11 Ways to Start a Fire

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Impress your friends and family by effortlessly building a roaring campfire. Your secret way to start a fire? It could involve dryer lint!

Ever notice those firewood stands on the way to your favorite state park? Typically, they’re selling green or barely seasoned firewood. That means it’s going to take forever to catch, and when it does, it’s going to release lots of smoke. (Be prepared to rotate your camp chairs all night.)

That’s why it’s important to use proper technique and a good fire starter kit to light that roaring campfire you want.

When I’m building a campfire, I usually set two pieces of firewood as a base, then lay two smaller pieces on top of them to form a square. Inside the square I put my kindling — typically shredded newspaper, slivers of wood I sliced with my hatchet, and some small, dried-out sticks arranged in a loose teepee shape.

Underneath that teepee, I put my secret weapon: A fire starter that will catch quickly and burn long enough to ignite the wood around it. As the fire catches, I carefully add small pieces of firewood until it’s roaring; big pieces will smother the flame. Then I sit in my camp chair and soak up all the adulation, even if it’s only in my head.

So what are the best fire starters? Here’s what we tried.

Note: All these methods will start a cozy blaze in your wood-burning fireplace at home as well.

Wine Cork

My wife loved the wine cork experiment until I told her we could use some older corks she’d already saved.

I submerged two corks in an empty pill bottle filled with rubbing alcohol for a couple of days. When I torched the first one, it took a while to catch, then quickly burned out. Trying the other side, the flame caught right away and melted about one-third of the cork before extinguishing itself. But it burned for a few minutes, enough to start a campfire with bone-dry wood.

I cut into the second cork and the middle was bone-dry. That’s when I realized my mistake on that one — it was synthetic and not as porous as its natural counterpart. You have to use a natural cork.

My rating: 2.5 out of 5 roaring campfires. (I’ll soak two natural corks for a week next time and see if this score improves.)

Dryer Lint

A former camping buddy used to stuff dryer lint into toilet paper tubes, then seal the ends with paraffin. We’d quickly have a roaring fire every time. These homemade dryer lint fire starters are cheap and feature materials that you’d otherwise throw away. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

My rating: 5 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Magnifying Glass

starting a fire with a magnifying glassbagi1998/Getty Images

This isn’t a fire starter per se, but I still wanted to try it. I decided on a small-scale experiment in my driveway with a bit of paper and tiny shards of cardboard.

I focused the light into the smallest beam I could manage, making it that much more intense. Much to my surprise, it started smoking and smoldering after a couple of minutes. I’m pretty sure I could have started an actual blaze, but a cloud soon passed in front of the sun, halting the experiment.

Is starting a fire with a magnifying glass possible? Undoubtedly yes. Should this be your primary way of starting a campfire? Undoubtedly no. There are just too many obstacles —clouds, nightfall and places without direct sunlight.

My rating: 1 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Hand Sanitizer

Les Stroud, AKA TV’s Survivorman, suggested hand sanitizer as a fire starter on an episode of his show, and it was one of the better methods I tried. It makes sense. Hand sanitizer is 60 percent alcohol, more than enough to burn if lit. You could douse your kindling with hand sanitizer and it should work pretty well. But for best results, I’d combine it with the next option.

My rating: 4 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Tampon/Cotton Balls

The cotton on its own would blacken and smolder when lit, but it took rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer to really get it blazing. Tampons are more dense than the cotton balls, so it helps to break them apart to create separation and allow more air to get through.

My rating: 1 out of 5 roaring campfires on its own; 5 out of 5 with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer.

100-Proof Whiskey

This one hurt. I soaked the cotton ball in the whiskey and laid it in my small pile of sawdust and kindling. It wouldn’t catch. Even if it was for science, I’d wasted whiskey, and I’m not sure if I can ever forgive myself.

My rating: 0 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Dried Kindling/Tinder

Kiln-dried firewood is best for most recreational fire situations. Placed in a climate-controlled kiln, the wood dries in super-charged fashion, with its moisture content falling below 20 percent in a matter of days. With less residual water trapped inside, kiln-dried kindling will catch easier and quicker, often with just a little shredded newspaper to get it going.

My rating: 4 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Flint

man starting a fire with flintLebazele/Getty Images

I’ve carried the same emergency flint in my backpack for close to a decade. I’ve used it a few times for fun over the years, but never needed to truly rely on it.

Here’s how it works: Using a knife, shave off strips of magnesium from the flint into a pile. When you have enough shavings, strike the knife on the other side of the flint to create a spark, which lights the magnesium. This actually works fairly well, assuming the slightest breeze doesn’t blow your magnesium pile away. (Digging a hole to shield your kindling from the wind is always a good option.)

It’s a tried-and-true method that works in many adverse environments. Magnesium burns at around 5,000 F, which helps if you’re trying to light a fire in damp conditions. The intense heat immediately burns away the surface moisture.

My rating: 4 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Newspaper, Magazine Pages, Cardboard

I’ve been guilty all too often of relying on paper and cardboard kindling scrounged from the various corners of my camper van. I used to read all my magazines early in the trip so I could burn them without worry when needed.

But while newspaper and magazine pages burn easily, they also burn quickly — often, too quickly. Cardboard typically burns longer, but you also risk breathing in potentially harmful chemicals and inks. Use newspaper as a part of your fire-starting routine, but don’t rely on it for the heavy lifting.

My rating: 2 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Commercial Fire Starter

I’m going to come clean — nine times out of 10, I’m using a ready-made fire starter I bought at the store. They’re quick and easy, and I usually keep a box in my camper van. (Don’t worry, it’s completely safe as long as I keep them away from open flame.) Most of these fire starters — like a box of these, made of sawdust and wax — cost between 10 and 45 cents per use.

My rating: 5 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Potato Chip

One of the best parts of camping is eating junk food around the campfire, right? So make the junk food part of the campfire. If you forgot to bring anything else on this list, a potato chip can serve as a last-ditch fire starter. The greasier, the better — it’s the oil that eventually catches fire. It’s not the best option, but will do in a pinch.

My rating: 1 out of 5 roaring campfires.

Robert Annis
After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full time, specializing in cycling and outdoor-travel journalism.
Over the years, Robert's byline has appeared in numerous publications and websites, including Outside, National Geographic Traveler, Bicycling, Men's Journal, Popular Mechanics, Paste, Bike, Midwest Living, Dirt Rag and VeloNews. When he's not hunched over a keyboard, you'll likely find him either pedaling the backroads and trails of the Midwest on his bicycle or hopping around the globe with his beautiful wife, Dee.
Robert is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, Society of American Travel Writers, North American Travel Journalists Association, Midwest Travel Writers Association, and the Adventure Travel Trade Association, but please don't hold that against those wonderful organizations.
You can find examples of Robert's work on www.twitter.com/robertannis. or read his 140-character random nonsense at www.twitter.com/robertannis.