How to Start a Camp Fire
With my youngest son having graduated from high school now and summer is upon us, I rarely see him anymore. I leave for work before he gets up, then he goes to work, then the gym, then out with girls or friends until after I am in bed. I was lucky this past weekend that Kyle had a lacrosse tournament, so I got to see him most of the weekend, which was nice. I was surprised however when he said he wanted to go camping with just the two of us, and our pesky dog Buddy. This will be our first camping trip together this year, so I am excited!
I had just taken my good friend on a scouting trip to check out a state park where she and her husband could go with their young daughter, who is almost 15 months old. It was a place that I had taken my kids when they were young, and it not only brought back a lot of memories, but it made me want to go camping with Kyle, so this was quite a pleasant surprise that he brought up the topic with me before I said anything.
One thing about Kyle is he is very good at starting fires. I taught him when he was very young how to start and maintain a fire. When we would go camping I would let him have his own miniature fire pit next to the big one where he would start his own little fire and play with it all night. By the time he was 10 he could start a fire consistently with flint and steel, and now that is all he does.
Trust me, it is not like the commercial on TV for a men’s product where a middle aged man is camping on the beach with a presumed girlfriend in the tent when his lighter falls apart. He goes to his toolbox and gets a folding buck knife, and then magically strikes it on a rock, ignites a fire bundle, then tosses it into a pile of logs. While it is not that easy, it is also not that hard if you know what you are doing.
I have talked previously about starting a fire in a survival situation, but tonight I want to talk about how to start a simple camp fire. It is surprising to me how many people don’t know how to do this. I have a lot of young readers, a lot of single moms who want to learn, as well as inexperienced outdoors people, so I am going to start with some basics, but there are even some tips for the grizzled veterans of camping out there.
To start with, find a good place to have your fire. If you are in a campground with a fire ring, your decision is already made for you. If you are camping in an un-established camping area, find a flat spot that does not have over hanging tree limbs. A sandy or gravel surface is best. Make sure the fire pit site is not in the path of draining rain water because even though a heavy rain may temporarily put out your fire, you will still have coals deep in the fire pit if you have had a fire going for a while. If you are camping where someone else has camped before, use the fire pit they left behind to minimize scarring the land. If you are camping on grass, cut and dig up pieces of sod large enough for your fire pit, and then replace the sod when you leave.
To build your fire pit use a shovel to dig a small depression. If there are no rocks around to build a fire ring, dig the depression a little deeper and use the sand/dirt to form the fire ring. Rocks are the best to use for a fire ring, just be sure not to pull rocks out of a stream or lake as these rocks can sometimes explode when heated up from the fire due to the water they may retain. With the rocks, build a ring around your fire pit, preferably at least six inches tall, this will help prevent sparks flying from crackling firewood, as well as block wind from the fire.
Once you have your fire pit, gather and cut all of the wood you will need for the night. Personally I enjoy cutting and splitting firewood, and I like to get the task done all at once. If you aren’t in the mood to cut all of the wood you will need for the night, at least cut enough to keep the fire going for an hour. Most importantly, before you strike your first match, make sure you have all of the kindling and smaller pieces of wood at hand so you won’t be scrambling around trying to find things to get your fire going.
It is important to understand the basics of a fire, it needs three things; heat, fuel, and oxygen. Remove anyone of the three and the fire will go out. The one thing that gets overlooked the most when starting a fire is adequate oxygen. Ideally you want to start your fire in a manner that any wind blowing will help get your fire going. You will want to have your smallest tinder on the fore side of the wind, and your kindling on the lee side of the wind, meaning the direction the wind is blowing. This way the wind will blow into the heat source of your fire and heat up the fuel on the other side.
There are many items you can use as a fire starter, either commercially made or home made. I have some fire starters for sale on my website, and I also make my own from wood shavings mixed with a patch of brass cleaning wad, this stuff will take a spark and get going in no time. A small candle stub makes a great fire starter, and so does a loosely balled piece of paper if used properly. If you don’t have any of these, find dry, dead grass, tiny twigs the size of a large paper clip, or thin strips of bark.
You can also use your knife to make thin shavings of wood, or a fuzzy stick, which is like a miniature Christmas tree with pieces of the branch carved up but left on the twig. Soft woods, such as pine and spruce are best for kindling, whereas hard woods like oak and hickory take longer to ignite.
To light the fire, the most important thing to do is have patience. Start small and let the fire get going before you add too much fuel, which will smother the fire by not allowing enough oxygen. A good method to get enough oxygen is to take two 2” diameter sticks about 4” long, spread them about 8” apart, and then set another 2” diameter stick across the top. Use this mini structure to get your fire going by laying small twigs above the tinder fuel against the stick going across the top (see photo below).
Once you get the fire going, slowly add more fuel and gradually add larger pieces. It is best to add pieces in a teepee-like formation until you get some coals burning at the base of the fire. Once you have coals hot enough to ignite a 1” diameter stick, you can gradually start to knock the teepee down and add larger pieces across the top, and you should have a good fire going by then.
When you are leaving your camping area, be sure the fire is completely out by pouring water over the coals until it pools in the ashes. If you have been camping for a few days, the coals can be several inches deep, and if not extinguished they can be brought back to life by a gusting wind and blown out of the fire pit and start a forest fire. If you dug up sod, be sure to replace it.
There is a lot more to write about fire starting, but these are the basics for simple camping. I hope you found some valuable information in this article, and I hope you are able to get out soon and enjoy the outdoors, I know Kyle and I will be doing that this weekend. I am sure I will have stories to write about that trip soon. Happy camping!