There's a very good chance that you have been burned (figuratively or literally) by lousy campfires in the past. Perhaps because making fires is such an age-old and primal human endeavor, failing to make a good one can be a humbling experience. It is not a good fire if you have to use up several days' supply of newspaper to get it started. You might worry that your fire-making ineptitude, together with that protruding brow of yours, could prompt comparisons between you and Ron Perlman in the classic "Quest for Fire." Far worse, you might be cold. Avoid this unfortunate fate!
Here are some tips to help you make the perfect campfire.
- Plan ahead. Learning how to make a campfire means planning appropriately. This means bringing the supplies that will enable you to build your campfire with the greatest ease. Bring the essentials: some newspaper, matches, logs and kindling. If you buy your firewood in bundles at a local store, there will likely be a few pieces of kindling in the bundle already, but sometimes the smallest pieces of wood in the bundles are still basically logs. Check your bundle! You may find it necessary to chop up a larger log into kindling in order to make your campfire.
- Teepee, or not teepee? In a fireplace at home, you might be accustomed to making a fire using the technique known as "log cabin." A log cabin fire is basically cubical in shape. You start by laying down some newspaper and kindling (if you have a little grated rack inside your fireplace, the paper can go underneath while the kindling would go on top. On two parallel sides of this kindling and paper, you place two logs parallel to each other. Then, you add a second level of logs, spaced and parallel to each other but perpendicular to the base logs. When you look straight down at the structure, you see basically a square of logs framing the kindling and paper. You continue stacking logs in this fashion as if you were building a cabin for small, very unhappy lizards or something. You may be tempted to apply the same technique in an outdoor fire pit, but you shouldn't! Any boy scout will tell you (and they're right about this) that the better technique for a campfire is the "teepee"-style fire.
To make a campfire using the teepee technique, you will place your large logs in a teepee shape - vertical and leaning inward so that their top ends meet in the center. The end result is basically triangular and more vertically trained, whereas the log cabin was cubical.
- Begin in much the same fashion as with any other fire - laying down newspaper and then kindling. Put balls of newspaper in the very center of the pit. Enclosing that will be a small "teepee" of kindling. Plant two sticks of small kindling in the ground vertically, opposite each other with the paper in the center. Now lean the sticks in at the top so that their top points meet and lean against each other over the paper. Continue to add opposite sticks around the center paper until the paper is surrounded by leaning kindling.
- Around this, position the larger teepee of small logs.
- Light the newspaper first, which in turn will ignite the kindling, which should hopefully ignite the surrounding larger logs. If your newspaper fails to catch the kindling on fire, tear off a little more newspaper and stuff it into the center once more.
The teepee fire will ignite efficiently and easier than a log cabin, requiring no base platform of logs for its ventilation. Once the teepee structure collapses, add logs carefully in the center of the blaze.
- High-wind alternate: Lean-to method. If you have a high prevailing wind at your campsite and want to plan your campfire so that this predictable wind doesn't hamper your fire-starting, consider the lean-to fire instead.
- Lay down a squat pile of newspaper and kindling, and then place a large log as a windbreaker in front of the pile.
- Lean some kindling and small logs over the pile, so that they stretch from their propping point on the large log all the way to the ground beyond the pile.
- When you light your pile, the large log will protect the infant flame from wind.
It's not as desirable a scenario as the teepee, because the large log might not catch well, but will be easier to make in really bad wind coming at you mercilessly from one direction.
- A campfire must breathe. When building fire, remember that fire needs oxygen, so make sure you space your logs and kindling with gaps that allow oxygen to enter the campfire. If you just pile logs on top of one another, you risk smothering a fire. Even wads of paper can smother a fledgling fire.
- Don't make gaps too big... Though a campfire must breathe, it also must catch. Especially as you first start lighting your campfire, be sure that the logs and kindling, though spaced to provide air, are close enough to one another to spread the fire amongst themselves.
- Keep your wood as dry as possible at all times. Damp wood can dampen your spirits - difficult to burn and smokier, too.
- Desperate measures. If you anticipate using damp wood or trying to start the campfire in windy conditions, you might consider visiting your local outdoors store to buy a package of fire-starting aids. Some come in the form of fuel sticks or tinder pieces. You can even find flammable pastes that help in bad conditions. Campfire fuel sticks or tinder pieces serve as both match and kindling, to some extent; they burn longer than matches and are larger. But you'll still want to have some kindling to ensure that you make a healthy campfire, and you'll still need matches to light the fuel sticks. Pastes can be applied directly to surfaces you want to burn.
- Practice proper campfire safety. Being burned figuratively by a campfire is bad enough; don't let yourself be burned literally.
- Don't joke around with flammable liquids.
- Keep your fire well contained within its fire pit. Make sure there are no branches, needles or any other substances entering the region of your fire.
- Always keep an eye on your fire, never leaving it unsupervised. Put out your fire before bedtime.
- Be mindful of your garments as you tend to the fire. Polyester will melt onto your skin painfully, and loose garments can quickly catch fire.
- Fire-gloves are a valuable investment.
- Practice. If you aren't making a good campfire, it's possible that you are just out of practice. I'm not suggesting that you make fires all the time, but an occasional practice session in your fireplace is a good idea (saves on the heating bill, too). It takes more than technical prowess to make a beautiful, awe-inspiring campfire; you have to be one with the fire, anticipate every curl and lick of flame, every tendril of smoke. Which way will the flame break if you give it a log to engulf? Your ability to predict this kind of outcome will determine whether your fire sputters and stammers toward aimless, impotent failure, or achieves the kind of rough-hewn, transfixing heartiness you want.
Being the "go to" guy or gal for building campfires has its own glory. For all I know, you have a family or friends who rely upon your survival skills out there in the unspoiled wilderness. Don't let them down; their admiration will never look so good as it does in the gauzy flicker of the campfire light. And besides, those marshmallows aren't going to roast themselves.