Learning how to start a campfire is easier if you know and understand what a fire is. Fire is a reaction from combining heat, combustible material and oxygen. These three items need to be present in amble supply to get the reaction. Many have a problem starting a fire because of not enough air flow to the combustible material.
When you blow on coals or smoldering material and it ignites you are basically adding more oxygen that increases the heat of the smoldering material.
So to start a campfire you need a source of heat ; a combustible material for fuel and air flow to enable enough oxygen to allow combustion.
You can use any source of heat to start combustion. The only requirement is the heat has to be above the temperature of combustion of the material you are using. When you strike a match there is friction. Once the friction creates enough heat ( which happens quickly ) the material on the end of the match ignites catching the wood or paper on fire. The flame is hotter than the required combustion temperature of the paper or wood of the match so the flame continues to spread.
The same is true for a spark from a piece of flint. The impact from a piece of steel ( a knife blade or steel rode in a flint kit ) creates friction and shattering of the flint. The heat from the friction is hotter than the combustion temperature of the fragment of flint. Sharp edges are easier to heat than flat or rounded pieces. That is why flint creates fire. It breaks of in shards.
You can use anything for a source of heat : a magnifying glass, a concave mirror, flint, friction or the easy way&Q#59 a match. Check How to Start a Fire Without Matches to do this and impress your friends.
Combustible material has carbon in it. The carbon is what burns. Every living thing has carbon. So you can use anything that was living. You just have to make sure it is dry. If it is not dry the moisture prevents it from heating up to the point of combustion. Take a paper cup and fill it half way with water. Light the top edge of the cup and watch it burn. The cup will not burn below the level of the water. You can even do this with gasoline but it is not recommended because it is dangerous if the gas spills. The water does not smother the flame it prevents the paper of the cup from reaching combustion temperature. Any plumber knows this because you cannot solder a joint if the joint has water in it. The water keeps the material from going over 212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 Celsius which is below the melting point of solder.
That is why you need dry wood to start a fire. You can start a fire with wet or green wood but first you have to have the heat source hot enough and sustain it long enough to boil off the moisture in the wood.
Small and sharp edges are easier to burn because of the amount of area you have to heat. That is why you start a fire using twigs and broken branches.
You cannot have combustion without oxygen. There are substances that burn under water. This is because the substance contains it's own oxygen in the molecular makeup. Magnesium is one of the well known substances with this property.
There are chemicals that are self combustible and some that react to water. The chemicals are reacting to the oxygen in the air and water. They do not need much oxygen for combustion and react at the molecular level.
To start a fire you have to start with small and thin material first. Once the smaller material is ignited you can add larger material. Increase the size of the material as the amount of coals increase.
Before you apply your source of heat you have to arrange your tinder.
Tinder is very small and thin material that catches fire easily. It can be newspaper, pinecones, grass, pine needles, leaves or a fire starter. A fire starter is a combustible material such as wood chips that is covered with wax. The substance catches easily and the wax protects the material from moisture.
Arrange the tinder so it is close enough to other tinder to transfer heat. If the tinder is not close enough, other tinder will not get enough heat to reach combustion temperature. Too close and not enough oxygen to sustain combustion will be allowed into the fire.
If you have ever burned leaves in your yard you have experienced how material too dense will not allow enough oxygen to sustain combustion. When you first put a pile of leaves into the fire the fire dies down and puts out a large amount of smoke. The heat is still there in the form of coals but not enough air is present in the pile to allow combustion. If you fluff up the pile the flame will return because more air is allowed to the material.
That is why if you use paper, pine needles and leaves you have to wad it up into balls not let it lay flat like pages in a book. Air cannot get to the material to allow combustion.
Once you have stacked enough tinder to burn for about 5 minutes you place twigs on top of the tinder. The twigs should be between 1 / 8 and 1 / 4 inch in diameter. The twigs should be placed much like the tinder. You want them close enough to transfer heat but not so close the twigs keep out the air. It does not matter if the twigs are arranged or just thrown in, as long as the spacing is proper and the weight of the twigs does not compact the tinder.
Now you can apply your source of heat. If you are using a heat source other than matches to start the fire it may be easier to ignite the tinder before adding the branches. This way it is easier to move the tinder around and blow on it to spread the fire in the tinder.
I use two piles of twigs to build up heat and a few coals. The twigs will burn fast and a few will be left on the outside of the pile. Immediately after I add the second helping of twigs I start to add branches.
Start with branches that are about a half inch in diameter. The smaller branches can be added in a pile much like the twigs : close enough to spread the heat but nor so close as they restrict air flow.
When the pile of small branches is really cooking I start to add larger branches about an inch in diameter. This is where I get creative and start constructing teepees. The idea is let the center burn and add larger branches to the outside of the tee pee. This concentrates the heat and coals in the center of the pile. I let them burn long enough to burn down and add more branches three to four more times. This creates a good bed of coals to start larger wood.
Once you have created a pile of coals about 3 to 4 inches deep and added the last pile of branches you can start to add logs. The first few logs should be split small enough to about the size of your wrist. You can add the logs to your teepee.
Once the small logs are fully in gulfed in flames you can knock down the teepee and add larger logs. You can just throw them into the fire in a random fashion but you have to remember to keep them close enough to aid combustion of the logs next to each other but far enough apart to allow air into the fire.
I burn my logs in a grid pattern. Each layer will have 3 to 4 logs depending on the diameter and each layer will alternate directions. The outside logs contain the heat to the center of the fire which helps when you have green or wet wood. I start with two layers and as the first layer burns to coals I add another layer. You can regulate the heat by the size of the logs and the amount of wood on the fire.
The larger the logs you want to burn the more coals you will need. You should have enough coals to last until the logs are fully burned. Larger wood will not burn fast enough to add to the pile of coals so you may have to add smaller logs once in a while. You can gauge whether to add small logs by the amount of flames you have.
To burn wet wood you have to dry the wood before it will burn. To do this you simply use smaller logs and pile them higher. The lower logs burn and dry the logs on top. As the lower logs burn out the next layer of logs should be dry enough to burn. The smaller the logs the quicker they will dry.
The smoke generated from wet wood is mostly steam. This means the wood is drying as long as you see flames. If the fire is generating a lot of smoke but little flame the wood is not dry enough to burn or not enough air is present in the fire. You may have to re arrange the wood ( stoke the fire ) to allow more air in or move unburned wood to a hotter section of the coals.
You want the wood small enough to be dry by the time they become the burning layer. If the lower layer burns out before the next layer is dry enough to burn you need a bigger pile to allow the wood time to dry.
Knowing how to start a campfire is helpful while camping and in emergency situations. A fire can keep you warm, dry wet clothing, cook food and be an emergency signal. When using fire as an emergency signal it is better to have a smoky fire as the smoke will rise above the trees and be able to be seen from longer distances.
I hope this section was informative and helpful to novices and pros alike. And remember as Smokey Bear states " Only You can Prevent Forest Fires ". Please be careful and responsible with fires.