CAMPFIRE ESSENTIALS by Jim Yurasek, REC
Fire, man's most ancient skill. Without the ability to make and sustain fire, humanity would not be able to survive the harsh elements of nature. In this article I will be covering some of the basics of fire starting, safety, and a few tips on how to start a fire in non-optimal conditions.
Gathering plenty of dry wood is easily the most important part of getting a good sustainable fire started. Firewood can be broken down in to three categories: tinder, kindling, and fuel wood. Tinder can be anything that takes a spark and catches fire easily. Some good examples are dry leaves, cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly, frayed rope or twine, birch bark, feather-sticks/fine shavings of wood or fatwood (highly resinated pinewood), most paracord has cotton twine on the inside, or some of the store bought materials like the Instafire Fire Starter. Any of these will be able to take a spark to flame, even in the rain. Kindling is anything with the diameter of pencil lead to the diameter of your finger, and fuel wood is anything wrist sized and up. Finding dry wood is essential. Look for branches sticking up in the air from fallen trees, dead standing wood, and dead branches that have fallen and are leaning against stumps or on other trees. Being in the air, not on the ground, these pieces of wood have a better chance of being dry. Look for wood in shielded areas such as under dead trees, caves or rock outcroppings, and in thick patches of conifers. Dry wood can usually be found in these places, even if it's been raining all week. Wet wood can also be used if it's split using an axe or knife to baton, getting to the dry wood on the inside. Always take your time and gather more wood than you think you'll need, then double that amount and you'll easily have enough wood to last the night.
To start building a fire you'll have to process the gathered wood, breaking it down in to 18-24" pieces for fuel wood and 6-12" pieces for kindling. Using a folding saw or axe to break down larger pieces is optimal. But, if that’s not an option, use the leverage method by putting a long piece of wood between two trees that are close together and push or pull, or breaking it with your foot. You can also burn larger logs in segments, starting from one end and feeding the log into the fire as it burns down. Once everything is broken down and separated in to the three types, you can start to build the fire. Some popular methods are teepee style, log cabin, and pyramid or upside down fire. Teepee style is fuel wood and kindling leaned against each other around a pile tinder and smaller kindling in the shape of a teepee. Good for a smaller, more controlled fire. Log cabin is two pieces of fuel wood laid parallel to each other on the ground with two more pieces laid perpendicular on top either end of the first two pieces, and so on in descending size with tinder and kindling inside the cabin structure. This is good for getting a large fire started quickly. And, the pyramid style is layers of fuel wood layed on top of each other perpendicularly in descending size and shape, making the shape of a pyramid. The tinder and kindling is put on top of this fire building style and is started from the top, giving it its other name "upside down fire". This style is good for long slow burning fires. Always use designated, or pre-built, fire rings if available. This will help cut down on the risk of forest fires. Also, multiple fire rings in a campsite takes away from useable space, and it is damaging to the natural surroundings.
Getting a fire started in the rain, or wet conditions, can be difficult. Using the following method is a good way to spark a flame in any condition. Split or baton several pieces of thick fuel wood, using a good bushcraft knife or axe, to get to the dry wood in the center. Arrange three or four of them parallel up against each other on the ground, making an elevated dry surface to start your fire. Put two or three of the fuel pieces at one of the ends of the platform, and have your kindling ready to lean up against that end over the base. Make a good sized pile of tinder on the base close to the end where you put the fuel wood and light it on fire. Keep adding kindling until you get a solid flame, then start adding small pieces of fuel being careful not to block airflow. You can also blow on the fire, or use a pocket bellow, to get the fuel and kindling going. At this point you can easily build it in to a log cabin or teepee structure, just be sure to allow plenty of airflow. Be sure to keep your fire inside the ring, and enough water on hand to extinguish the flames in case of emergency.
When camping somewhere, always check the fire regulations. Some places may have a ban in certain areas, elevations or altogether due to dry conditions. Most places don’t want you to bring your own firewood, to help stop the spread of invasive species like the ash borer beetle. Remember to always follow the “leave- no-trace” rule by thoroughly extinguishing your fire with water. You may have a few questions such as: How do I split wood with a knfe by "batoning"? How do I make a feather-stick? What is fatwood , and where do I get it? Other than using a lighter or matches, what are some alternative fire starting methods? These questions and many more will be answered in future articles in the REC Newsletter.
With the weather getting warmer, and stay-at-home orders being lifted, we all want to get out and enjoy nature. Let’s get back to our roots and safely enjoy, fire.