In backpacking, campfires are the answer, who cares what the question is?
Camping with a campfire is magical. The warmth of the radiating coals, the glow reflecting off friends’ faces, and the hypnotic effects of the flickering flames encourages peacefulness, deeper conversations, and a meditative mood.
There are some techniques to make campfires easy and safe. The very first step before leaving for a hike and campout is always to check with the relevant governing authority to make sure fires are permitted. In some areas, severe dry periods can cause campfires to be prohibited even in campgrounds.
Second is to equip for a campfire. Not much is needed: a butane lighter, some newspaper and a portable saw (I like the Sven saw). A collapsible one or two-liter water container makes all the difference for filling bladders and dousing the fire when you are ready to turn in for the night.
Site Layout for a Campfire
A site is selected based on several criteria, but two of them related to campfires are:
- Pick a site with enough level patches for the number of tents that will be setup, and
- Locate a spot for the fire that is downwind from the tents, has no low-hanging branches, and can be easily cleared of dry brush.
The Fire Ring
It is best, safest, and most effective when you can find a site with a fire ring or with enough rocks around that you can build one. A fire ring is simply a ring of rocks, each about the size of a football, usually stacked two high in a circle roughly two feet in diameter. The ring serves two main purposes: it contains the fire and coals and provides a resting place for cooking items such as a hand grill, pan or spit.
Setting Up Before Lighting the Fire
Search around the campsite for dead wood of all sizes. You will need some “tinder,” which is a mix of very flammable twigs and dry leaves. If you use dried pine needles, mix them with other stuff to make a better flaming start.
Then gather a small pile of bigger twigs, maybe ½ to 1” diameter that we call “kindling.” These should also be dry. If you see some fallen dead trees, these are easy enough to break off the main tree.
Finally, find or saw about 8 or 10 larger pieces of wood, 4 to 8 inches in diameter and 12 – 18” long for the mainstays of the fire that will start building up the coal bed. This is where the Sven saw or equivalent comes in really handy.
Never cut wood from live trees – it’s no good for the tree and it won’t be dry enough to burn: all you will get is a lot of smoke which will then chase you no matter where you stand around the fire.
Baby Won’t You Light My Fire
Now that all the prep is done, here comes the moment of truth. Will the fire light and stay lit?
If you search the internet you will find lots of ways to set up a campfire. The following is my preferred way.
- Crumple 3 or 4 sheets of newspaper into balls and place in the middle of the ring.
- Starting with the tinder, grab a few handfuls and drop on top of the crumpled newspaper. If you have leaves, make sure they are dry, or they will smother a young fire.
- Then with the kindling, make a teepee over the paper and tinder. The reason for a teepee is that it leaves some air between the tinder on the ground and the apex of the teepee and a fire needs a ready source of oxygen or it will die out quickly.
- Light the newspaper in several places with your butane lighter or matches. You may find that it flames at first and then dies down to burning and smoldering edges. As soon as that happens, blow on the glowing areas repetitively. That new source of oxygen should re-ignite the fire. Do that several times if needed.
- The burning tinder will flame up and start the kindling. Once that happens you have a successful fire, but it will need a bit of tender loving care for the first 10 or 15 minutes.
The tender loving care consists of watching for when several sticks of kindling are burning. At that point, put the smaller of the bigger logs across the fire so that the flames are licking the logs. If needed to keep the fire going until the main logs are burning, add more kindling to the fire.
Once the fire is going and several bigger logs are burning, I pile on a few additional bigger logs, careful not to choke off the whole fire. This gets a big fire going early, but it is the quickest way to build up a hot coal bed that is useful for warmth, cooking and to relight the fire if it goes out for whatever reason.
NOTE: Burn trash items only if they can be fully consumed by fire and turned to ash. Do not attempt to burn plastic, cans or foil. If you do burn something that is not fully consumed, collect the remains when the fire is out and pack it out.
Quenching the Fire
When you are ready to turn in to your tents, the fire needs to be extinguished. Begin the process by not adding more fuel starting about a half hour before you turn in. As the fire dies down, use a stick to spread the coals to the edge of the fire ring and then pour water on it. Keep spreading and pouring to extinguish the coals.
Note that using dirt or sand to extinguish a fire is problematic because it can insulate coals, which can become uncovered later, igniting a wildfire. As a last resort this is better than doing nothing, but the best practice is to fill up a collapsible water container (See Water Jug) and use it to douse the coals.