The Upside Down Fire

This is how I make a campfire fire now. I used to use the teepee method, or some half-assed rendition of the teepee method, and I often had trouble with such fires. They required babying, rebuilding, etc., and they burned fast. This fire is built in the opposite direction: heavy stuff on the bottom, lighter stuff on top, tinder on the very top. Basically, the finished product looks like a bird’s nest sitting on a log cabin.

This style of fire is great because it takes care of itself–build it, light it, and get on with your other chores. It lasts a long time too, as it makes very efficient use of the wood. I’ve done this many times, and it works like a charm.

The video above is a little shaky, but the technique is clear. He’s building a big campground fire in a fire ring. It’s not necessary to use so much wood–the technique scales. Here’s a link to another video showing the same method with smaller sticks and a more bushcraft-y technique.I’d recommend watching both.

The only thing I’d add to the technique in the video above is that I would lay down a larger layer of thin sticks (the 1″-2″ diameter stuff) on top of the big logs. Somehow he pulls it off with remarkably little small stuff. I found that if I didn’t have a good supply of twigs and small branches on top, the big logs in the under layers didn’t catch fire fully.

In video #2 the fellow builds a complicated teepee structure on top with his twigs. I don’t think that’s necessary, either. I mean, it’s okay, but it seems like work. You can just pile lots of little stuff on top any which way and light it.

It’s like Goldilocks. I think the first guy has too little tinder, the second guy, too much. But to each, his own. You’ll find your own way–and you’ll love this fire.

ETA: I forgot to mention that a Vaseline soaked cotton ball or a lint firestarter or some pieces of fatwood or something similar can really help foolproof the fire. Just tuck the firestarter under the small stuff. Not at all necessary, but helpful if you’re a beginner, or if conditions are bad.

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17 Comments

    • FYI: I just added a note to the post about using firestarters to give you an extra advantage. Helpful if you’re “fire challenged”

  1. I wonder how it works for a wood fired oven, it takes a healthy dose of babying to get a nice strong fire going in my WFO, but of course that is using the teepee technique, I’m going to try this.

    • I haven’t done this in our woodfired oven yet. Erik is the BreadMaster, so he usually fires the oven. My primary concern is that (at least with our oven)there won’t be enough airflow. But I’m thinking that if you invest a little time on the front end, blowing and fanning to overcome this, it might do well.

  2. I have been building top-down fires for over a year now. Once you get over the feeling of everything being wrong, you will love them.

    I will say that it can take a while to figure out your own balance of kindling and hybrid teepee on the top or whatever, but stick with it, they are worth it.

  3. This is great in an wood stove as well as the heat from the starter fire heats the chimney which in turn draws air in from the bottom. This allows you to use less kindling and also creates less smoke, which is great for your neighbors.

  4. I’ve always been pretty good with the teepee method, but I must say I am highly intrigued. I will give it a go when we head to Yellowstone next month. Thanks.

  5. We call them “top burn” fires. Great for the annual beach bonfire, we usually use pine or other wood thats unsuitable for the fireplace or wood stove. And, with the winter damage this year in my part of the country, we will have plenty of “free” fuel for this.(free if you don’t count labor to cut and split)

  6. Not sure how tend-free this technique is. I saw the guy on his knees blowing on the fire. Maybe because it wasn’t all that windy like he kept talking about? And he was adding tinder/kindling all along.

    In any event, I am known in certain circles as Twisted Fire Started, so I will definitely give this a go!

    – TFS

    • I know the guy in the second video did a lot of tending. All I can say is that when I build, I spend very little time tending now that I have the trick of it. The first couple of times, I had to add more sticks to keep it going at the beginning, but now I have a good sense of how many sticks you need to ignite the big logs, and how much tinder you need on top to get the sticks blazing. All it takes is one or two fires to get the hang of it. It should be no sweat for a Twisted Fire Starter! You don’t have to be an…um…Prodigy.

  7. Good to know. Makes me want to go outside and burn! :-)

    But let me ask, where do you do your burning? Don’t you have no burn days down there in the LA area? Up here in the bay area, our air quality district imposes no burn days, which means no wood burning, on bad air days throughout the winter. They want to minimize particulate matter caused by wood smoke.

    I have a wood burning fireplace as well as a fire pit in the yard. They both get used! Pyro, that’s me!

    • We do have no-burn days here in LA. Erik and I don’t have a fireplace, or a fire pit–but now we have the bread oven, so we need to get our act together and pay attention to such things. Mostly I exercise my pyromania while camping. I actively fantasize about having a fireplace so I can burn things indoors.

  8. Geez, this video just served to remind me how long it’s been since I’ve gone camping. 12 years, at least. I might have to rectify that problem this summer.

  9. Just to confirm, I used this method twice to get the wood fired oven going, I built a little log cabin of 1″ diameter sticks and worked up to twigs with a handfull of pine needles on top, I had to add a few more pine needles just for good measure a little while after I lit it, but it started easily and quickly, this technique is a keeper!

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