How to Build a Campfire
Some of the best memories in the backcountry are made around a campfire at the end of a long day on the trail. But maybe you have never started a fire without help (either from someone else or from an accelerant). If that sounds familiar, then this post is for you. This post is also for those of us who may have experience with fires but could use some tips to improve our skill. It’s one thing to start a fire with dry tinder in a stretch of woods with a lot of dead and dry wood, but it’s another thing entirely to create a sustainable fire when conditions are wet, wood is scarce, and you are freezing cold. We will take a look at the basics and beyond in this blog post.
The Basics of Fires
Fires can be destructive if they are not properly contained. The first thing you need to know about fires is how to create and maintain a fire safely. Remember when you were a kid and your father told you not to play with fire? That principle applies to adults as well. Careless people who didn’t know what they were doing with a fire have started many forest fires and house fires. Let’s make sure you don’t make those mistakes.
Fire is the result of a chemical reaction between heated fuel and oxygen. When oxygen in the atmosphere comes in contact with a fuel (i.e. wood) that is heated to its ignition temperature, a reaction takes place that converts the wood to charred wood (ash), gas (smoke) and of course, heat. The process is called combustion.
But enough about the science of fires, let’s take a look at how to actually build one in the woods.
Can I? Yes. Should I? Maybe not…
If you’re a Jurassic Park fan like Mark, you may remember the line, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” The same idea applies to fires. Just because you can build a fire doesn’t mean you should build a fire. Fires have lasting impacts on the environment, and while many of us love campfires in the woods, it isn’t always the best idea to build one.
One of the seven Leave No Trace principles is “Minimize Campfire Impacts”. You must consider the potential for your fire to damage the backcountry. Of course, some parks and other areas have bans on open fires. In these cases, you should use a backpacking stove instead of building a fire.
Another consideration is the availability of wood. Is there enough wood around for you to build a sustainable fire without creating a noticeable change in the immediate environment? Is your group experienced enough to build a safe fire that will “leave no trace”? If not, a stove is likely a better option for you.
If a fire ring exists in the area, that’s where you should build your fire.
Remember, minimize campfire impacts. If there’s a place where other fires have been built, that’s where you should build yours.
If no fire ring exists, you can build a mound fire. Some people put a ground cloth or garbage bag down on the ground. Personally, we don’t do this but it is a good idea because it aids in cleanup and helps insulate the ground from the heat of the fire. To build a mound fire, collect dirt, gravel, rocks, and other materials and make a “mound” 3-5 inches tall in your fire area. It should be wider than the fuel material to accommodate the fire coals spreading.
Make sure wherever you build your fire is far enough away from trees, tents, gear, roots, overhanding braches, shrubs, and anything else that could catch fire or become damages as a result of your campfire. Keep in mind that just because something is green doesn’t mean it wont burn. Case and point: Take a lighter to some pine needles and see how quickly they burn.
Once you have a spot picked out, either clear a sufficient area of debris around your mound and/or create a fire ring with rocks large enough to contain the coals. Remember that leaving no trace means putting the rocks back where you found them later, so consider this work beforehand. Also, avoid wet rocks as they build up with steam pressure and can crack.
Always have some water on hand in case your fire get’s too large.
Fire needs fuel and this fuel should come only from dead and fallen branches. Of course, in an emergency when someone is hypothermic, you should burn whatever you can in the interest of saving a life. But for a regular campfire, take care of the environment and only use dead and down branches.
You will want to look for branches and kindling that are as dry as possible. A good way to tell if a twig is dry is to break it in half. If the twig “snaps” quickly, it is dry. If it bends in half without “snapping” or even breaking, it is likely wet. This doesn’t apply to every type of wood but it’s a good rule of thumb.
There are three main types of wood you should gather: (1) tinder, (2) kindling, and (3) firewood or fuel. Tinder is the smallest wood and combustible material you can find. It consists of dry leaves, small twigs, fire starting material, etc.
Tinder. Image credit: woodtrekker.blogspot.com
Kindling consists of small twigs and branches slightly bigger than tinder but much smaller than firewood or fuel.
Kindling. Image credit: howtowilderness.com
Firewood (AKA fuel) consists of your larger branches, which will burn for long periods of time and sustain your fire once it gets started.
Types of Fires
Every woodsman has his own “best way to build a fire”, and many know exactly what they are talking about. Mark has his way, Katie has hers, and everyone else has their own best way. However, for starters there are three basic categories or types of fires, the “teepee”, the “log cabin”, and the “upside down” or “pyramid” fire.
In this type of fire you will place your tinder in the middle of the fire, surrounded by a cone of kindling, and finally covered with a ‘teepee’ of firewood.
The Log Cabin
Did you ever play with Lincoln Logs when you were a child? This is pretty much the same idea, Place two logs perpendicular to each other at the base of the fire, followed by two more logs at a right angle from the initial logs. Keep this pattern up until your logs are stacked 3-4 high. Place your tinder and kindling in the middle of the “cabin”.
The Upside Down Fire A.K.A. The Pyramid
The Upside Down Fire
This is one of the more popular fire models because of its potential for low maintenance. Place 3-4 large logs in a row at the base of the fire. Follow those by 3-4 smaller logs at a right angle on top of those. Follow those by 3-4 even smaller logs, and continue this pattern until you get to your smallest material - the tinder - at the very top. This fire will burn from the top down (thus the incredible creative name) and kind of looks like a pyramid (who would have thought?). This is a good technique if you plan on sleeping next to the fire and don’t want to maintain it every 20 minutes.
Note: Creating a back wall. Some of the old woodsmen like George Washington Sears (“Nessmuk”) advocated building a wall of logs at the back of your fire to reflect and direct the heat in your direction. This is a great idea if you are creating a fire to heat your sleeping area and to keep some wind from your burn. Read Woodcraft and Camping by George Washington Sears for more information. Below is a picture of Nessmuk's "campfire as it should be made", featuring the back wall.
Lighting the Fire
Light your tinder first, which will ideally burn hot enough to light the kindling, which will in turn burn hot enough to light the firewood. You will have to monitor and adjust your fire at this early stage. Give it a little TLC to make sure it doesn’t go out before it gets started. If you prepared the fire correctly, this shouldn’t be an issue, but it takes practice to get proficient at this. Remember that fire needs oxygen to burn (it’s one part of the aforementioned chemical reaction), so make sure you are giving you fire enough room to “breathe” and blow on the flame (from a safe distance) to help it get going.
How Much Wood Do I Need?
The short answer: More than you think. When Katie and Mark get to camp they immediately start gathering dead and downed wood for their fire. It isn’t uncommon for them to spend an hour or more doing this if they plan to have a fire all night.
Wood burns more quickly the hotter the fire gets, so you will go through a lot more than you think in a short period of time, even if you build your fire for sustainability.
Fires in Wet Conditions
This is more advanced, but if you’ve ever been camping in cold, wet conditions, you know how important it is to be able to light a fire when it’s wet. There’s no perfect solution to fires in wet conditions, but here’s a few tips to help you get started:
Look for patches of dry wood. Even when it’s raining, you can often find wood under natural shelters where it’s a little dryer.
Evergreen trees are sappy, and sap is flammable.
Peel off wet bark to reveal dry wood underneath. Shaving off the wood just under the bark of a tree makes great kindling in wet conditions.
Don’t try to start a fire on wet ground. Kick the wet leaves and debris away from the fire site and make your mount with dry material like gravel or dirt from underneath the wet layers.
Gather a lot of tinder and kindling. Wet fires are harder to start, so you will need more of this material.
Take advantage of the wind. Make sure you build your fire where the wind can get to it.
Make it hot. We have built fires that have successfully burned through even the heaviest downpours, believe it or not. The trick is to get a bed of coals hot enough to be sustainable through the rain and keep enough fuel on the fire to maintain it.
Always carry a fire starter for emergency situations. When you or someone in your group is hypothermic, there will not be time to gather tinder, kindling, build a mount, etc. You will need heat quickly and with minimal effort. To do this, carry a fire starting material in your first aid kit or, ideally, on your person (in case you loose your pack). Good emergency fire starters are waterproof, easily lit, and burn hot for a long period of time. You will be able to add combustible material to your fire starter. In an emergency, burn anything and everything available to you. The idea here isn’t to leave no trace but to save the hypothermic person’s life.
Three of anything is an internationally recognized distress signal. Fires are no exception. Building three fires in a triangle or straight line can be seen at night as a distress signal and the smoke can be seen for miles away during the day as well. Remember to properly plan and prepare so you wont get caught in one of these situations, but if worse comes to worst, build your fires big. You can put pine bows over a hot fire (or moss - anything wet) to create a temporary billow of bright white smoke as a signal to air or ground search and rescue teams. Remember to always carry a whistle and even a signal mirror if possible.
Do’s and Do Not’s
DO extinguish your fire completely before leaving the campsite.
DO NOT assume a smoking pile of ash will eventually go out. Smoke means there is still fire, and it needs to be completely extinguished.
DO clean up the area and leave no trace of your fire.
DO NOT assume someone else will some along and build a fire there so you should just leave it.
DO watch your fire closely. Monitor children (and irresponsible adults) around the fire.
DO NOT light a fire and leave the area, even for a little while.
DO pack all your garbage out.
DO NOT burn trash or food scraps in a fire - they rarely burn completely and will attract animals (think bear country). Note: EGG SHELLS DO NOT BURN.
DO enjoy your campfires responsibly.
DO NOT make everyone else pay for your carelessness with fire.
Sources & Links