Fire and the ability to make fire is what first separated men from beasts. It created community, allowed us to make tools, cook meat, to survive the cold hard winters. Fire changed man from simply an ill formed beast into the apex predator that we now are.
Who needs TV when you have a good campfire? People can spend hours staring into the flickering ever changing heart of a fire. Who needs a stove? We have roaring campfire and a rock. Breakfast? We have some coals that are plenty hot to cook up a mess of eggs.
Knowing how to build a hot, sustainable, safe campfire is essential. Now, no one seems to know how to make a decent fire. It burns too hot. It burns out. They can't get it started at all. How did we lose the ability to make fire? I blame the microwave.
If you're reading this you've noticed a gap in your education. That's the first step to correcting it. Below I will describe step by easy step how to build a fire Jeremiah Johnson would be proud of.
What makes a fire? There is a thing known as the tetrahedron of fire, or the four things needed to make a fire.
- Fuel: This is what you are going to burn. It is most commonly wood, but can also be dried dung, coal, gasoline. Anything flammable.
- Heat: You cannot start a fire without heat. The heat is normally supplied by a match or a lighter. You can even get enough generate enough heat from the friction of rubbing two sticks together, but I wouldn't suggest it. Other less common means of heat are firesteel and the use of a piece of steel wool and batteries.
- Oxygen: Without oxygen there is no flame. If your fire does not get enough oxygen it will quickly die out.
- Sustained chemical reaction: This means you must have enough of the three previous ingredients to keep the reaction going.
A perfect example of this is the standard cigarette lighter. You have the fuel (lighter fluid), the heat (the spark from the flint and the striker), Oxygen (the air around the flame), and you sustain the chemical reaction by depressing button that allows the gas to escape.
So how do you translate these principles into a good old campfire? Let's go through the process step by step.
- Safety first! Clear a space for your fire. Fire has a tendency to get out of control. You want a space that is sheltered from the wind. Wind can make a fire unpredictable and difficult to start. Make sure to clear a space at least four feet around the area where your fire is to be placed. It is also a common practice to dig a fire pit and ring the spit with stones. This will further prevent the fire from getting out of control.
- Collect your materials. You will need a lot of wood. More than you can imagine. Think of what you might need and triple it. You will need to collect tender (dry and easy to burn material such as pine needles, moss, birch bark.), kindling (small pieces of wood with a high ratio of surface area to volume), fuel wood (small, medium and large logs that will burn for quite some time). It is a good idea to place your fuel close to the fire where the residual heat can further dry the wood.
- Begin by loosely piling the tender in the center of your firepit and surround it loosely with tender. Apply heat (fire) to the tender and slowly and steadily begin adding more tender.
- Once your tender pile is good and hot, you can begin adding the smaller pieces of fuel wood. Steadily feed the fire until it can maintain a flame on its own.
Now that you have a flame going, it is time to worry about sustaining the chemical reaction. You do this by placing your logs in such a manner as to allow for oxygen and heat to fuel the reaction. There are several accepted methods for accomplishing this.
The Log Cabin Method
Lay a layer of wood and sticks cross wise across the fire and then add another layer perpendicular on top of the first. Make sure to leave a quarter of an inch to one inch between sticks. Repeat. As the fire grows, add larger and larger logs. This method creates the chimney effect, which pulls hot air through the center of the fire and aids in combustion.
The Teepee Method
Just like it sounds. You build a teepee like structure out of sticks and logs (making sure to leave space between or air to flow) around the tinder pile. As the wood burns, it falls into the fire. This method also utilizes the chimney effect.
The X Ditch
Rather than dig a firepit, this method requires that you dig two trenches in an x shape. Create your fire where the two trenches intersect. The fire will pull air through the trenches, once again creating a chimney effect.
Once your fire is going, it becomes less about proper building and more about maintaining. Steadily add fuel to your fire and make adjustments so that all four requirements are met. I guarantee you will stay warm all night.