How to Quickly Build and Maintain a Campfire in the Wild
Gather twigs and sticks and divide them into three categories: (a) twigs less than a quarter inch in diameter (four of them together should be no thicker than your pinky), (b) sticks no more than an inch thick (about the thickness of your thumb), and (c) larger sticks up to three inches in diameter (about wrist-sized) and set these aside. This doesn't have to be perfect and after building a few fires, you'll get a feel for how these categories pertain to stages of the fire. The fuel should be as dry as possible. Look under logs and roots to fine dry wood. Clumps of pitch and birch bark make good fire starters. If you have a saw and ax, dry kindling can be split out of the center of standing dead wood. This will be dry even in the wettest conditions.
1. Clear an area for your fire. Make sure you have a flat area, preferably surrounded by stones or dug a few inches into the ground to contain the fire, but if you're desperate, just make sure there are no sticks, leaves, or roots in the way. If there is less than 2 feet of soft snow this can be cleared away with snow shoes or by kicking. In deep snow or hard frozen snow it will be necessary to create a platform. If you try to build the fire directly on the snow it will steam and will not burn. A few 4 inch diameter sticks layed together will sufice. Once the fire is well established it will keep burning into the snow until it reaches the ground. If the snow is very deep this can be a problem. Pushing the fire to the side will keep you from ending up with a fire burning at the bottom of a deep hole.
2. Gather up a dense handful of pinestraw, leaves, or any other similar plant remains (You want to grab as much as possible with one hand - have some fuel busting out of the gaps in your hand). The key here is to balance exposed surface area and density - pinestraw works the best because the pieces have such small diameters and bunch together very nicely (I'm sorry if you're building a fire in a location that doesn't have pine trees). If you're forced to use larger pieces of starter fuel such as paper or large leaves, try ripping them into thin strips (as thin as possible) before lighting. Make sure this fuel is as dry as possible. If you are having trouble gathering dry material, make sure you dry some suitable fuel at the fire and save it for later. If it's damp outside, any material on or near the ground will be wet as will the lower dead branches of trees. Look for dry material in sheltered locations (under rocks, logs, in holes, etc.). Birch bark or pitch will burn even if it is wet.
3. Lay down one piece of wood of about 2 inch diameter. Use this to lean your smallest kindling against so that you have an air space underneath. If you have birch bark or pitch, place this under your kindling. Place the kindling carefully together and have additional kindling ready to go. Now place your flame under your kindling or against your birch bark until it ignites. Do not bump your fire now. Carefully add your smallest wood one piece at a time as the fire grows.
4. If your flame has persisted this far, you're ready to make the fire progress. As you start placing larger twigs on the fire, use a little more rhyme and reason. For instance, you might wish to criss-cross the handfuls of twigs as you lay them down so that the fire can get air.
5. The key to making the fire grow quickly is keeping the diameter of the fuel small and blowing to increase air flow. A larger stick has a higher activation energy than a twig, but it also will release more heat when burned. This heat can be used to ignite fuel of a progressively larger diameter.
6. By the time you've begun adding sticks from the second category onto the fire, you can begin to relax and take your time - the hard part is over.
7. Place your largest sticks in an arrangement that gives them stability and exposure to the fire without suppressing the airflow to the heart of the fire.
8. As these sticks burn, you will start to build a coal base. This becomes the hottest and most critical part of your fire. Continue adding sticks as necessary to maintain the flame. If you don't need a long-lasting fire, you can stop here.
9. If you want your fire to be a continual source of warmth and light, you're going to need to take the next step up. Look for the heartiest looking logs you can find in your area. The best wood will be large in diameter and dense, but you will often find mostly partially decayed fallen trees - you may have to settle for these and they'll do okay.
10. I recommend using the "log cabin" (placing two logs parallel to each other with a space in between, then placing the next two logs parallel on top of those). Use the first two logs to gather the coals together between them. Placing these logs on the ground with the embers piled up between them will help concentrate the heat of your fire and the logs will also prevent heat from escaping through the edges of the fire. More than two layers in a log cabin is usually unnecessary, as much of the heat is lost into the atmosphere.
11. Add more large logs if you require more heat from the fire. At this stage of the fire, adding sticks less than three inches in diameter will produce no noticeable results whatsoever and will contribute to coal-choking ash.
12. If your fire is struggling, ask yourself: Is there enough air flow to the core of this fire? Is the fuel on the fire appropriate for this stage of development? Is the fuel dry enough to burn reliably?
One of the last place people look for long lasting fire wood is underground
· An open flame does not mean something is very hot. The flame-free coals of a later-stage fire will ignite a thumb-sized stick almost instantly whereas your lighter may not ever accomplish the feat. Keeping this in mind, you can manipulate the fire more effectively because you can run your hand through flames as long as you don't hold it for too long.
· If bugs are a problem, try putting moist or young leaves and sticks onto the fire to create more smoke. This is your best repellent and you will rarely have an insect problem near a campfire.
· If a previously-lit fire is sputtering, try getting your face as close to the source of the fire as possible without risking burns and blowing, observing the red glow. The increased oxygen flow to this part of the fire is temporarily increasing its heat quite a bit. If you place dry, category A fuel on top of this ember as you blow on it, you will once again achieve an open flame. Build from this flame using the same steps listed above.
· If your fire won't light, you're most likely using fuel that is either too damp or too large for that stage.
· Building your fire against a large rock will reflect alot of heat back toward you and will also act as a heat sink. Note: When some rocks heat up shards can pop off and fly out at you.
· While fires will repel bugs and the like, they may attract curious animals. Animals will rarely enter a clearing with an open fire in it, but they may observe it from cover and take notes. Keep your food away from your sleeping location, preferably in a bag hanging high above the ground - you'd be surprised how crafty raccoons and bears can be!
· Never leave an open fire unattended. Before you leave your fire permanently, remove all fuel and spread the coals out on the ground. If available, pour water on these so that they stop glowing. In the daytime, you won't be able to see the glow of these coals, so be especially wary.
· When traveling in the back coutry in cold weather always begin building your fire as soon as you stop. You may feel hot and sweaty but this will soon change to chills. It is a good idea to start gathering your fuel before you stop and then waiting til you come to a good spot before stopping. A protected location (out of the wind, overflow, or avalanch path) with a good place to build your fire. Stuff your mittens inside next to your body while working with your fingers (lest they be frozen hard when you try to put them back on).