A Bit Of A Guide to Campfires

This semester I have been working on a project for our physical and health education course where I created a resource package. I chose to make a resource for teaching survival skills. The below section is a guide to how to prepare, build, and use a fire in a survival situation.


Step one: Choose a location

  1. Pick an area clear of debris which could catch on fire, beware low tree branches or high grass.
  2. Stones are not enough to contain a fire, if you have a fire lit make sure to keep an eye on it.
  3. If there is snow you must dig down to the ground to build the fire, a burning fire will slowly sink through snow (this can extinguish it).

Personal experience: I once attended a camp where they decided to use cardboard ovens under a willow tree, when the ovens caught fire there was a rush to stop the willow branches going up as well.

On another occasion lit lanterns were blown into the trees and the trees caught fire. Please be aware of your surroundings when handling fire!

Step two: Supplies

To start a fire you will need fuel and fire starter.

Fire wood is fuel, depending where you live the types of firewood available will be different. A general rule to follow in a survival situation is to find dry wood on the ground. You can usually find enough branches and logs on the ground in BC to start a fire. If you are in a survival situation you could break off branches or cut down a tree to burn.

Always look for deadwood on the ground first as it is drier and does less damage to the forest.

~If you are not in a survival situation you should follow the campfire rules in your area. If you are in a survival situation you should try unless there are no other options~

Fire starter can refer to what you use to spark a flame:

  • Matches: Water proof matches and/or strike anywhere matches are best for a survival situation. Be sure to keep them safe in a water proof container.
  • Lighter
  • Flint and Steel: This method can take practice to do well. By striking the steel along the surface of the flint you create sparks. Hold the end of the flint over the kindling so the sparks start your fire.
  • Using two sticks: This method is often shown on television as ‘rubbing two sticks together’. It looks simple and doesn’t take many supplies. Unfortunately it is not easy in cold/wet climates. There are very dry climates where this is useful; our temperate rain forest is not one of them. If you try in a wet climate it takes considerable energy and time. I have not seen it done successfully in our forests.
  • Magnifying glass: By reflecting the sun onto your fire starter you can spark a flame.

Personal Experience: Children lighting a match for the first time will often panic and drop the match, I have seen children of all ages do this. If you are out making a fire with students make sure to have them light a match somewhere without flammable materials underfoot (over a fire pit, rock, or sandy beach). If they light a match and interact with fire in a safe way they won’t feel that panic when they need to use fire in an emergency like a power outage. 

{Fun Fact: Matches were originally called Lucifers.}

Fire starter or tinder can refer to materials which will catch on fire easily:

  • Kindling: small dry sticks or pieces of wood and bark.
  • Old Man’s beard: Green lichen which looks like hair growing off trees and catches fire easily.

Old_Man's_Beard_2009-1 Mike Peel CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Old_Man’s_Beard_2009-1 Mike Peel CC-BY-SA-4.0.

  • Cheetos (or Doritos): Will catch fire and burn quite well.
  • Sap resin: A solid form a sap found on the bark of trees. This needs a longer time to catch fire but once lit will burn for a while.

Resin mass on Acacia tree-James St John-CC-BY-2.0_files

Resin mass on Acacia tree-James St John-CC-BY-2.0_files

  • Cotton ball with petroleum jelly: Something you can prepare in your survival kit. Cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly will burn for a few minutes, are easy to make, and are water proof.


Step Three: Building

A fire needs oxygen. Gently fanning or blowing a small fire can help it grow. Be careful not to blow it out.

While a fire is burning make sure to add fuel consistently. If you need it to keep burning all night collect a lot of fuel during the day so you don’t have to go looking at night. Gather a lot of wood! 5 times the wood you think you will need.

When you are extinguishing the fire double and triple check that it is really out. Let the wood burn down, remove any unburned pieces so it is mostly ash, pour water onto the ash and mix it with a stick.

When you leave the fire pit should be cool, if it is still warm pour more water and mix it again. Don’t leave until the fire pit is cool.

There are several ways to build a fire depending on your goal; here are two which can be useful in a survival situation.

  1. Standard Campfire: This fire is built by leaning logs up against each other to form a pyramid.

Start by leaning small sticks around a pile of fire starter (kindling, bark). Lean larger logs around the structure. Light the kindling and add more logs as the fire burns down.

This fire is good for warmth and cooking things on a stick (marshmallows, hot-dogs).


Personal experience: Since this fire is warm I have often seen it used for drying gloves, boots, etc. By digging a stick into the ground nearby you can hold up your gloves to dry, unfortunately if you aren’t careful they may fall into the fire.

To direct the heat of this fire build a reflecting wall. This can be made by stacking wood on one side, far enough away that it won’t catch fire. Stick strong branches into the ground to hold up the logs.


If you have snow you can build a snow wall. This is called a reflector fire and will reflect the heat back towards you.

  1. Two log cooking fire: A lower flat fire which can be used for cooking.


When cooking with fire it is better to use steady embers and coals than tall flames. Start this fire by laying two logs next to each other. Place fire starter between them and light it. You can place pots, a can, or tinfoil wrapped food over the two logs to cook.

Always boil water collected in nature, whether from rain, a running stream, or snow.

Fire Building Activities 

  • What can be used as a Fire starter?

Since types of fire starter can be unexpected, bring in a collection of potential fire starters and not-flammable materials. Students can examine materials and try to work out what would work and what wouldn’t.

  • How would you build a fire?

Depending on available material students can design their own fires. They can try and create something that would be good for warmth or for cooking. (They could draw designs, make them out of sticks, or out of actual firewood)

  • Class trip to build their own fires: Go to a campsite or any location where it is ok to have campfires at that time and make fires in the fire pits. Students can cook a lunch or treat on the fires.

Roasted veggies: Take a piece of tin foil and fill it with cut up vegetables. Add oil and seasoning (salt, pepper, etc.). Fold the tin foil over the vegetables and place on a campfire grill for 15-20 minutes.

Banana S’mores:  Take a banana and cut it long ways through the peel, fill the middle with marshmallows, chocolate chips, and any other toppings. Wrap whole banana in tin foil and place on the fire to melt the chocolate and marshmallows.

  • On a sandy beach build mini pyramid fires to roast mini marshmallows on. (Roast the marshmallows using long skewers)


While researching this project I have found some other useful sites. This website has information on Canadian wildlife as well as safety tips. The red cross has an app which may useful for quick information on first aid tips. There are also lots of girl guide and scout sources online for learning trail signs, knot tying, and camping.


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