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Skill Builder: Firecraft 101

Six easy steps to build the perfect fire.

By Jennifer Bristol

Since we first discovered how to blow a spark into a flame, people have gathered around campfires to stay warm on chilly nights. These days, meals cooked on fires are an away-from-home treat, and as the moon rises, the stories and songs float up like wisps of smoke.

What makes a perfect campfire?

First, select a good place to establish a fire ring away from low-hanging trees, shrubs or dried grasses. Many national, state and local parks will provide a space for a fire, but if you have to make your own, make sure you strip back the soil until you hit mineral earth. Line the circle with either a mound of dirt or large rocks to prevent the fire from creeping out of the circle. Make sure your tent is far enough away from the fire so that ash or embers don’t get on the fabric.

Second, make a pile of tinder in the bottom of the fire circle in the space you want to place the wood. Tinder consists of dried grasses, leaves, pine duff or very small twigs. If you plan ahead, you can make your own tinder by packing empty toilet paper rolls with dryer lint. Always make sure whatever tinder you are using is securely placed under the larger logs so it does not float away from the fire once it is ignited. Newspaper or other lightweight paper is not a good tinder in the woods as it can float away too easily.

Third, place the larger logs over the tinder. You can either make a pyramid with the larger logs that you brought with you, or you can create a log cabin by stacking the logs in a box formation; both techniques have merit. Make sure the wood you bring or purchase at the camp store is dry and not infected with oak wilt. In most parks, gathering firewood is prohibited, so make sure you bring enough to meet your needs for your entire adventure. The best wood to use is from the local area.

Fourth, insert kindling wood between and under the logs, but make sure you allow enough space for air to move through. Kindling is any stick that is larger than tinder and smaller than a log; choose sticks that are about the size of your fingers for best results.

Fifth, light it up! If you have a good balance of tinder and kindling, you will not need lighter fluid or other flammable liquids. If you have only small matches, you can make a longer lighting tool by twisting some tinder together in a 6- to 8-inch-long bunch. Remember, fire needs air to fan the flames. If you want to blow on the fire to help it ignite, don’t get too close to the flame or inhale the smoke too deeply.

Sixth, sit back and enjoy the warmth and comfort of the campfire and get ready to tell stories, make s’mores and make a memory. If you are using your fire to cook, light it an hour before cooking. You want to use the heat of the coals, not a large flame. Coals provide even heat to cook your camp cuisine thoroughly.

Children love campfires as much as adults do. Make sure you set up the rules and boundaries in advance of lighting the fire; don’t be afraid to repeat those rules every hour. One way to make sure your kids respect the fire is to include them in a fun lighting-of-the-flame ceremony or allow them to have a role in building the fire. Engaging them will also ensure they become safe, skillful fire builders in the future.

The most important step is the last one. Put out your fire completely before you doze off under the stars or retreat into your cozy cabin. Water and soil are the enemies of fire and should be on hand before you light it up. Pour a healthy amount of water on the flame and coals first to cool the heat, then add a layer of soil to suffocate the rest of the fire. If you don’t have much soil, use a long stick to spread out the coals in the fire ring so they don’t touch anything that might ignite later.

 


Related stories

How to Be a Happy Camper

Fire and Water

 

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