How to Make a Campfire

For most people an essential part of the camping experience is fire. Even if the temperature doesn’t warrant a fire for warmth, part of the outdoors experience revolves around a kind of primal instinct involving survival.

In Australia we are in no real danger from wild animals although a fire may be useful in keeping scavenging dingoes or possums out of your supplies. A fire will probably be far more useful for keeping the flies and mosquitoes at bay and making you feel good.

We’re not going to go into the obvious, common sense, issues regarding lighting fires in stone-dry hay paddocks or throwing 20 litres of avgas on a raging bonfire. If you are that stupid then we suggest you stay at home. Instead maybe we can offer a couple of suggestions you haven’t considered.

Burning Down The House

Campfire location within the camp site has been discussed at length here so we won’t say more except ensure you have cleared any flammable debris from the immediate area and you are not about to send that beautiful 200 year old gum tree up in flames.

fire and food
Firing it Up

Three things are required to create fire. Fuel is the first and can be anything that burns from paper to wood. Oxygen is second and is supplied via the air. The third element of fire is Heat which acts as a source of ignition. Remove any one of these elements and fire can’t exist.

The fuel for a campfire will usually be sourced from the surrounding area and we are looking for three types. Tinder is small, dry twigs and leaves that will ignite readily once a flame has been applied to them. Kindling is larger sticks about an inch in diameter that will catch alight from the burning tinder. The real fuel for the fire, wood, comes from larger logs and roots and the like.

Very simply we are building the fire in stages – increasing the size of the fuel until the fire is self sustaining, generating enough heat and coals to burn as long as the fuel source is available.

The fire needs most attention in the early tinder and kindling stages. A small handful of tinder needs just enough air to circulate through it that it can burn. Too tight and it won’t ignite, too loose and the flame won’t spread from piece to piece. Kindling can be added a stick at a time, gradually increasing as the fire grows.

Tinder and kindling generally come from the area the fire will be built and can be put aside while clearing loose flammable material from the site. Look for lightweight dry pieces to get your fire going. Damp tinder can be painful and slow to ignite.

Wood, however can be a little damp if absolutely necessary. Bear in mind damp wood is old fuel that has been dry previously but holds some moisture from the ground or rain. Wet wood is green wood, growing not long ago and difficult, smoky and unpleasant to burn.

Dry heavy dense wood is the preferred fuel. Dense tight grained wood burns slower than lightweight fuel and requires far less wood to maintain a fire.

On the Nose

Smell your fuel. Pungent aromatic woods can be unpleasant and act as an irritant when burnt. Mangroves are a perfect example. A night breathing mangrove smoke can leave many people feeling mildly asthmatic in the morning.

Construction is dependant on local conditions. A breathless environment means a fire can be started on a flat section of ground. Remember; round logs roll – burning, rolling logs burn tents down.

A light breeze may require the placement of a semi circle of rocks around the fire to shield the flame.

A medium breeze may require a shallow pit be dug with a semi circle of rocks.

A strong wind may require a deep pit and a wall of rocks right around the pit high enough at least to block any wind driven embers from escaping.

Ring of Fire

The placing of a semi circle of rocks around your fire is helpful in a few ways. It can be used as a sort of warming bench for food and help stop embers from being blown away. Damp wood can be propped against the rocks and allowed to dry prior to burning. The rocks provide a natural barrier for toes and feet when walking around. The most effective way to use a barrier of rocks is have the wind blowing through the fire and then into the rocks. The rocks act as a buffer for the fire, slowing down airflow and reducing burning. Wood lasts longer and heat is localized around the fire rather than blowing away downwind. Firewood can be fed into the open side with the wind, allowing it to burn at it’s own pace and not have the fire force the flames back up the log.

A useful method of maintaining a fire once it is established is to feed two similar size logs into the embers side by side. A reasonable size fire can be maintained in the gap between the logs which will self fuel the fire. All you have to do is keep feeding them into the flames as they burn. A single log tends to smoulder rather than generate real heat and flame.

It is always a pleasure to arrive at a camping site to find someone’s leftover wood pile especially in really remote places. If you find you don’t need to collect wood on arrival try and collect some at your leisure and return the favour for the next visitor.

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