How to Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

| May 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

It seems like every time you go camping there’s always one guy who can’t get his fire started. First he tries to light full-sized logs on fire, and when that fails he starts breaking smaller branches from live trees only to send billows of thick smoke throughout the campground. If only he knew how to start a fire in a fire pit, he could spare everyone a lot of discomfort.

Learning the three ingredients essential for fire and then how to best utilize them can make fire starting quick, easy, and safe.

Three Elements Required to Make Fire

To make and sustain fire all three of the following must exist:

  1. Oxygen Fire must have oxygen or air in order to burn, that’s why you hear people say that they smothered a small fire with a blanket—they took away its oxygen. Most campfires get oxygen from natural ventilation; air gets in by the way you stack the wood.
  2. Heat There are many heat sources for lighting a fire, but for your fire pit the obvious choices are matches or a butane lighter.
  3. Fuel For campfires and fire pits, the most common fuel is wood. There are three main types of fuel used in starting a fire:
    • a. Tinder This class of fuel consists of small, highly combustible materials like leaves, pine needles, shredded paper, shaved tree bark, and the like.
    • b. Kindling Just a step up from tinder, kindling includes small sticks, twigs, or wood split into very small pieces, usually ranging from the thickness of a pencil to that of a magic marker. It’s best to use a variety of sizes within this range.
    • c. Fuel Like kindling, fuel comes in a range of sizes from about one inch in diameter all the way up to full size logs.

Starting a Fire in a Fire Pit

Things You’ll Need: Lighter or matches, gloves, fuel, bucket of water, long stick or shovel

Step 1

Gather all of the tinder, kindling and fuel you will need to light and maintain your fire. Experience will teach you how much of each you’ll need, but a general rule of thumb is to gather about three times as much as you think you’ll need until you gain practical know-how over time.

WARNING: Keep all extra firewood at least 25 feet away from the fire so that sparks will not accidentally ignite them.

Step 2

Prepare a tinder bundle and place it in the lowest point of your fire pit to shelter it from the wind. Gather pine needles, shredded paper, dried leaves, dried moss, or other fine materials in a bundle about the size of a head of lettuce. Make sure everything is dry and then fluff it out to ensure there are a lot of air pockets throughout the bundle so that oxygen can easily circulate.

  • TIP: Dry twigs will easily snap in your hands. Wet or green wood will be flexible.

Step 3

Place several small pieces of kindling upright in a teepee shape all around the tinder bundle. When you ignite the tinder it will carry the flame to the smallest kindling which will in turn light larger kindling until the fire is strong enough to burn entire logs.

Step 4

Optional: Construct a structure in conjunction with the tinder bundle and pieces of kindling. The most common fire structures are log cabin and pyramid.

Log Cabin Stack small pieces of fuel in a square (like a log cabin) around the tinder bundle, building them up several rows high. This structure allows plenty of airflow to feed the fire within, and as it grows, the entire log cabin will become engulfed in flames.

Pyramid Place two small logs parallel to one another. Then place a layer of smaller logs or branches on top of them. Continue to build layers in opposite or perpendicular directions with shorter and smaller sticks to create a pyramid. Place the tinder bundle and kindling on the top of the pyramid.

Step 5

Ignite the tinder bundle with a long-stemmed match or a long-neck butane lighter from various locations so that the flames will gather from all sides. As the tinder and kindling burn, slowly add more kindling of increasingly larger pieces until the flame and coals are sufficient to burn larger pieces of fuel.

  • TIP: By gently blowing on a tinder bundle or embers when the flames are dying, you can introduce enough oxygen to reignite a lively flame. Have additional tinder or kindling on hand to feed your re-emerging fire.


  • When blowing on a fire do so from the side so that you don’t inhale the rising smoke or inadvertently burn your face.
  • Do NOT use accelerants like gasoline or lighter fluid. They tend to “pop” into flames very quickly, potentially burning you very badly. Additionally, fire can chase up the fluid stream and ignite the container you are holding. Do NOT do this.

Step 6

Maintain your fire. Place a stout stick (about three feet long) in a bucket of water and let it soak for several minutes. Then use this stick to adjust the logs and coals in your fire. Sometimes logs roll out of the main fire or you just need to move things around before you add a new log.

Add additional fuel to the fire as you see fit. Cover your fire pit with a spark screen if you have one.

  • TIP: Smaller, softer woods will burn faster and with less heat. Larger, hard woods will burn longer and hotter.

Other Ways to Prepare a Fire

There are numerous ways to structure a fire before you light it. Check out this “upside down” fire, a design that is similar to a pyramid fire. It’s a very good idea of how to make a fire in a fire pit.

Putting the Fire Out

For the best and safest ways to extinguish a fire, see How to Put Out a Fire in a Fire Pit.

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