Since the day Prometheus gave the gift of fire to mankind it has been one of our best friends and greatest tools. It provides us with warmth in cold weather, cooks our food, purifies our water, and turns raw ore into molten metal for us to build tools that make our lives easier.
Early man had to keep a fire burning for fear that it would go out and he again would be in the cold and dark. But when we discovered the miracle of flint and steel we then had the ability to make fire when we needed it. We didn’t have to wait for lightning to strike or to take fire with us.
To make a fire, we need three main ingredients: fuel, spark, and air. The fuel must be dry enough to light quickly and burn readily. If it doesn’t break with a snap when you bend it the wood is not dry enough. It must be arranged so the air can get to the flame easily and allow a good draft. The best way to do this is to leave an opening on the downwind side of your fire lay so that the wind will naturally blow into the fire as it burns. The flame is added to your tinder. Tinder is small, fluffy, burnable material that is natural like dry bark or cattail duff or it can be a homemade or commercially made flammable material.
Your fire can come in the form of a lighter, matches, a ferrocerium rod and a knife, a blowtorch, or something as primitive as a piece of flint used with a striker.
The best way to build your fire is to do it like cooking with a recipe. You need to gather all of your materials first, before you actually start building your fire. Then assemble your materials as your fire lay. The last step is to light your tinder with whatever source of flame you have to get it started. Then, move your tinder into your fire lay if it isn’t already there and let it light the rest of your wood.
The key to a successful fire lay is to have enough of the different thicknesses of wood to build your fire. You need tinder, followed by kindling, which is then followed by the thicker sticks that actually fuel your roaring blaze.
Tinder should be very dry woody material that is thin and fluffy. Good examples of tinder are cattail duff, milkweed puffs, dry cedar bark, pine tar or pitch, or pine needles. Whatever you use make sure to break it up to expose its inner fibers and make it fluffy. Your spark needs these fine fibers to start the fire. If you can’t find any of these and don’t have a firestarter with you can use your knife to shave off fine strips of dry wood. Digging into a dry dead log is another good place to find good tinder.
Kindling is the non-fluffy wood that will actually grow the fire. I like to think of it coming in two sizes. The first size you should use are the actual twigs at the end of a branch and the larger twigs that they grow out from. Moving even closer to the trunk are the next size of kindling, the pieces that are the size of a wooden match up to the size of a wooden pencil.
Actual firewood or fuelwood pieces are the next size up and should be around the thickness of your little finger going up to the size of your wrist in thickness. Add it starting with the smallest diameter pieces moving up to the thumb sized and then wrist sized pieces.
Once you have your fire going with medium-sized sticks you can add even thicker wood, or quarter pieces from a tree if you want a fire that’s large. If you are lucky enough to find a dead tree that has fallen to the ground then you likely have each thickness of wood that you need for your fire. Just start with the twigs at the very end of each branch and work your way towards the trunk getting the increasingly larger pieces you need to build your fire.
THE RIGHT WOOD
A fire gives you two main things; light and heat. If light is your main goal, along with some heat, you want to use softwoods like aspen, poplar, or any of the evergreens.
These are less dense woods so they light faster but they also burn faster so you need to feed more wood into it more frequently. The resin in evergreens also helps it burn and give off more light. If a slower burn or more heat is what you desire then you should be using hardwoods like oak, maple, cherry, or hickory. These are denser woods so although they take more heat to ignite they will give off more heat and will burn longer than the softwoods will.
DIFFERENT DESIGNS FOR DIFFERENT DESIRES
Different types of fire lays are best suited for different purposes. There are many different ways to lay your fire. Each one has its own benefits for the conditions you are in and the way you will use your fire. The two main lays are the tipi and the log cabin and will meet the majority of your needs.
THE TIPI FIRE: The tipi fire lay is the simplest and probably the one you are most familiar with seeing. It lights quickly and burns quickly, especially if you have good air flow. Starting with softer wood for your kindling will make it easier to catch. You can add harder woods later if you want more heat or want the fire to last longer.
Since this design will focus the heat of the fire directly above it, this is the ideal fire lay when you want to boil water or cook something in a pot suspended above the fire. To build a tipi fire you should assemble your tinder bundle and place it on the ground in the middle of the fire ring you cleared. Next, stick three pencil-sized kindling sticks into the ground to form a tripod over the tinder. This will be used as a framework to hold your kindling. Now you can start adding your kindling, smallest pieces first followed by the slightly larger kindling building the walls of the tipi. Continue this until you have kindling on all sides except for the downwind side. You want to keep an opening on the side where the wind/breeze will be blowing in to give your fire the air (oxygen) it needs to burn. This opening will also give you a place to add your match or fire starter to ignite your tinder.
THE LOG CABIN FIRE: The log cabin fire lay is best used when you want to get a bed of coals for cooking on or for use in making a warm bed of coals to cover with dirt and sleep on. It doesn’t concentrate its flame and heat in one place like the tipi fire lay does. It spreads the heat across the cabin framework and burns from the inside out. You can also use this fire lay to help dry out wood that is damp from rain by placing it along the outside of the cabin or on the top layers of the cabin.
To make the fire lay you once again put your tinder bundle in the center of your fire ring. Then place two pieces of your larger wood, a couple of fingers thick to wrist thick parallel to each other about six to twelve inches apart, depending on how big you want to make your fire. Then put two more pieces across the first two to form a square. This is the foundation of your log cabin. You now want to put a layer of small kindling across your foundation. On top of this layer add slightly thicker kindling. Continue this for a few more layers using thicker pieces each time. If you used thick enough pieces of fuel wood for your foundation you should be able to easily put your match in to light your tinder. If you don’t have a match and need to use a spark you can either use two shorter pieces of wood on the downwind end to leave a gap for you to put your lit tinder under the kindling or you can leave an opening in the first layer of kindling on the downwind side to push your tinder in.
SAFETY FIRST, SECOND… AND LAST
As useful as a fire is, it can also be extremely dangerous. An unattended fire can grow outside of its fire ring and burn equipment in the campsite or turn into a forest fire. Sparks from a fire that’s too big, or a poorly placed fire, can land on shelters and equipment burning holes in everything they touch. So, locating and preparing the area around your fire is very important.
Before you start building your fire, or while others are collecting the materials to build the fire, you need to pick a good location for it. A good location is one downwind of your camp so the wind won’t blow sparks or flame toward your shelters or equipment. It should be at least ten yards away for safety purposes. For this same reason, you should store your supply of firewood upwind of the fire too.
To prepare the area for the fire, you want to clear an area large enough to hold all burnable materials. Then surround the campfire area with non-burnable materials like rocks to serve as a perimeter. You should avoid crystalline rocks like quartz which can explode if they get too hot due to the moisture inside of them. Next, clear the ground of burnable materials for one or two yards around the fire ring to prevent the fire from spreading away from where you built it.
Now that you have the basics down on how make and use these two basic types of fire lay you can go on and use the variety of other types because they are all based on these two. A search of Google or YouTube for different fire lays will show you a variety of different types, like the Dakota fire hole designed for use on the plains where there isn’t a lot of wood and you don’t necessarily want your fire to be seen.
Don’t expect that reading this article or watching some videos are all you need to do in order to build your first fire. Hit the woods this weekend and give each a try to see what the little details are in picking your tinder and kindling that only practical experience will give you.
Finished With Your Fire?
After you are finished with your fire, or when you turn in for the night you need to make sure it is completely out with no embers remaining. The easiest way to do this is to stop feeding the fire as the time for bed draws closer. If it has not died down when you are ready to leave it you should spread it out flat to speed it burning out. Then, follow the U.S. Forest Service’s guidance for putting out your fire.
- First, drown the campfire with water!
- Next, mix the ashes and embers with soil. Scrape all partially-burned sticks and logs to make sure all the hot embers are off them.
- Stir the embers after they are covered with water and make sure everything is wet.
- Feel the coals, embers, and any partially-burned wood with your hands. Everything (including the rock fire ring) should be cool to the touch. Feel under the rocks to make sure no embers are underneath.
- When you think you are done, take an extra minute and add more water.
- Finally, check the entire campsite for possible sparks or embers, because it only takes one to start a forest fire.
- Remember…if it is too hot to touch, it is too hot to leave.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the April 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.