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To Build a Fire
Although restrictions in many national and state parks prohibit fire building the skill is one of the most essential to anyone who would seek to make the outdoors their home. There are as many ways to build fires as there are types of wood to burn, from the humble cook fire to the raging bonfire. Here I will discuss a few of the ways I use to light it up.
Preparing the fire circle.
Preparing an area for a fire is essential. A forest floor is composed of layers. The top layer, fallen leaves, grasses and dirt obviously need to be cleared away, but those unfamiliar with the woods might not recognize the duff beneath it. Duff is the layer of soil just underneath the surface. Composed of decaying plant and animal matter, under the right circumstances, loam will develop into peat moss, a soft coal like fuel that burns with a dark and heavy smoke. Even before it becomes peat, this layer, despite its moisture, is still flammable and can cause a few interesting problems. I have seen fires spread underground through smoldering loam and once these subterranean embers start is can be VERY VERY
hard to put out.
To prepare an area for a fire, scrape away ALL
ground cover until you have an area of bare dirt. Keep the scrapings nearby, although far enough from the fire that you will not dry the pile out. After your fire is finished and extinguished, you will want to replace this layer both to conceal the dame your fire has done and to ensure that the forest floor is not scarred.
Once you do this, you can begin to create your fire. The first thing you will do is gather wood. Keep in mind that the forest floor is alive. Fallen logs and branches provide shelter to bugs which help regenerate the soil. Avoid gathering logs embedded in the forest floor (If a thousand beetles run for cover when you pick it up, put it back.) The wood you gather should be in three categories. Tinder, Kindling and Fuel.
Tinder is small scraps and wood shavings. I often carry a small pouch of dry grass and twigs in my bag for use in the rain, but seldom need it. Another method for this, which I once used is cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly. I often use my hatchet
to shave off a pile of wood chips, which is easier than using a knife and happens anyways if you are splitting logs. Old birds nests, dry sap, and dry brush also work well.
Kindling is pencil sized twigs. These must also be dry, but are easy to find. Spruce trees, due to their thick canopy protect their lower branches from rain and it is usually easy to snap off a few small twigs from such a tree. You can also use strips of wood shaved from the side of a log and in heavy wind flat thin pieces will serve to insulate the fire as it build.
Fuel is your logs. I seldom use anything larger than an inch around and if I buy firewood, I will always split the logs. This allows you to keep the fire manageable while also greatly reducing the amount of wood you need. It is also much easier to get a 1 inch thick log to burn than it is to get a four inch log to burn.
To create your fire, begin by creating a foundation of two or three small sticks on the cleared ground. This keeps your tinder off the ground and dry while offering a bit of convection current to provide air to the fire. Create a loose pile of tinder on this foundation and then place a few pieces of kindling across the top. I generally lean the sticks up like a teepee, but there are many ways to do this.
Once you have your pile, strike a match and hold it carefully to the tinder until spent. If you tinder is dry, you should have a small fire going already. Gradually add larger pieces of wood until satisfied.
Cleaning up: Pour water on the fire until it stops steaming. Really. Until it stop steaming. If you are using thick logs, this can take quite a bit of water and failure to get the wood to stop steaming can allow the remaining wood to dry itself while smoldering and re-ignite. Once done, let the circle sit for a bit and check it periodically to look for warm spots or embers. Once you are certain that the fire is out and the ground is cool to the touch, replace the cleared soil and try your best to conceal all hints of the blaze.
Types of fires:
The campfire, a robust, smoky and warm blaze is one of the most destructive fires. It sterilizes the soil beneath it and around it and consumes tons of wood which would otherwise eventually become soil itself. I only make campfires in public parks with circles and fire wood for sale, and only when in a group.
The warming fire uses little wood, never anything bigger than an inch thick, and is built to provide warmth. This fire is easily built, managed and extinguished, but does leave traces.
The cookfire. This is my most common fire. It uses no logs at all, relying on a constant supply of kindling to heat a single pot. It is the easiest fire to clean up after, but one of the hardest fires to get the hang of making. Its biggest benefit is the ability to completely conceal itï¿½s location, leaving behind no charred earth or blackened rocks, since the kindling used to stoke the fire is completely consumed when finished.
Types of fire starters:
Lighters. The best bet for initial outings, the convenience of a plastic butane lighter is unmatched. Zippos and other liquid fuel lighters are not such a good bet since they run dry quickly. You can however fill a zippo with coleman stove fuel (or Bacardi 151) if you carry a stove that uses it.
Matches: There are a thousand types of matches. The paper ones in books, although the most common are useless since sweat in your pocket can render them soggy and unlightable. My favorite matches are called hurricane matches
and have heads about an inch long. When struck, hurricane matches provide about ten seconds of flare, making the initial lighting quite easy.
Flint and Steel: Not actually made of flint, but of Ziconium, the magnesium fire starter is my preferred method of fire starting. By striking the flint with the back of your pocket knife, you create a flurry of sparks that ignites almost anything. By shaving bits of magnesium from the handle of the striker you create a very fast burning tinder, but this is usually not needed. The best way to use one of these is to use fiberous tinder, and pinch the piece against the front of your knife. As you drag the blade along the flint the tinder will catch a number to the sparks and should erupt into a small ember. Drop this ember on your tinder pile to get the fire going.
Survival Tools: Ranging from a flint and wheel like those found on lighters to cold weather, one-handed tools like the blast match
, most of these fire starters are gimmicks in my opinion, though I have found uses for a blast match in very cold environments..
The Bow Drill. I love the bow method, but construction of a base, spindle, handle and bow can be time consuming. If you wish to learn this method, look into it and practice as you sit around your campfire. It took me about 50 tries before I got my first ember, and even now I only get it going about half the time. But it’s great to impress friends once you learn how to do it. One of the best sources for learning to create the bow drill or hand drill fire starter is old boy scout manuals.
The Nuclear Option: I seldom do this, but in raining cold with numb fingers it is a useful method. Pour about an ounce of fuel across the tinder and flick a match into it. It is messy, stinks and should, of course, only be used in emergencies.
The fire starting kit: I carry my matches in an old film canister, along with two birthday candles. If you can find them, the novelty candles that relight after blown out work great, but I havenï¿½t found them anywhere. I put a piece of cotton ball across the tops of the matches to keep them from igniting in the canister, but I almost think the threat of that happening is an old wives tale. I also carry a flint striker on the draw string to my pack where it is easy to find when needed.