Playing With Fire- Taking Your Skills Into the Woods

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The Zen masters teach us that “you will never drink from the same stream twice”.  In just that way, you will never build the same fire twice. No two sticks or logs will ever burn the same.

For my own part I have moved away from larger fires when I go out camping. To my way of thinking, the one in this photo certainly qualifies as a full-fledged bonfire.

I have had friends who felt the the fire was not big enough if it was not 10 feet in diameter with 30 foot flames. Once at an established campground in Canada I watched some kids cut up a length of downed, creosote-treated telephone pole and sit around in the choking black smoke all evening long. —To each their own.

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Smokey The Bear says, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires”… This is what he says because he’s nice, polite bear. What he means is don’t be an asshole.

For me, a big enough fire is when the flames reach six or 8 inches in height, and mine are seldom more than a foot in diameter. If there is already a fire circle at an existing campsite, I will go ahead and use it. However I will seldom build one on my own.

Quite possibly the single best piece of advice about fire building is that it is never too early to start thinking about your next fire. As you hike, keep your eyes open for any suitable tinder that you can pick up along the way. If you are planning to camp in an established site, the chances are quite high that you will find previous campers have pretty thoroughly picked it over for both tinder and firewood. Tinder is light enough in weight that it’s no burden to carry and by gathering some along the way you can shorten the time it takes you to get a fire going once you reach camp. All of the same factors apply if you were simply planning on selecting a site on your own for backwoods camping. You can never tell what will be available when you get there. A brief rain shower can compromise the quality of any tinder you might scrounge– having some in hand is always a good idea.

Just a couple of pieces of birchbark, or a couple of nice, resiny pinecones can get your fire off to a good start. Pick up what you see you along the way. Even if you don’t use it, someone else might need it.

Once you’ve found your campsite, just because it’s not dark yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start gathering wood if you want to sustain a fire all evening. It’s always easier to find decent wood while it’s still light out. It’s always safer to cut up your wood before it gets dark.

Next, you can probably never practice your fire building skills too often. I learned my basic skills in Boy Scouts over 50 years ago. No Brag, Just Fact: in those 50 years, I have never failed to successfully build a fire, no matter the conditions, and even when others efforts had failed. In no particular order, here are a few suggestions:

  • AlwaysAlwaysALWAYS clear a fire pit three times the diameter of your desired fire. This should be scraped down to bare earth [dirt] at least twice the diameter of your fire. [the absolute necessity of this cautionary is one of the reasons why it is suggested that you Do Not make a fire pit at an undeveloped, or backcountry site] If it’s necessary to build a fire in snowy conditions, you will need to dig right down to ground level or the melting snow will simply quench the coals from underneath. The best thing to do in these conditions is to make a “raft” of green or wet logs laid down adjoining and parallel to each other about twice the diameter of your fire, and then build your fire on top of them.
  • If you do feel the need to make a fire pit where one has not previously existed, try to line it with a circle of rocks at least 4 to 6 inches high
  • You can use a large or flat rock on the opposite side of the fire to reflect the heat back in your direction or into your tent area.
  • Cutting up fallen timber is always safer than trying to drop a standing tree. In many areas, it is illegal to cut “standing wood”… Don’t!
  • Instead of relying on newspaper, use native tinder that you find– your process should be about practice, not taking the shortest path.
  • Carry some char-cloth to catch a spark
  • Keep your eyes open for, and pick up useful tinder as you hike
  • Save your matches as a fallback– at the very least try to start your fire with sparks from a used-up lighter– the satisfaction, and sense of independence that you gain is immeasurable.
  • “Making a fire is a very simple, incremental matter of coaxing your heat source from a glowing ember to an ever larger flame. The secret to this process is in staggering your tinder in a similarly incremental way”–  have a complete selection of your materials, from the tinder all the way up to sustainable “burning wood”, readied before you start trying to light your fire. There is nothing worse than having your fire die back out while you have to leave to scrounge up more material.
  • The higher, the drier“… kindling/dead-wood harvested from higher up on a tree trunk will probably have died back more recently and as such, will be drier. Kindling selected from a dead fall or as dead branches off a tree trunk will be far drier than wood that has already rotten enough to have fallen onto the ground.
  • There is dry wood inside wet wood“– you will frequently find that by splitting even small branches lengthwise to expose inner surfaces you will discover the interior wood much drier. Even stripping the bark off can be beneficial at the early stages of fire building. This is especially true if it has been raining.
  • Damp/wet wood can be stacked around a fire to start drying out before being added.
  • Several wet, or even semi-rotten logs can be used as backdrops to reflect the fire’s heat back on yourself if there are no stones or rocks available for that purpose.
  • Always bank your fire down overnight, never leave it unattended, and always quench it thoroughly before you leave the site.
  • And finally, always be a good guest in Mother Nature’s home– don’t toss in your beer caps, empty tin cans, old tin foil, and other non-burnable items… That’s just plain nasty. Carry a trash bag, don’t be lazy and carry out your trash.

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Most of the time, my personal choice for fire and cooking is my little FireAnt stove from Merkware/Emberlit.  Made out of titanium, it weighs under 3 ounces, packs flat in a pocket for easy accessibility, and can boil 2 cups of water in less than six minutes on only a few small sticks the size of your finger. While this is not the raging bonfire that many people think of as necessary for their camping experience, it is an ecologically sound choice, provides a surprising amount of warming for its size, and gives you quite a few of the comforting qualities of an open fire, while being much easier to maintain and requiring far less fuel.

I can cook my dinner on it before daylight fully fades, let it die out, but rekindle it in just a couple of minutes once it is full dark to enjoy the comfort of a “campfire”– and between times, if it’s rainy, foggy or dewy, I can keep the whole thing dry… kindling, fuel and all… under a grocery bag.

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