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How to make a campfire

February 28, 2011
by Laura Canning | destinations

Cookin' up a properly arranged storm'What's the best way to make a campfire?' I rashly asked my Facebook friends and acquaintances this week. After a range of responses from 'Light it in a wheelie bin' to 'Chuck some wood on a disposable barbeque', I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Armed with search engine printouts, fire materials, a dose of common sense (ha) and a couple of friends so that I didn’t look like a mad no-mates loon setting fires alone in her own garden, I did just that. 

We did get some funny looks from people passing by, but happily no police interest. I really should invest in an NUJ card for moments like this...

Naturally, making a good campfire is a bit more complicated than it first seems, and learning about it explains why I could never light the open fire and only source of heating in my freezing student house years ago. If only I'd been camping by then...

Anyway, after an hour in the garden and a singed thumb, this is what I can now impart:

Location is everything

This might seem a bit cheeky of me to stress given that I was experimenting in my own front garden, but the experts are agreed that if you have to pick somewhere in the wilderness, i.e., you're not on a campsite with a designated fire area, you need to make sure you're in an area with a natural windbreak and away from trees and bushes.

And don’t build your fire under a snow-laden tree, as did the protagonist of Jack London's short story To Build a Fire, which I read goggle-eyed when researching my Camping in Literature blog.

So is fuel

You need three kinds of fuel: tinder, such as paper, dry leaves, bark, twigs or wood shavings; kindling, such as small sticks; and firewood, bigger pieces that will keep the fire going once it's lit.

A campsite that allows fires will likely be able to sell you firewood or let you know where you can find some dead wood to use, and of course as you're a person you know not to cut wood from living trees.

As is method...

Nicely doneDecide which method you're going to use to construct the fire.

There are a mind-boggling number of ways to do this, such as the Finnish rakovalkea, or slit bonfire, constructed by placing one long piece of wood parallel on top of another and securing both pieces in place using four posts driven into the ground.

My brain fizzled a little bit reading that, so I'm going to firmly assert here there are three main ways – tepee, criss-cross and log cabin. All three are simple and similar, working around the principle of allowing plenty of air to circulate around the kindling so the fire catches.

I used the criss-cross method in the great garden experiment as it involved merely laying the kindling sticks on top of the kindling in a nice pattern, unlike the tepee method which was simple enough too but needed a bit of dexterity to ensure the sticks stayed vertical in a tepee style – not easy in the wind and with the possibility of being a bit dangerous if any bigger sticks fall over when lit.

The last method was the log cabin one, arranging the sticks on top of each other at right angles as if building a mini house, and was accompanied by the occasional curse before getting right.

Be a twisted firestarter

Once you have the tinder set up (calling out 'Tin-der!' with each piece) and the kindling on top, it's not hard to figure out it's time to be a firestarter.

Light the tinder from the bottom and and let it and the kindling catch, then start placing the firewood on, again in a criss-cross, tepee or cabin style. If the firewood isn't catching, add more kindling and build the fire base up again. Use as much tinder and kindling as you need to to get the fire going.

That's it!

The fire just needs to be kept topped up for as long as you want it, and put out completely (using plenty of water, and soil or sand if necessary) when you’re going to bed. Be careful of airborne embers which could set fire to any nearby vegetation, or sparks from the fire hitting people who are sitting too close.

Sadly we couldn’t keep our little experiment fires going for too long, as the neighbours were already giving us funny looks, but I'm sure mine would have gone on the longest.

Next time we’ll try them on a proper campsite, have them going for hours, and have dinner and chocolate marshmallow sandwiches and everything. If you have any more tips, please share them below!