Backpack Camping and Woodland Survival/Skills/Fire

Campfire Pinecone.png


A campfire is a fire lit at a campsite, usually in a fire ring. Campfires are a popular feature of camping, particularly among organized campers such as Scouts or Guides. Without proper precautions they are also potentially dangerous. A certain degree of skill is needed to properly build a campfire, to keep it going, and to see that it is properly extinguished. In some regions it is called a bonfire.

Having found a suitable site and gathered materials, the fire-builder has a variety of designs to choose from. A good design is very important in the early stages of a fire. Most of them make no mention of fuelwood - in most designs, fuelwood is never placed on a fire until the kindling is burning strongly.

The tipi fire-build is perhaps the best, but it is takes some patience to construct. First, the tinder is piled up in a compact heap. The smaller kindling is arranged around it, like the poles of a tipi. For added strength, it may be possible to lash some of the sticks together. A tripod lashing is quite difficult to execute with small sticks, so a clove hitch should suffice. (Synthetic rope should be avoided, since it produces pollutants when it burns.) Then the larger kindling is arranged above the smaller kindling, taking care not to collapse the tipi. A separate tipi as a shell around the first one may work better. Tipi fires are excellent for producing heat to keep you warm.

A campfire with colored flames, made by burning a garden hose in a copper pipe.A lean-to fire-build starts with the same pile of tinder as the tipi fire-build. Then, a long, thick piece of kindling is driven into the ground at an angle, so that it overhangs the tinder pile. The smaller pieces of kindling are leaned against the big stick so that the tinder is enclosed between them.

A log cabin fire-build likewise begins with a tinder pile. The kindling is then stacked around it, as in the construction of a log cabin. The first two kindling sticks are laid parallel to each other, on opposite sides of the tinder pile. The second pair is laid on top of the first, at right angles to it, and also on opposite sides of the tinder. More kindling is added in the same manner. The smallest kindling is placed over the top of the assembly. Of all the fire-builds, the log cabin is the least vulnerable to premature collapse, but it is also inefficient, because it makes the worst use of convection to ignite progressively larger pieces of fuel.

A variation on the log cabin starts with two pieces of fuelwood with a pile of tinder between them, and small kindling laid over the tops of the logs, above the tinder. The tinder is lit, and the kindling is allowed to catch fire. When it is burning briskly, it is broken and pushed down into the consumed tinder, and the larger kindling is placed over the top of the logs. When that is burning well, it is also pushed down. Eventually, a pile of kindling should be burning between two pieces of fuelwood. The logs will eventually catch fire from it.

Another variation is called the funeral pyre method because it is used for building funeral pyres. Its main difference from the standard log cabin is that it starts with thin pieces and moves up to thick pieces. If built on a large scale, this type of fire-build collapses in a controlled manner without restricting the air flow. A cross-fire is another variation in which two pieces of fuel wood are placed parallel on the ground with tinder between them. Once the kindling is going strong, alternating perpendicular layers of fuelwood are placed across the two base pieces. This type of fire is excellent for producing coals for cooking.

The traditional Finnish rakovalkea (literally "slit bonfire") is constructed by placing one long piece of fuelwood atop another, parallel and bolstering them in place with four sturdy posts driven into the ground. (Traditionally, whole unsplit tree trunks are used for the fuelwood.) Kindling and tinder are placed between the logs in sufficient quantity (while avoiding the very ends) to raise the upper log and allow ventilation. The tinder is always lit at the center so the bolstering posts don't burn prematurely. The rakovalkea has two excellent features. First, it burns slowly but steadily when lit; it doesn't require arduous maintenance, but burns for a very long time. A well constructed rakovalkea of two thick logs of two meters in length can warm two lean-to shelters for a whole sleeping shift. The construction causes the logs themselves to protect the fire from the wind. Thus, exposure to smoke is unlikely for the sleepers; nevertheless someone should always watch in case of an emergency. Second, it can be easily scaled to larger sizes (for a feast) limited only by the length of available tree trunks.

A keyhole fire is made in a keyhole-shaped fire ring, and is used in cooking. The large round area is used to build a fire in order to create coals. As coals develop, they are scraped into the rectangular area used for cooking.

A "top lighter" fire is built similar to a log cabin or pyre, but instead of the tinder and kindling being placed inside the cabin, it is placed in a tipi on top. The small tipi is lighted on top, and the coals eventually fall down into the log cabin. These fires are often built by youth outdoor movements for "council fires" or ceremonial fires. They burn very predictably, and with some practice a builder can estimate how long they will last. They also don't throw off a lot of heat, which isn't needed for a ceremonial fire. The fire burns from the top down, with the layer of hot coals and burning stubs igniting the next layer down.

Last modified on 16 August 2011, at 05:49