Illustration by Mike Reddy
The science of combustion is enough to make an indifferent student of chemistry’s eyes glaze over, but starting a fire comes down to a couple of simple rules: start small and keep the air flowing. And as any Scout will tell you, be prepared. That means having your supplies in order: dry matches or a lighter; tinder (dry pine needles or leaves, fluff from a cattail, newspaper—or, if you’re feeling fancy, a homemade fire starter, such as dryer lint wrapped in waxed paper); kindling of various sizes, but none bigger than your wrist; dried, split wood; and a shovel and ready supply of water. To prevent the spread of invasives—and because it’s the law—don’t transport untreated firewood more than 50 miles from its source. And always use a campground’s designated firepits to lay your blaze.
For the traditional tepee method, start with tinder in the middle—be sure it’s airy enough for oxygen to circulate—and stack small kindling, under an inch in diameter, on end to form a pyramid. Use slightly larger kindling for a second layer, adding a little more tinder in higher spots around the pyramid. Light the tinder. To jumpstart sluggish flames, gently push air into the bottom of the tepee with a manual bicycle pump. After the fire begins to catch, slowly add increasingly larger pieces of split wood—don’t try to go too big too fast and always leave enough room for airflow. Keep a “poking stick” handy to refine your work. Never throw food scraps or trash into the fire.
At the end of the night or trip, let the fire burn down, then spread out the embers. Pour some water over the coals and mix with a shovel. Repeat the process until the area is completely cool. You can wave the back of your hand above the embers to feel for any remaining heat.