my fires as a few pieces of kindling and tinder mixed together and go from there. In my opinion, it's the best way to create a fire, and the easiest.
3: Smothering the fire
Even though you've collected all those extra fuel sources, you have to be patient when using them. You have to be able to read a fire to tell when it is ready for the wood. If you throw wood in the fire in excess, it will almost always go out. It blocks the airflow and prevents the fire from catching on the other wood. Most people think this is a pretty easy mistake to avoid, because you just stop throwing large pieces on, right? Wrong. Even if you're burning paper or cardboard, you can still smother a fire. When you burn these objects they don't turn into coals, and they don't immediately turn to ash. Instead, they turn into a black, burnt, and fragile version of its former self. Enough of it can clog the airflow and smother the fire.
We've already discussed the problems smothering a fire by reducing its airflow, but it's much more than that. Airflow is what turns a cigarette butt into a wildfire on a bad day, but can also fuel a bonfire in a rainstorm when you know what you're doing. A fire may never even catch because it lacks airflow. I've seen this most when people try to start a fire in their backyard fire ring that is three feet tall. A tall fire ring on a still day can kill a fire. Usually, however, once the fire gets going, it can stand on its own. To help it along its way you can blow on it. Long smooth breaths on the fire's sweet spot work the best. You know you're hitting the sweet spot when the fire sounds like it's roaring, and flames shoot up after you finish. It's best to work in partners, because after a few breaths you may begin to feel light-headed. Another way to do this is with a metal pipe, as it allows you to focus the air.
5: Burning faster than your gathering
This goes back to "if you think you have enough, go get more". If you're burning straight through your kindling, you may run out before you can burn larger wood. Just like a car without gas, your fire will die down, and you may even have to restart from ashes. In most cases, your fire will get very low before this happens and you can save it. You really only have to worry about this mistake once your fire gets going. Campers tend to think that a fire reaches a point and it no longer needs as much wood or that it's fine without using more wood. As a fire grows it needs more fuel, because it is burning through wood faster than it was previously. Think of it as an athlete; the bigger their muscles get, the more energy they use, the more fuel they will need. You have to be careful though, as adding more wood to a bigger fire won't smother it, it will just make it bigger and harder to control.