How to Quickly Build and Maintain a Campfire in the Wild
Gather twigs and sticks and divide them into three categories: (a) twigs less than a quarter inch in diameter (four of them together should be no thicker than your pinky), (b) sticks no more than an inch thick (about the thickness of your thumb), and (c) larger sticks up to three inches in diameter (about wrist-sized) and set these aside. This doesn't have to be perfect and after building a few fires, you'll get a feel for how these categories pertain to stages of the fire. The fuel should be as dry as possible. Look under logs and roots to fine dry wood. Clumps of pitch and birch bark make good fire starters. If you have a saw and ax, dry kindling can be split out of the center of standing dead wood. This will be dry even in the wettest conditions.
1. Clear an area for your fire. Make sure you have a flat area, preferably surrounded by stones or dug a few inches into the ground to contain the fire, but if you're desperate, just make sure there are no sticks, leaves, or roots in the way. If there is less than 2 feet of soft snow this can be cleared away with snow shoes or by kicking. In deep snow or hard frozen snow it will be necessary to create a platform. If you try to build the fire directly on the snow it will steam and will not burn. A few 4 inch diameter sticks layed together will sufice. Once the fire is well established it will keep burning into the snow until it reaches the ground. If the snow is very deep this can be a problem. Pushing the fire to the side will keep you from ending up with a fire burning at the bottom of a deep hole.
2. Gather up a dense handful of pinestraw, leaves, or any other similar plant remains (You want to grab as much as possible with one hand - have some fuel busting out of the gaps in your hand). The key here is to balance exposed surface area and density - pinestraw works the best because the pieces have such small diameters and bunch together very nicely (I'm sorry if you're building a fire in a location that doesn't have pine trees). If you're forced to use larger pieces of starter fuel such as paper or large leaves, try ripping them into thin strips (as thin as possible) before lighting. Make sure this fuel is as dry as possible. If you are having trouble gathering dry material, make sure you dry some suitable fuel at the fire and save it for later. If it's damp outside, any material on or near the ground will be wet as will the lower dead branches of trees. Look for dry material in sheltered locations (under rocks, logs, in holes, etc.). Birch bark or pitch will burn even if it is wet.
3. Lay down one piece of wood of about 2 inch diameter. Use this to lean your smallest kindling against so that you have an air space underneath. If you have birch bark or pitch, place this under your kindling. Place the kindling carefully together and have additional kindling ready to go. Now place your flame under your kindling or against your birch bark until it...