How to Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

Learn these simple but effective steps for starting a fire in a fire pit, so you can enjoy the ambience and warmth in the outdoors.
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How To Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

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Whether you are trying to get a fire started to cook at the campsite or just want some extra light and warmth as night falls over the backyard, learning how to start a fire in a fire pit is a life skill that can even help in emergencies. To make it easier, you can use fire-starter logs while you learn how to start a fire, though the steps below will work with standard fire pit wood as well.

Keep in mind that it isn’t enough to learn how to light a fire pit; you should also learn how to put out a fire pit properly. If the flames and embers are not fully extinguished in a wood-burning fire pit, the untended flames can spread to the grass, leaves, deck, shed, tent, or even the house. Even if you can’t see flames or embers, wood fire pits can retain enough residual heat to reignite the wood, so always make sure to follow the directions below to properly extinguish the flames and douse the embers in a wood fire pit.

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Always make sure to check local laws to ensure that it’s legal to have a lit fire pit in your yard, and make it a habit to keep a bucket of water or a fire extinguisher nearby for emergencies. It takes about 20 minutes for even a dying fire to be fully extinguished, so don’t start a fire unless you have enough time to properly monitor and extinguish the flames. You also need to make sure that the fire pit and surrounding areas are completely clear of dry leaves, twigs, or other items that could ignite if they came into contact with the flames or even just a stray spark.

STEP 1: Find small, dry materials for tinder. 

Large logs are not easy to light, so you can’t simply stack the firewood and expect a lighter or match to work. First, you can purchase a fire starter or a bundle of tinder for a fire at home, or you can look for small, dry materials, like dry grass, leaves, shredded tree bark, and newspaper. Manufactured fire starters and tinder bundles are designed for easy use and are easy to find. The only drawback is that you are paying for material that could be found on the forest floor or even in your own backyard.

how to start a fire in a fire pit

STEP 2: Locate dry sticks and twigs for kindling.

Tinder will get the flames started, but unless you have kindling, the tinder will typically die out before larger fire logs can ignite. Kindling can also be purchased in ready-made bundles that are frequently treated with flammable resins to make it easier to start the fire. However, you can also look around the yard, campsite, or forest to find dry sticks and twigs to use as kindling for your fire. While these materials won’t ignite as easily as store-bought kindling, they are typically free. If you can’t find any sticks, consider cutting a larger piece of wood into kindling with an axe like this option available at Amazon or knife.

STEP 3: Build the fire with fuel wood, kindling, and tinder.

If you paid attention in science class, then you know that fire cannot burn without an oxidizer. In most cases, that oxidizer will be oxygen, which is why building the fire is one of the most important steps in the process. Without proper ventilation, the fire will not have access to oxygen and will not be able to be lit or remain lit. Additionally, if you don’t build the fire correctly, the logs can collapse, which reduces ventilation and can also send sparks flying out of the fire pit.

Choose to build the fire in a cross, teepee, or log-cabin structure.

  • Cross fire structure: Position the tinder material in the center of the fire pit, then place the kindling on top of the tinder in a crisscross pattern. Finally, add the fuel wood logs in a similar crisscross pattern, making sure to leave gaps for ventilation.
  • Teepee fire structure: Start the tinder material in the center of the fire pit and stack pieces of kindling vertically around the tinder with an opening on one side. Repeat the process with fuel wood logs, leaving the same opening in the structure for ventilation.
  • Log-cabin fire structure: As with the other two options, the tinder material starts in the center of the fire pit. Next, stack pieces of kindling vertically in a teepee structure around the tinder material. At this point, the structure should look like the teepee fire structure. Place two fuel wood logs on either side of the teepee, then lay two additional wood logs perpendicularly across the first two logs on either side of the teepee. Repeat this pattern once or twice more to complete the log-cabin fire structure.
How To Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

STEP 4: Ignite the tinder to start the fire.

Once the fire is set up and you are confident in the structure as well as the ventilation, it’s time to light the fire. You can use a lighter, matches, or even a flint-and-steel set as a weatherproof alternative. Light the tinder with your method of choice, making sure to ignite the material from several sides for a more even burn. If you are using a flint-and-steel set, then you need to hold the steel close to the tinder pile and strike the flint against the steel to produce sparks.

How To Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

STEP 5: Monitor and maintain the fire.

The flames should grow quickly, but it’s important to always monitor the fire to reduce the risk of the fire spreading and to help keep it from going out. Maintain the fire with a poker or a long stick to move the hot coals and embers formed from the burned tinder and kindling into a pile to increase the heat. You can also blow on the coals to help move oxygen down into the fire pit. Use the poker on the fuel logs to break off charred pieces and expose new wood to the fire. Add additional fuel logs as needed to keep the fire going.

How To Start a Fire in a Fire Pit

STEP 6: Extinguish the fire. 

When it’s time to go to sleep or if you need to pack up the campsite, start putting out the fire about 20 minutes in advance, because it takes time to ensure that the fire is properly extinguished. If you are not planning to use the fire pit again for several days, then you can slowly dump a full bucket of water on the fire to douse the flames, coals, and any residual heat. Use the poker or a stick to move the coals, embers, and ash around in order to check for signs of steam or listen for any hissing noises. If the fire pit is still steaming or hissing, the fire is not completely extinguished. Fill the bucket and dump it over the pit again until the fire is cool and quiet.

If you want to use the fire pit again soon, you will need to take your time putting out the fire. Sprinkle water over the fire pit to help douse the embers and cool the ashes, but don’t soak the fire pit. Turn the embers and ashes with a shovel and continue sprinkling water until there is no steam, heat, or noise coming from the fire pit. Alternatively, you can use sand or dirt to put out the flame, but you would need to clean the sand or dirt out of the fire pit to use it again.

Final Thoughts

The ash, coals, and any remaining pieces of wood need to be cleaned out of the fire pit once the fire is completely extinguished and the fire pit is cold. Use a shovel to scoop and scrape the material out of the pit and dump it into a garbage bag. While most municipalities allow you to dispose of these ashes in the regular garbage, it’s a good idea to check local guidelines for proper disposal. Cover up the fire pit if it’s in a fixed position, or move the fire pit to a sheltered area out of the wind and rain.