How to Start a Campfire with One Match

by Charles Buchanan

Building a fire with only natural wood (limbs, twigs and logs) and using one match to light it, takes a bit of preparation but it is a skill that is well worth knowing. There are a lot of articles about starting fires. Most will tell you how to use this or that, but lets get back to basics. Every outdoors man (and woman), survivalist and weekend camper should know how to start a fire with one match, rain or shine.

fire wood

Wood fuels

Building a fire with only natural wood (limbs, twigs and logs) and using one match to light it, takes a bit of preparation. A fire needs fuel (in this case wood), oxygen (the air outside) and an initial heat source (a match) to burn.

First you need to gather three sizes of wood fuel.

Tinder is the smallest type of wood to start your fire, either in the way of carved wood shavings or dry wooden match size twigs. These are small enough to be lit by your match, but burn quickly and hot. Tinder allows ignition and the generation of enough heat to catch larger wood on fire.

Starter branches, are branches about the diameter of your little finger. These are usually broken or cut in six to eight inch pieces and fed to the fire started with the tinder. These are small enough to catch fire but burn quickly and set a hot enough base for larger fuel to be added.

Larger wood should be gathered varying in size to arms width. Large logs are not usually needed for camping, heat or cooking. Large logs can be used to ensure a fire burns through the night or in a rainstorm, sheltering and feeding the fire.

Fire platforms

Fire Bases

Fire platforms and pits:

Fire must be contained to prevent it spreading to dry grasses, leaves and trees.
Clear the fire area of any flammable material in a good circle around your intended fire area. A permanent area can be improved with sand, perimeter stones or logs.

In wet locations like swamps, a fire platform can be built of stones or crisscrossed logs covered with mud or earth. The fire location must be raised above the wet ground to burn properly. The earth or mud will prevent the logs underneath from burning.

In severe or prolonged rain a raised platform of stones and dirt which allows for drainage of water works well. A split log makes a good dry base for starting a fire also.

Beginning with Tinder:

Tinder is made up of small pieces of wood small enough for a match to light. Even in rainy wet weather the inside of dead branches taken from standing trees and fallen branches is dry inside. Shaving thin strips of wood from these branches with your pocket knife will provide you with dry tinder. You need a minimum of a good full handful, more is better. In wet weather, this should be placed on as dry an areas as you have available or on several sticks, logs or a rock before lighting.

You can also gather small dead dry branches the size of match sticks to use as tinder. You need a minimum of a good full handful. In wet weather, this should be placed on as dry an areas as you have available or on several sticks, logs or a rock before lighting.

Fire Forms

Building your fire

One of the easiest fire starting designs is the Tee-pee fire. Place your tinder in the center of your fire location. It should be loosely stacked in a pile as high as your fist. Take small little finger width sticks and stack them like a tee-pee around your tinder. Leave spaces for air to circulate. Leave an opening to light your tinder so the wind is at your back. You want to light the fire so that the wind blows into the tinder. Get low by the fire and light your match shielding it from the wind, let it catch then light the tinder. Once it catches and a flame appears, blow into the flames. As the starter wood catches add more sticks. Once you have a good blaze add larger and larger sticks until you have several arm width branches burning.

Another fire type is the Lean-to. This is build against a large log or stone. All the other instructions above apply.

Additional information

In extremely wet weather, rain or snow, use an elevated fire platform. Place a large log on a well established fire to protect the fire from torrential rains. Have plenty of wood available and keep extra tinder available in a dry container or location to restart the fire.

Banking your fire' s coals, moving them in a pile or under a slow burning big log, will help in restarting your fire in the morning. Just add tinder or small sticks, blow on the coals till they are red hot and you should have a new fire going in no time.

Do not build fires under tree branches covered with snow. The fire will melt the snow and cause it to drip on you and the fire. it is possible for large amounts of snow to slip off the branches as it melts and put out the fire in an avalanche of snow and ice.

Keep your fire small for heat and cooking. Large fires make it difficult to get near too.

Use dry dead wood. Green wood and branches, leaves and trash give off a lot of smoke.

Keep water and/ or dirt and sand near your fire to put it out and control unwanted fire expansion. Make certain the fire is really out when you leave. No burning embers, no smoking ashes, really out.

Tips & Warnings

  • Keep extra dry tinder in a plastic bag, can or bag. This will help start or restart a fire.

  • Place a large log over your fire in extremely wet weather to protect the fire and keep it going overnight. This will aid in restarting in the morning.

  • Ensure you have plenty of wood, then double your expectation.

  • Don't leave a fire unsupervised.

  • Don't leave small children unsupervised around a fire

  • Don't burn plastics in fires, many give off toxic fumes and PCB's.

  • Don't underestimate how fast a fire can spread.

  • Ensure your fire is out before leaving your site, pour water on it, stir with a stick and wet again. Make sure there are no smoldering coals before leaving.