How to Teach a Kid to Build a Fire

It's one of the most important survival skills an aspiring adventurer can learn.

by Jen See

A lifelong love of the outdoors begins with fun experiences and a solid skill set. And building a fire is one outdoor skill every aspiring adventurer should have. A fire can help one survive a backcountry adventure or simply serve as an excuse for scary story-telling on a weekend in the woods. Just about everyone loves S’mores, and you’re going to need a fire to roast those marshmallows.

Which is why we caught up with Emily Campbell, a veteran Boy Scout leader and certified Leave No Trace outdoor trainer, to get some tips on building fires ⏤ specifically, tips for teaching kids how to build fires that’ll start every time. Here is her step-by-step guide.

Be conscious of your child’s age

Every child is different, and you know yours better than anybody. Younger children may only be ready to help gather wood, while others are chomping at the bit to strike that match. Campbell says she teaches 4-year-olds the different kinds of wood that you’ll need to build a fire, but she’s unlikely to hand over a flame just yet. Cub Scouts typically learn to build a fire on their own, albeit with adult supervision, in the fourth and fifth grades. Outdoor skills are a progression, and you’ll need to decide what feels right for your child.

Know the rules

Some campgrounds or beaches may have restrictions on open fires. And in many western states, there are seasonal bans on open fires due to dry conditions. Some areas also ask that you don’t bring your own firewood to prevent the spread of insects and diseases to local trees. “Most of the time, people are imagining that huge bonfire where everyone is dancing around it,” says Campbell. “You have to be careful.” Ask your child to help you read the rules that apply to the area you’re visiting. That way, you’ll communicate the importance of being responsible with fire.

Safety first

Before building a fire, it’s a good idea to assemble the tools for putting it out. Keep a bucket of water and a shovel to smother the fire with dirt close at hand. You also want to stress the importance of always having someone in close proximity of the fire, says Campbell. Never leave your fire unattended unless it’s completely out and the coals are cold to the touch. Also, be sure to tie back long hair, too.

Find or build a fire ring

Most campsites and beaches will have designated fire rings. If there isn’t a fire ring ⏤ and fires are allowed ⏤ find a flat area with minimal vegetation around it. But don’t forget to look up! You want to make sure there aren’t any tree branches overhanging your fire ring either. Your child can help gather rocks to form a ring and use a flat rock to provide a platform for the fire. “Heat can kill the microbes in the soil underneath your fire,” Campbell says. If there aren’t designated fire rings, keep your fire small to protect the surrounding vegetation and minimize your footprint. You might also consider using a fire bowl to lessen the impact on the underlying soil.

Gather your wood

You’ll need three types of wood to build your fire, and each has its own name and purpose. Tinder is the smallest fuel for your fire and includes grasses, leaves, and shredded bark. Think of the materials a bird collects for their nests. Kindling ranges in size from small twigs to bigger sticks that measure the length of your forearm. Sticks up to two-inches-thick will work best as kindling. Firewood refers to larger logs that you use to fuel your fire once it’s burning. Logs such as those you’d buy in a cord of wood fit into this category.

Check with the campsite ranger or forest rules to make sure it’s okay to gather wood before releasing the kids, and assuming it is, make sure only to use wood that’s already on the ground, not attached to living trees. Younger children can also join in the fun of gathering wood for the fire, says Campbell. “Gathering wood is a really good part to learn, because then you can teach them all the different parts of the fire.”

[Safety note: For backcountry fires designed for basic warmth and cooking, you’ll want to skip the bigger logs. They will leave a bigger footprint and are more difficult to extinguish completely. A bigger fire has a greater potential to spread, too.]

Build your fire

Constructing the fire is fun and can involve all ages. Talk about each layer of wood as you add it to the carefully constructed pile and explain how the fire catches on the smaller pieces first. Demonstrate leaving plenty of space for oxygen to enter the fire and help it burn. Ask the kids to help you place the wood pieces where they belong. With older kids, let them have the fun of assembling the fire, while you offer guidance as needed.

You can choose from several shapes ⏤ such as a teepee or A-frame ⏤ for your fire, but the log cabin is the easiest. If you’ve ever played Lincoln Logs, this’ll be child’s play.

Create a nest of tinder in the center of your fire ring. Then place two larger pieces of wood on either side of the tinder. Lay smaller kindling at a 90-degree angle to create a square. Continue to stack your kindling, alternating directions to continue the square. Be sure there is ample room between the layers so the fire can breathe. Unlike a Lincoln-Log cabin, you should be able to see through the layers of your log-cabin fire. You can create a roof for your cabin with kindling and tinder, if you like, or leave the square open. It is often easier to light without the upper layer. Either way, you’ll want to light the fire from the bottom.

Light the tinder

Older children may be ready to light the fire, but be sure to keep a close eye on them. Light the tinder and blow gently on the flames. With younger children, ask them to help you blow on the tinder after you’ve lit the fire. You can also use a fire starter to help get things going. Making firestarters is a fun activity ahead of your camping trip. Try wrapping small candles in wax paper or fill egg carton cups with lint and melted beeswax.

Avoid using chemical propellants or white gas to start your fire. “I’ve seen the flames travel up the gas pouring out of the can,” says Campbell. If your wood is dry enough, and you’ve built it well, your fire will catch on its own. If you’re camping in wet conditions, buy dry wood and use a hatchet to create tinder and kindling, rather than foraging.

Add fuel

Once your fire is burning merrily through the kindling, add logs to keep it going. Because it involves reaching into the burning fire, leave this task to adults or older teens. How much fuel you add depends on your evening plans. A Dutch Oven, for example, needs a solid bed of hot coals to cook, so you’ll need a bigger, hotter fire. For a short session of S’mores and stories, you may want to add less fuel. A bigger fire will be harder to put out, so try to use only the fuel you need.

Extinguish your fire thoroughly

You’ve cooked dinner and roasted your marshmallows. All the stories are told, and it’s time to put the fire out. Ideally, your fire is already dying on its own. Start by adding dirt to help smother the lingering embers. Then add small amounts of water. “I like to make what’s called a slurry,” says Campbell. “Think about back in the day when you would make mud pies.” Patiently add a mix of water and dirt until the ashes are cold to the touch.

Watching the embers fade can be a relaxing way to end the day. “That’s when I find the best conversations happen with people,” says Campbell. “While the embers are dying, and you’re having quiet conversations.” This is a good time to pull out a book of stories, poetry, or tall tales. Once the ashes are cold to the touch, head to bed and rest up for another day of adventure.