There’s nothing quite like a campfire after a long day in the wild. It cooks our food and boils our water; it warms our frozen fingers and dries our soggy clothing. Most importantly, fire has a unique ability to raise our spirits from miserable to positively cheery.
It’s possible to build a fire in any weather. It just depends on how badly you want it.
That’s what I tell my groups when we’re out in the mountains learning fire-craft. This is partly because it places all the accountability on them (No complaints if we couldn’t get a fire started—it was YOUR fault), but mostly because it’s true. You can even get a fire going in the rain, it’s just seriously hard-work.
You might think that starting a fire is easy; cavemen were doing it thousands of
years ago, so how hard could it be? As it turns out—pretty hard.
At least, it’s hard if you haven’t got the first clue what you’re doing. Once you know the basics, starting a fire is actually fairly straightforward, and well worth the effort.
So to help you out, here are 5 rules to consider next time you’re hoping to roast some marshmallows:
TIP 1: COLLECT ENOUGH KINDLING
How much is enough? More than you’ve got, that’s for sure. When I see people struggling to get a fire going, it’s usually because they haven’t prepared enough kindling and they’ve burnt through everything they have before the fire can get going properly. You need at least 4 distinct piles:
- Twigs no thicker than a tooth-pick (if you happen to have tooth-picks with you, even better). This is the very first thing you add to your burning tinder.
- The next pile is made up of sticks no thicker than a standard pencil.
- Next are sticks about the width of your pinkie-finger (If your pinkie isn’t thicker than a pencil, use your index finger; maybe eat a sandwich too.)
- Finally, move up to your index-finger.
Each pile should be large enough that you can’t pick it up with one hand. Once you’ve burned through all that, you’ll be ready to start adding chunky sticks to generate some real heat.
RULE 2: PROCESS YOUR FUEL
This is particularly important if the wood you have to work with is wet. Grab a knife and remove the bark from your kindling to reveal the smooth, dry wood beneath. Trying to get it to burn without removing the wet bark is about as sensible as attempting to set fire to an ice-cube.
Once you’ve stripped the bark, don’t just throw the stick back on the damp ground. Keep it in a bag or somewhere it will stay dry. Keeping it in your pocket is a good way of drying it out even more.
RULE 3: BE PATIENT
Sometimes, no sooner do I get a flame going, than somebody get’s overly excited and throws a huge pile of kindling on it; the fire promptly goes out and I’m left having to supress the urge to murder someone.
Place your kindling on piece-by-piece. Resist the temptation to throw everything you have on top in the hopes of a roaring inferno—this is stupid, and it doesn’t work. Wait until you’re certain that the last piece is burning before adding the next.
RULE 4: PUCKER-UP
Fire needs oxygen to burn. Fortunately for us, there’s plenty of that to work with (If not, you probably don’t need to worry about starting a fire—you, my friend, have bigger problems). Somehow, despite living in an atmosphere surrounded by the stuff, some people still manage to screw this up.
You can start by using some sticks to build a platform for your fire. Lay the sticks on top of each other to create a grid. This will keep your tinder away from the damp ground, as well as allowing oxygen to circulate beneath the fire.
Next, you’ll need to spend around half-an-hour feeding oxygen to the fire by blowing on it. You need to get down on your hands and knees, and aim your breath at the embers. These are at the base of the fire. If you blow directly at the flames, it won’t do anything.
You’ll know you’re doing this right because the embers will glow more brightly, the flames will grow larger, and you’ll hear a satisfying whooshing sound. Smoke will get in your eyes and you might feel like you’re going to hyperventilate, but the toasty fire will be more than worth it in the end.
RULE 5: DON’T GIVE UP
If you’re working with dry materials on a warm day, it’s possible that you’ll get a fire on your first attempt. If the wood is wet or there’s a lot of moisture in the air, things might not go so smoothly. You’ll find that the tinder burns well, but the moment you start adding your kindling, the flame disappears. Worse still is getting the kindling burning for a while only for it to die out anyway.
Resist the urge to fly into a rage and throw stuff at your friends (none of whom have been any help what-so-ever!). You need to stick with it. All these failed attempts are still generating heat and helping to dry out your kindling. Sooner or later, the fire will catch.
As painful as it feels after putting so much effort into it—you need to put the fire out before going to sleep. Don’t risk your tent going up in flames!