December 01, 2022
By Scott Linden
A campfire brightens a hunting or fishing trip with heat and light and promotes camaraderie among all who gather in the warm circle of its inviting glow. Cooking over an open fire is a ceremony that imparts a literal taste of the outdoors. It’s also a connection to our primordial past, presenting the opportunity to stare into flickering flames and wonder what our ancestors did before the invention of matches, lighters and other modern conveniences that take most of the rough out of roughing it.
Along with tying a square knot and changing a truck tire, building a fire is an essential skill. In the old days, if you couldn’t start a fire, you were a cave bear’s next meal. Now, there’s no excuse. Here’s how to build a blaze the right way.
Heat. Oxygen. Fuel. The proportions are critical. Too much air and your fire wastes fuel. Too little, and your fire peters out in a puff of smoke. Jazz great Miles Davis said it’s the space between the notes that makes music so cool. The same holds true with a campfire. Build your pile of sticks artfully, so the flames have the space to breathe.
Tinder catches your first flame. You can use crumpled paper from home, but a real man lives off the land. Gather twigs, grasses, birch bark, pine needles, leaves. If it crackles, crunches or snaps when you crush it, it’s tinder. Collect three times as much as you think you’ll need. You want it to go whump when you touch a flame to it. But don’t do that yet.
Kindling consists of small pieces of wood, about the diameter of a pencil. Ever tried lighting a pencil on fire? That’s why you gathered so much tinder. Splinter larger kindling into thin pieces. Their rough edges catch flames better than smooth, rounded twigs. Three big bunches are a good start because kindling has a big job.
That job is motivating hefty pieces of fuel wood to crackle into flame. Fuel wood is wrist-to-forearm-thick branches, chunks of split log and such. Get plenty so marshmallows don’t languish at the end of sticks, drooping like the corners of a child’s frown.
Your best source for all your fire’s ingredients? Dead, dry, downed leaves, grass, twigs, branches and small logs. Seldom do you need to–or should you–pull out your shiny new chainsaw. Save the massive logs for that cabin you’ll build someday. The crack of dawn comes early, and staying up with the owls to poke at the dying embers of a log the size of a railroad tie will kibosh plans to seize the morning bite.
"Mise en place" is a French culinary term for having all your ingredients prepared and staged prior to cooking. It applies to fire building, too. Set up all your stuff in neat, separate piles within easy reach.
Location, location, location. The theory works for real estate and fires. You don’t want to burn anything besides the tinder, kindling and the fuel wood you collected (and an occasional hot dog), so use or build a fire ring or clear the ground to bare soil. One of the worst places to build a fire is under a tree—it’s full of firewood. A good spot is against a boulder that has a surface that will reflect heat.
The construction of the base structure for your fire is up to you. But don’t worry because you’ll keep out one long, straight, stout stick to poke with, so you can always remodel later. A teepee structure resembles the protective enclosure it was named for. Ditto for the log cabin base. I like a two-wall cabin, which gives me ready access for adding tinder and kindling and allowing in plenty of air. It’s stable, too, so fumble-fingered kindling reloads don’t topple it.
When Mother Nature rears her ugly head, build your fire ring taller on the windward side, using earthen chinking in the openings between rocks if needed. In rain, ask friends to lean over the fire-in-the-making or hold up a small tarp. Fashion a “roof” of fuel wood to shelter your piles of tinder and kindling. In snow, clear as much as possible, lay a thick foundation of rocks or logs, and build your fire on that.
Frame up your fire with an exoskeleton of fuel wood. The space inside is filled with that massive wad of tinder. Kindling is laid across the tinder, ideally leaning against the “walls” as vertically as possible to channel flames upward to bigger fuel. Finish by gently placing more fuel wood in the path of the kindling’s flames, and you’re ready to light.
Many fire-building mistakes result from wet or wimpy matches, a lighter that won’t work in cold temperatures or a gust of wind. Just remember: Pouring white gas on fuel wood is frowned upon by most campfire purists; real sportsmen rub two sticks together (just kidding!). Seriously, use your first match to light a stout candle. Play its flame along the upwind side of your tinder, then offer a caress of breaths—sustained, gentle puffs—to encourage the fire to spread. As flames rise, maintain the air-heat-fuel equilibrium by offering more kindling, then fuel wood only when your masterpiece is crackling cheerily.
PUT IT OUT
A bed of glowing embers means it’s all over but the howling at the moon, right? Nope. A responsible fire builder is also a fire killer. Don’t be that guy who stumbles to the tent while logs smolder. Water-dirt-water is the recipe for putting out your campfire. As Smokey Bear taught us, pour water onto the coals, stir with a stick, then check by touching your hand to the cold, wet ashes. If you’re unwilling to do that, your fire might come back to life while you’re dreaming of a big trout or bull elk.