Relaxing by a campfire is, perhaps, the most enjoyable part of any trip. It’s the place where family and friends can congregate and solve the world’s problems, and where the kids can roast a few marshmallows on a stick. So it makes sense to learn the art of building a good campfire.
PREPARATION IS THE KEY
Safe, successful fires don’t happen by accident. Fire is worthy of your respect and, therefore, a little forethought. The more prepared you are, the easier it will be. To start, you’ll need to gather some material that’s easy to ignite, which is called tinder. This can be dried leaves, wood shavings or cotton wool.
The idea of tinder is to burn long enough to ignite your kindling, which should be made up of small dry twigs or splinters of wood. The key is to start off with the small stuff and gradually increase the stick size to fuel logs, which don’t have to be much thicker than your forearm to keep it going well.
NOT ALL WOOD IS EQUAL
Before you light your fire, have a good selection of wood on standby. Some types of timber burn better than others but, let’s face it, we aren’t always spoilt for choice when it comes to finding firewood around camp; it’s usually a grab-what-you-can deal. In saying that, knowing what to look for really helps. While it sounds simple, the most important rule to remember is no matter what type of tree it comes from, it should be dead and dry, also known as ‘seasoned’. The drier it is, the better it’ll burn. If you’re not sure if it’ll burn, a general rule of thumb is if the wood makes a snapping sound when it breaks, it’ll burn.
The next observation to make is the difference between hard wood and soft wood. This is determined by the species of tree, but for the purposes of a campfire, we refer to the density of wood, more specifically how much weight it has. In general, hard wood has more wood matter in it than soft wood and, therefore, it’ll burn hotter for longer.
Soft wood, on the other hand, tends to burn faster and cooler, but it’s usually easier to light up, making it great kindling. It’s also perfect to boil the billy over for a quick roadside stop. Pine, spruce, and willow are commonly found examples of soft woods, but if you don’t know your trees well, you can tell the difference by simply feeling how heavy it is.
For cooking, avoid soft woods and highly resinous woods like pine or juniper. Not only do they burn cooler and inconsistently, they give off a potent resin smell, which doesn’t work well with food, and some varieties can even be toxic. Go for something like oak or a gum variety, which burns well and imparts a nice smoky flavour that’s not too strong!
LOG CABIN CAMPFIRE
The whole idea of the ‘log cabin’ campfire design is to elevate the kindling above the initial flames of the tinder. This allows plenty of ventilation and for the kindling to catch alight easily. To build one, simply place some kindling on the ground in the centre of your future fire, and place a medium log or stick either side of it. Then add a second layer using two more sticks resting the other way and keep building it up. You might need to dig a slight trough under one side so you can access the tinder to light it.
One of the most common ways to build a roaring campfire is the tee-pee design, and for good reason; it’s simple and reliable. To start, place your sticks in the shape of a tee-pee, leaving a gap in the front to light your tinder with.
The trick here is to use medium-size sticks, but don’t layer it on too thick as the fire will still need to draw oxygen in from the gaps. As the fire takes off you can add a few larger logs to the mix.
Possibly the easiest and, quite often, the most effective of the lot is the lean-to campfire technique. To kick this one off, simply lay a dead log on the ground, place your tinder right next to it nice, then lean your kindling directly over the tinder pile so it rests on the larger log.
You’ll need to ensure the log isn’t too thick; otherwise, the kindling will be too high above the pile of tinder to catch alight.
If you couldn’t be bothered throwing more and more logs onto the fire as the night progresses, this one’s for you. It breaks the rule of using thin-to-thick materials that start from the bottom and burn their way up. Instead, it starts with the tinder and kindling on top, and uses gravity to burn its way down to the larger logs at the bottom.
In fact, this campfire design is actually a very efficient method, because as the embers drop it only really lights up one layer at a time. The result: a longer lasting fire with half the maintenance!
Wood embers (or coals) burn hotter than the fire flame itself, and they maintain a much more consistent heat as well. So you’re much better off letting a bunch of logs burn down until there are embers before adding any food, rather than cooking over a fire that’s all flame and no coals.
This is particularly true for camp oven cooking.
If you’re in a hurry to get some good coals going, use smaller pieces of wood, which will burn to coals quicker, and add more as needed to maintain the heat.
Always choose the rocks for your campfire carefully, as some types are known to explode when they get too hot. There are two main reasons why this occurs. First, if the rock contains moisture, the moisture turns to steam when heated up, pressurising the rock. Second, layered rocks, like sandstone or limestone, are more likely to split or explode because of the weaker bonds between their layers.
So, as a general rule, stick with granite, marble or slate, and steer clear of super smooth rocks, which is a tell-tale sign that they’re from a river and contain high amounts of moisture. In fact, any river rocks should be out of the question for that reason.
CONTAINING YOUR CAMPFIRE
1. Clear a space around your fire by removing any branches, leaves or twigs that could catch alight, with at least a 2-3m clear radius.
2. Dig a 30cm pit or trench to house the fire and prevent embers from flying out.
3. Create a border around the fire using large solid rocks.
4. Never use dirt to extinguish a fire. Always use water.
What more how to? Here is How To Theft-Proof Your Caravan