It seems there is one firemaster in every group. One person has all of the tools to get a fire going, and that person maintains the fire all night, efficiently putting it out at the end. No one challenges the firemaster. What if you attempt and fail? It can be pretty daunting. The trick is to do your research first, and then get the fire going before the firemaster gets there.
You have to get ready before you ever get to the campground.
You’ll need firewood, of course. Everyone in the group who will be enjoying the fires each night should contribute as much as anyone else. There are exceptions if someone is visiting from town or staying in a hotel — they’re exempt.
There are strict rules in the southwest concerning the firewood you burn. DontMoveFirewood.org is a great resource if you have questions. The key rule is to burn firewood no more than 10 miles from where it once lived. That includes the wood you chopped at home, and the wood from the gas station in a faraway town on the highway — you can’t burn those at campgrounds, especially not in national forests or state land. Pick up your firewood from the closest gas station or grocery store, or get it from the camp host. Note that the wood at the campground that is for sale is usually more expensive, though it is convenient.
How much wood you’ll need will depend on a few things:
- Type of wood: if you bought a shrink-wrapped bundle of pretreated wood, it will burn faster than wood chopped nearby. The more it is broken down or split, the faster it will burn (and the easier it will be to get it to start burning).
- Weather: you don’t usually want or need a big fire on a warm night, because you can’t get near it. If it’s chilly or snowing you’ll want a hot fire to crowd around, and that will burn wood faster.
- Campfire purpose: if you need small collections of hot embers to cook with, you won’t go through as much wood as you do if you want a roaring fire to sit around.
- Crowd intentions: some people want a bonfire, and some want a small fire. Bonfires can go through wood very quickly.
A good rule of thumb is to have two shrink-wrapped bundles of wood per night if you start a fire soon after the sun goes down and you want to walk away from it when quiet hours start (usually 10PM).
You will need different sizes of logs at different times:
- Thin pieces of wood broken or cut from split wood are good firestarters, or kindling. You’ll need enough two wrap two hands around each evening.
- Medium-sized pieces of wood to keep the new fire going before there are embers to depend on.
- Large pieces of wood that will burn slowly on the embers, hot chunks of the medium-sized wood after it burns down.
Getting the fire started is the only challenging part, and it is usually the cause of the most stress. Luckily, you can make this a pretty easy job with some preparation. If you are prepared well ahead of time, find fire starters on Amazon or at discount stores. The cedar pucks are very effective. Sticks of fire starting material also work well, and so do the packets that melt over the top of your firewood. Read the directions ahead of time. Don’t use lighter fluid — it’s dangerous to transport and use, and it makes everything taste and smell like lighter fluid.
If you’ve forgotten fire starters, it will probably be more difficult to get the fire going but not impossible. Dry pine cones and small sticks catch quickly, and dried grasses in a bunch can start easily to get those items going.
The stick lighters designed for barbecue grills are the easiest to use. One of them will inevitably stop working or run out of fluid, so it’s wise to pack a few of them.
You’ll need safe place for your fire, and hopefully there is a fire ring or pit where you are camping. If not, look for a ring of big rocks marking a pit with no brush in it. Do not start a fire outside of these areas.
Bring a bundle or stack of firewood close to the fire ring and stack it. Find three of the smallest pieces of wood, about the same diameter as your wrist. These will be the start of your fire. Have your fire starter and lighters handy.
Your goal is to stand the three pieces of wood on end in a triangle, and then lean them toward each other to touch at the top. It makes the shape of a teepee, or tipi. Your fire starter goes in the middle, along with any other small sticks or pine cones laying around.
If the fire ring is wide, you can make a low and wide teepee so the top of it hovers just above the fire starter. Some fire rings are smaller in diameter, so this isn’t possible. To get around this, place a medium-sized, square piece of wood (as square as possible) on its side in the middle of the fire ring. Lay the fire starter on top of that log, and then build your teepee around and over it. That should get your fire starter near the point where the three small pieces meet.
Light your fire starter and other small items, and then relax for a bit.
Your urge may be to poke at your new fire, but fight that urge and let it get going on its own. Once all of the small logs are fully burning, you can knock it down and add a medium-sized piece of wood. This might take a while, and you may have to fight your fellow campers off and away from the new fire during this time.
Maintaining a Fire
Once you have a few medium-sized pieces of wood going, the fire should maintain itself without too much effort on your part. You’ll start to see wood break down into small cubes and sticks that burn without flames. These are the embers you have been working toward, and they are perfect for cooking. Try using a dutch oven for some amazing food at the fire that is relatively easy to make.
Keep an eye on how much wood you’re using and how much is left. You can time it a little to make sure you will still have a log or two when quiet hours start. Most camps will break up at quiet hours when everyone will head off to sleep, though a low fire and quiet conversation with a friend after quiet hours are both very satisfying and relaxing.
Larger pieces of wood will burn longer and slower than the smaller pieces, but you can’t get them started until you have some embers. Add wood one piece at a time, crisscrossing logs as you go. The goal is to go “full pit” by having a burning log in every part of the fire pit, unless you are going for a bonfire. In that case, you should always build teepees in the middle of the fire pit.
Ending a Fire
Starting a fire is usually the most difficult task, but ending it can also be challenging. The fire must be completely out before you leave it. You can stir the embers around to break them up, and stir them in with the dirt underneath the fire. More dirt tossed over the embers will smother it and put it out. Pouring water on it will also take care of it. Be careful not to stir it enough to allow embers to fly outside of the fire pit. Once you can no longer see any embers, it’s safe to go to bed.
Once your fellow campers see how well you start, maintain, and end a fire you’ll be the new firemaster!