Campfire Basics

                         By Bud Journey

 YES,   of course you know how to build a  campfire.    Everybody 
knows how to build a campfire.   That said,  may I timidly  offer 
some  suggestions  that could facilitate things a  bit  for  you? 
During a lifetime in the outdoors,  I've learned from some of the 

  In  places where they are legal,  campfires can serve  as  any
thing from warm friends that are centers of social gatherings  to 
life-saving  measures,   during times of  potential  hypothermia.   
Knowing how to build one can be a convenience or a necessity.  

  The  key  to getting a fire going quickly is in  selecting  the 
right  tinder.  Naturally,  if you have paper,  that's good  tin
der.   Other good natural tinder is dry moss (wet moss is  terri
ble);   a thin layer of leaves (with enough open spaces to  allow 
air through);  very small,  dry twigs (a couple of millimeters in 
diameter);   dried pitch nodules;  a handful of shavings  from  a 
dead,  standing tree;  the paper-like dried outer layer of  birch 
bark;  and dead brown needles from any type of conifer tree.  

  In  my  opinion,   the last is the best.  It will  get  a  fire 
started  quicker than anything else I've found,  including  pitch 
(which is also very good).   I once stared a warming fire  during 
a  hunts trip in the British Columbian Rockies when it was  rain
ing,   and there were six inches of wet snow on the ground.   All 
the  materials I used were wet,  and I had no paper.   My  tinder 
for  that  fire was dead fir needles.   Dead pine  needles  would 
have worked equally well.  

 After you have found the tinder,  the next thing to look for are 
small  dead limbs - the drier the better.   A good place to  find 
such limbs is low on the trunk of a live tree or the interior  of 
a  dense shrub,  where they are protected from moisture.    Break 
off  the  small ends of these twigs and  place  them  immediately 
above  the  tinder,  then use the slightly larger butts  for  the 
next layer of campfire material.  

  Next,  look for slightly larger firewood that is suspended  off 
the  ground, such as limbs that are still attached to dead  logs.   
Other  limbs and small trees that are not lying directly  on  the 
ground also make good firewood.  

  Don't  bother with wood that is in contact with the  ground  or 
wood that has begun to rot.   They make poor burning material.  

  Preparing the Materials For a Fire- I seldom use an axe to  cut 
firewood.  It's easier and quicker to break the large pieces over 
a log or a rock.  Gloves come in handy to protect your hands from 
vibration.   The smaller twigs are easily broken up by hand.

  It  pays to break your firewood into relatively  small  pieces,  
not  more than two feet in length.   It is wasteful and  unneces
sary to make huge,  roaring campfires.   Small ones will  suffice 
nicely for both warming and cooking.  

  Rock  fire rings can leave long-lasting scars on the  land  and 
are  unnecessary.     If I'm not using  an  established  campfire 
site,   I place one or two flat rocks next to my fire bed to  set 
things on.    When I'm done,  I put the rocks back where I  found 
them  and eradicate the fire bed,  returning it to  its  original 

   The area around the fire bed should be scraped down to mineral 
soil  to reduce the danger of igniting nearby  materials.    More 
often than not,  in a forested environment,  this means you  will 
be  building  a fire on damp soil.   Damp soil  is  difficult  to 
build a fire on for two reasons: 1) The dampness tends to  reduce 
the temperature,  which inhibits the flames ability to grow;  and 
1) as the fire heats up,  the water in the soil begins to  steam,  
which will also cool the fire - or put it out altogether.  

  To  overcome the damp soil problem,  put a layer of  insulation 
between the ground and the fire.   Cardboard from a food package,  
a  paper bag,  or several layers of paper towels,  or some  other 
combustible  material that will last long enough to let the  fire 
mature  before burning up is all you need.   If you have no  man-
made  material to use for this purpose,  a tight layer of  small, 
dry limbs will do.  

Building  the Fire - This is the part where you Boy  Scouts  will 
differ  with me.   The Boy Scout method works fine.  This  is  an 

 Set  two  pieces of wood about four to six  inches  in  diameter 
about  six to eight inches apart.   Green ones last longer,   but 
dry  ones  work fine.   Put the layer of insulation next  to  the 
ground.   The tinder goes between the two pieces of  wood,   then 
the  layer of very fine twigs goes across the top,   followed  by 
another layer of slightly larger twigs.  Start the fire now,   by 
touching  off  the tinder.   Don't add any more  wood  until  the 
largest of the twigs are well ignited.   Then slowly add slightly 
larger pieces of broken limbs.   When this third layer of fuel is 
well  ignited,  the fire will continue to burn well even  if  the 
insulation next to the ground is destroyed.  

  It's  important to remember during these early stages to  layer 
your  combustibles carefully.   The pieces of firewood should  be 
far enough apart to allow oxygen to the flames,  but they must be 
close  enough together to maintain enough heat to keep  the  fire 

 After  building a few fires and studying them,  you will  get  a 
feel for the optimum spacing.   This is important, especially  in 
cold and/or wet weather.  

  You can start cooking on a campfire as soon as the third  layer 
of  wood  is  burning strongly.   This is a good  time  to  start 
boiling water.   Vigorous flames create a lot of heat,  and  it's 
easy to burn food over them.   I like to pile a pretty good stack 
of  medium-sized branches (about an inch to two inches in  diame
ter)  on  the fire and let them burn down to a good  bed  of  hot 
coals before I put the skillet over them.  

   Once the cooking is done,  and the campfire turns into a  cozy 
spot for socializing or reflecting on the aesthetics of the  out
doors,   larger,  slower burning pieces of wood work  fine.    By 
that time the hot bed of coals has sealed off the steam from  the 
soil  and created enough heat to keep even damp and  rotten  logs 
going.   Again,  frugal selection of proper firewood will  almost 
always provide all you need from a campfire.   I seldom use  wood 
larger than six inches in diameter and eighteen inches long.  

  There  is nothing quite like a campfire in the great  outdoors.   
It can save your life,  or it can just keep you company.   Either 
way,  it is a useful tool.  If you follow these suggestions,  you 
will  be able to start and maintain a campfire under  almost  any 
kind of weather condition;  you won't exhaust available  firewood 
supplies;  and you won't scar the land.