C’mon Baby Light My Fire (or, How Do You Light Yours?)

Gary and Lanie tending the campfire

Just to manage expectations – if you want detailed instructions on how to make and light a campfire mosey on over to YouTube – there are hundreds of videos that’ll give you ideas. Here I’m just going to chat about fire lighters, share some fire making tips, and mention the tools we use when car camping and backpacking.

Fire Ignition Technology (a.k.a. lighters)

Photograph of a Ronson, Zippo and Bic Lighters - all suitable for use when camping and backpacking

Lighters I’ve used for backpacking and camping. Ronson, Zippo and Bic


I’m sure every backpacker carries a fire steel. I do, and I think I actually used it once just to prove I could. But really? After a hard day’s hiking I can’t be doing with that, and I use my trusty lighter.

As to what lighters we use – we have more disposable Bic lighters than you could shake a stick at. They are inexpensive and just work – even after spending time in the water – I know because I found one in a creek and used it for months until it ran out of gas. Speaking of which, with the Bics you can see how much gas is remaining just tip it on its side and look at the bottom. The only problem with them is that they don’t work well if there is any wind.

For a long time I carried a windproof Zippo lighter, but I was always expecting it to run out of fuel at a crucial point. The Zippo is a classic lighter design and my favorite – I love the satisfying click it makes when you open and close it (I am easily amused and impressed). But it doesn’t work well on its side, which is often how you want to turn your lighter when lighting a campfire.

My next backpacking lighter was a Ronson – with an impressive and bombproof butane jet flame. It was refillable so I could top it off before each trip. The Ronson’s only issues were it weighed as much as a brick, and looked like one too (I exaggerate, but it is heavy).

My current lighter is a Butane Jet flame insert for my Zippo lighter case. All the joys of the wonderful Zippo case, including that satisfying click when you open and close it, but with a scorching jet of butane flame which is very wind resistant. The lighter works on its side, you can see how much gas it has, it is refillable, and it has a piezo ignition.

I still carry the fire steel, and we have several mini Bics in our emergency packs, but my ‘new’ Zippo is currently my favorite and ‘go-to’ lighter.

For car camping the long reach barbeque lighters are great – they are very weather resistant – we have one that sits outside on our deck; rain and shine, and it just keeps going.

Some people complain that butane lighters don’t work in the cold. Well, in my experience, they do if you keep them in a warm pocket.

Preparing Your Fire

When wild camping we’ll clear the surface litter and even dig down a little way to create a cleared fire pit. We keep the removed soil (and stones – this is the Ozarks) to one side to infill the fire pit the next day. We scour the area for windfalls and cut or break them up into useful lengths. I will admit that we have been known to feed in bigger bits rather than trying to cut them up. On occasion we will create a fire ring with rocks, but we are careful to disperse the rocks before we go on our way, and make sure that we ‘leave no trace’. When we can we’ll re-use an existing fire ring – though as we tend to bushwhack off-trail a lot it is rare that we are at a place with an existing fire ring.


For cutting wood I used to pack a folding saw. I hate the darned things. They are big, heavy, hard work, and the blade bends at the worst possible moment. I’ve now replaced the folding saw with a cutting chain (like a hand driven chain saw), and that seems to work fine. It’s a bit heavy (but lighter than a folding saw) and oily, it cuts well and is a lot more compact than a folding saw, so overall an improvement.

Car camping I often take along my trusty splitting maul. It’s big, it’s heavy, but dead easy to throw in the back of the van. We buy pre-cut wood near the campground – we like to contribute a little to the local economy if we can – and I split some of the logs into smaller pieces with the maul. Which incidentally, after many years of annual wood cutting for a friend’s wood-fired heating system has been affectionately named “The Yellow Peril”.

Tips

To get our fires going we cheat. And why not? Again I can’t be doing with all this gathering dry fine tinder stuff. We use cotton wool balls dipped in Vaseline. And we keep a load of them in an old plastic Vaseline jar. The jar weighs next to nothing and takes up very little space.

Building little wood pyramids etc. may work for Boy Scouts, but honestly doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference. I just start with a pile of small stuff and build up to bigger pieces of fuel as quickly as the fire will let me.

What can be crucial, is to think about where your fire is located. If the ground is cold or damp, spread a bed of finger thick twigs (or thicker) on it, then build and light your fire on top of the bed. It really helps to insulate your fire from the cold and damp until it has had a chance to get a hold. In a campground cold damp ashes in the fire-ring can suck the life out of your embryonic campfire – and this trick will get it started.

So there are a few simple tips, and what’s worked for us. Have you got any tips to share? Let us know in the comments below.

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