To Build a Fire
Techniques for the perfect campfire
Despite dropping out of Cubs at age 8 and never making it to Scouts, I have always considered myself well versed in the art of constructing and maintaining a campfire. Newspaper was my preferred tinder, and I usually opted for the teepee design. I also felt that I had an intuitive sense for such things as kindling size, and when to add more wood. However, my more recent research on the subject has shown that fire lighting is much more of a science than I thought, and there’s a wealth of information out there on the humble campfire. I’ve summarised some of this, collecting the best tips and tricks to help you build the perfect fire.
It all starts with firewood. This is typically divided into three categories based on its size: tinder, kindling, and fuel-wood. If your firelighting venture is going to be a success, you want to have the enough of each ready to go before you light a match. Below are some good guidelines on the size and amount of each type of wood to collect.
This is the easily lit, fast burning part that will begin your fire. If collecting tinder from the bush, you want nice dry twigs about as thick as a pencil lead, and as long as an outstretched hand is wide. A bunch big enough so that you need two hands to wrap around it is said to be about right.
The next stage after the tinder is kindling. A common guideline for kindling calls for sticks as thick as your thumb and as long as your forearm. It is important not to skimp here, otherwise you won't build up enough coals to get your fuel-wood burning. One big armload should do the trick.
Finally, you need fuel to sustain your fire as you while away the night drinking whiskey, toasting marshmallows, or cooking banana boats. Start with logs about as thick as your wrist, and gather at least enough for a pile as high as your knee. Once your fire has grown and has a good base of nice hot coals, you can move on to bigger logs.
Tips for getting things started
If your campfire was planned from the beginning, chances are you will be using newspaper in place of tinder. To make sure your kindling lights first time, instead of just scrunching up sheets of newspaper, try the ‘Nantucket Knot’ technique. Simply take a full sheet of newspaper, roll it diagonally into a loose tube, then tie it in a knot. Using a few of these knots works well for outdoor fires as the newspaper will burn in a slower, more sustained manner, which is ideal for pesky, slow to catch kindling. The knots have the additional advantage of holding their shape and position in the fireplace, even when lit.
Firelighters are a great option in damp conditions, or when your kindling is just hard to light. A small piece of bike inner-tube makes a smokey but cost effective firelighter that will burn even when wet. A 10-15 cm section should provide about 5 minutes of burn time and will not easily be blown out by the wind.
The teepee arrangement is one most of us are familiar with; newspaper or tinder in the middle, with kindling propped up around it to make a cone-shape. This style is said to be one of the best for putting out heat, but while it isn’t too hard to construct, it can be prone to collapsing. To help prevent early collapse and having your fire smothered before gets going, try making a double teepee. Arrange your tinder and small kindling in the middle as normal then surround this with another larger, self-supported teepee made with bigger pieces.
The ultimate in low maintenance fires is the highly effective ‘upside down fire’. Also known as a self-feeding fire, this method utilises the familiar lattice-like construction most are familiar with, but with one major difference: it’s upside down. Larger fuel logs are laid down first, with a layer of slightly smaller wood placed on top at right angles. Several more layers of progressively smaller fuel and kindling are stacked up, ending with a pile of tinder or newspaper on top. As the top layers light, their embers drop down to light the progressively larger layers, resulting in an efficient fire that burns slowly downward into the pile. The big advantage with this technique is not having to constantly stoke and load the fire, and if you make it large enough, it can easily last all night if need be.