An expert guide on how to start a fire pit
How to start a fire pit, an age old question which in my opinion doesn’t get enough attention. If built right, a fire pit can boost morale and get you through even the coldest of nights.
By the end of this article you should be well equipped with the necessary skills and know how to building the perfect fire pit.
Always remember – fire is your friend.
Read also: How to keep warm in a tent
How to start a fire pit
Step 1 – Gather the necessary items
There are many different types of fire starters, the two most common are matches and kitchen lighters. At the bottom of this article I’ll go into detail on how to start a fire without matches or lighters. But for now, assuming your pit fire is being built at home, I’d imagine you have either matches or a lighter available.
Tinder is material that’ll easily combust with a flame or even a spark. Good forms of tinder are: dry grass, birch bark, pine cones, cotton wool, empty birds nests, char cloth and the inside of tampons.
Kindling are small dry pieces of wood that burn long enough to ignite your fire wood. The best types of kindling are usually softwoods like cedar, pine, poplar, and spruce.
Firewood is your blocks of solid fuel, it’s wood that continues to fuel your fire pit well into the night. The best types of firewood includes hardwood like oak, maple, ash, and birch.
Step 2 – Start your fire
Now that you’ve gathered all your necessary material it’s time to start your fire pit. I’m going to break down the process step-by-step for you.
- Place a palm sized pile of your tinder in the center of your fire pit.
- Take your kindling and position it carefully in a teepee/pyramid shape over your tinder. You want to make sure your kindling is placed close together, but still allows for airflow.
- Next use your fire starter to ignite your tinder (make sure not to burn your hand doing this).
- Without wasting too much time, place your firewood around your kindling, it should take the same form as your kindling in a teepee/pyramid shape.
Step 3 – Relax around your fire pit
Relax and take it easy, you’ve just built the perfect fire pit. All you need to do now is maintain your fire by adding more firewood from time to time to ensure a healthy strong fire. Make sure not to suffocate the flame by adding too much firewood at once.
What is fire
Fire is what we see and feel when a certain type of chemical reaction called combustion occurs. Without too much scientific jargon, combustion happens when oxygen reacts with some sort of fuel, which must be a gas.
In order for this to happen, solid fuel, for example wood, needs to be heated up to the point it becomes gaseous. This is it’s ignition temperature. Once this happens, the reaction will continue to provide more heat. However, if the temperature drops, the reaction will come to an end.
What fire needs
The three things fire needs in order to burn are oxygen, heat and you guessed it, fuel. We call these three components the fire triangle. It’s easy to remember as humans need the exact same three things in order to survive.
If you remove any of these three elements, the fire will cease to exist. Add more oxygen and your fire will burn faster and hotter. This is why you alway see survival experts blowing on their fires like crazy so that it doesn’t go out.
The scecret to starting the best fire pits lies in remembering the fire triangle.
It is impossible for combustion to occur, unless you’ve heated your fuel up to the right temperature. Imagine for a moment trying to light a log on fire with only a match. This is simply impossible as the match does not provide enough heat to the fuel in order to cause combustion.
This my friends is when your tinder comes in handy. Tinder has lower levels at which it combusts, the same for kindling and so on.
How to start a fire pit 101 – make sure you prepare all your materials in small bundles before starting the fire making process. The last thing you want is for your kindle to burn out while you’re searching for firewood. Preparation, preparation, preparation.
What if your firewood is wet
Starting a fire with wet firewood, tinder or kindling is hard but not impossible. The first thing you’ll want to do is build a small platform to keep your fuel off the wet ground.
Remember the fire triangle, fuel needs heat to combust, wet fuel just needs more heat (and you may need goggles – you can thank me later). Increase the pile size of your tinder and kindling in order to generate more heat for your fire would. Also, try shaving off some of the wet dead wood to try getting into the dry inner layers of the log.
Other types of fuel (Besides wood)
Let’s pretend you are in a survival situation and your life depends on getting a fire started. There’s no wood available, what do you do?
Well, here are four fuel alternatives to wood. Please note: these fuel sources may not provide you with the most pleasant fire and may in fact be dangerous, but remember you are in a survival situation.
- Animal droppings (aka animal shit) – this can be mixed with dry grass to make a pretty good fire.
- Engine oil or petrol/diesel – extremely flammable use extreme caution.
- Spare car tyres.
- Dry grass – bundle together to form grass logs.
Back to how to start a pit fire for a moment, this article by Install it Direct names 5 sustainable wood alternatives which you can use as fuel for your fire pit. If you are interested in sustainability I’d highly recommend you give this article a read.
How to start a fire pit without a lighter (or matches)
Once again, if you find yourself in a survival situation or perhaps you want to impress your guests here are ways you can start a fire without a lighter or matches. (Please note: Softback Travel does not indorse using this methods as they can be dangerous and potentially cause serious harm to you or others.)
1. Use a 9-volt car battery and some steel wool
Touch the steel wool to the contacts of the battery, the electric charge will cause the steel wool to ignite and burn.
2. Use your mobile phone
Warning this is potentially very dangerous. Most modern phones have a lithium battery. If your mobile phone is dead you can break into it and remove the battery. If the lithium inside is exposed to air or water it will burn and may even explode. Using a knife to hack into the battery will expose the lithium, make sure tinder is ready.
Read about the environmental impact of the lithium battery
3. Use a lens
As I’m sure most of you already know, a magnifying glass can concentrate the sun’s rays, these rays will be hot enough to ignite tinder. You can also use the bottom of a glass bottle or even a polished piece of ice carved into a convex shape.
4. Use a liquid lens
A clear sandwich bag, ballon or even a condom can be filled with water to create a spherical liquid lens. The lens will need to be held quite close to the tinder in order to ignite it (obviously try not to drip any water on to it).
5. Use jump leads from a car and a pencil
Be careful to connect the leads to car battery, clip the remaining ends to either side of the pencil, it should catch fire.
6. Use a flint and steel
Some shops sell special fire strikers that will give a spark no matter the weather conditions. A piece of flint struck against a blade will do the job just as well.
How to extinguish a fire
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to put out a campfire or fire pit and the majority of buildings or households have a fire extinguisher. However, certain fire extinguishers make certain fires even worse. Below I’ll outline how to deal with them.
Fires can be divided in six categories. A fire extinguisher will have a label on its side telling which fires it’s equipped to deal with. The six main fire extinguishers are: water, dry powder, foam, CO2, metal fire and wet chemical.
Most fire extinguishers are red, however all have an identyfying color block on them.
- Water – Red
- Dry powder and metal – Blue
- Foam – Cream
- C02 – Black
- Wet chemical – Yellow
Class A – Ordinary combustible fire
- Can be extinguished with water, foam, dry powder or wet chemical extinguishers.
Class B – Flammable liquids (think petrol)
- These fires should be tackled with either foam or dry powder.
Class C – Flammable gases (propane, methane, butane etc)
- The only fire extinguisher suitable these fires are the dry powder ones.
Class D – Metal Fires
- There are special class D fire extinguishers available for metal fire, these are the only ones you should use.
Class E – Electrical fires
- A C02 or dry powder fire extinguisher will work on these fires.
Class F – Cooking oil fire
- The only extinguisher that works on these fires are the wet chemical ones. Using water here will increase the size of the fire.
How to put out a person whose clothes are on fire
If this happens to you or one of your friends you won’t have much time, you won’t have time to fetch water, so you need to smother the flames.
You can do this by:
- Rolling them around on the ground.
- Covering them in sand or mud.
- Smothering them with a wet blanket or towel, dry ones also work, but wet ones are best for obvious reasons.
If you are the one whose on fire, you need to follow the instructions given to US school children: stop, drop and roll. Stop where you are, drop to the ground and cover your face with your hands, and roll until the flame is out.
If you have your clothes have burnt into your skin I recommend not removing them, seek medical advice as soon as you can.
Putting out a campfire
It’s no good simply throwing water or sand over your campfire. If you were to do this and come back the next day, I guarantee that you’d be able to dig down and find a hot ember. Using your breathe you’d be able to ignite the fire once again. If you can do this using only your breath, so can the wind!
Once you’ve put the fire out, you need to break it apart, use those solid hiking shoes of yours. Once you’ve done this, add some water and sand, if water is limited just pee on it.
5 Best fire pits we recommend
Do you feel ready to start a fire pit?
Starting the ultimate fire pit takes time and practise, after reading this article I’d say you are definitely many steps closer to that achievement.
Remember always treat fire with respect, practise safe fire starting methods outlined in this guide.
Enough reading, go outside get cozy and start your award winning fire in your fire pit.
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Kyle was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. In his spare time he kitesurfs with whales, gets attacked by jellyfish, SUP’s with great white sharks and rescues seals. He is not a best selling author like every other Tom, Dick and Harry out there but loves to write nevertheless. Especially about climate science and animals.