A fire lay is a small structure made from sticks and tinder to facilitate the ignition of a fire, and there's no shortage of architectural variety when building them. One little pile of twigs can be combined in a number of different ways to start a raging inferno—but which fire lay is right for specific occasions? Here are a few of the most common and popular fire lay configurations, why you'd want to use them in particular situations, plus why you might not.


The Tipi The simplicity of the Tipi is hard to beat. This cone of sticks has a great fuel-to-air ratio, which equals a great burning fire lay that is quick lighting and dependable—even with damp materials.Tipis can be built one stick at a time (a lot of trouble) or you can form the cone in your hand as you collect the sticks, stuffing some tinder into the center of your cone and setting it open-side-down when you’re ready to light it. PROS
This is an efficient and effective fire lay in a wide range of conditions, and can be made from a wide variety of materials. CONS
Sometimes they fall over, either before or after they’re lit. Sometimes the center burns out before the sticks on the perimeter ignite.


The Center Pole
Tired of your fire lays falling down on the job? Grab a thumb-thick dead stick about a foot long. Stab that stick into the ground in the center of your fire pit. Place a ring of tinder around it, and lay kindling over the tinder and against the central pole. The result is a very sturdy tipi shape that won’t fall over. PROS
Very stable and good for kindling materials that are having trouble standing up on their own. CONS
The central post interrupts the air flow in the heart of the fire lay.


The Log Cabin
A thing of beauty to behold, the log cabin is the most complex fire lay (aside from some Native American ceremonial fires that I’ve seen). The basics of the log cabin are a square “fence” of sticks with a tinder pile or a full-on tipi in the center. PROS
It’s a dependable and long-burning fire lay. CONS
It takes a while to build and requires a lot of materials.


The Lean-To
Sometimes you can’t make the wheel any rounder. The classic lean-to fire lay is quick to assemble and effective under a wide-range of conditions. Grab a large hunk of firewood or, better yet, a large, dry curled-up slab of bark. Lay your kindling perpendicular to the log or edge of the bark, toss some tinder underneath, and light it up. PROS
It’s quick to assemble, and it can be made with a frugal amount of material. CONS
It needs to be oriented into the wind for decent results, otherwise it won’t have good air flow.


The Lever Bar
Ever wanted to have better control over the air flow in a fire lay? The lever bar can help. Select a stick that is a little over a foot in length, and thicker than your thumb. Prop one end on a small rock and let the other end lay on the ground. Lay kindling sticks on top of the big stick, and insert tinder underneath. Light the tinder and then raise the big stick by its end to introduce more airflow. While holding the end of the lever, raise or lower the stick as needed to increase or decrease the airflow to the tinder. This air flow manipulation can take the place of blowing on the kindling if the materials are slow to burn. PROS
You control the air flow, which can be handy in wet or windy situations. CONS
It requires a lot of attention and manipulation. If you monkey around with the lever too much and the flame die out, you’ll need more materials to get it going again.


The haystack is the easiest fire lay to build. Just heap some kindling pieces on top of a mound of tinder. Let the sticks fall where they may, but cup your hands around the pile to form it into a mound. Quick and easy, this style of fire lay works well with short or broken kindling bits and wood shavings. PROS
Can be made with short, broken, or chunky materials. CONS
It’s a slow burner and doesn’t breathe as well as the other fire lays.


This fire lay can be built starting with a tripod arrangement of three forked sticks, or you can poke one stick into the ground to act as a beam that will hold up the other twigs. PROS
Burns as well as a tipi fire lay and the sturdy frame can support flimsier or looser kindling materials. CONS
It takes longer to build than a tipi.


The Bundle
Sometimes all you need to light a blaze is a bundle. This simple and portable fire lay involves a bundle of twigs, loosely bound with a flammable cord. Don’t worry about burning up your good 550 cord, a strip of flexible tree bark or a twist of plant fibers will be strong enough to hold the bundle together (and it’ll burn well). To use this technique, create a wad or pile of tinder material and lean the bundle against it. Try to get the bundle on a 45-degree (or greater) angle. This will help it burn better than if it’s lying flat. PROS
This is an easy way to transport your fire-lay materials, and it helps you to ration them in areas where kindling is sparse. CONS
It doesn’t burn as well as other fire lays, due to the fuel being concentrated in only one strip.