This will be the first of a two part series I’m calling “Cooking with fire” and I’ll start by talking about two different types of camping fires, fire building basics, and burning materials. In the second part of the series I’ll walk you through ways to best maintain a healthy fire to produce delicious and well-cooked food.
For as long as I can remember, I have been able to build a pretty decent wood-fire. Born and raised in Southern Oregon, I grew up in a household where we used a wood fire to heat our home in the winter and on occasion it was used to illuminate antique oil lamps when our electricity went out. My dad was also a volunteer fire-fighter and a career woodsman, so from a very young age I had always been exposed to fire, fire-safety and of course the natural wooded environment from which fires are often born. It was a common daily activity to wander around the forest chopping and gathering wood to bring back to the homestead for burning. My job ranged from crumpling the newspaper tinder or stoking (literally feeding and maintaining the fire with fuel, i.e., wood).
Before I teach you the black art of fire building, first I want to clarify that I am generally talking about your basic, average campfire, not fire pits or BBQs. The very first thing you must do is ensure you have a safe place to build your campfire and confirm that your area’s fire danger status is low. Choose an open space with no obstructing trees, homes or power-lines hovering nearby. It is also very important to ensure that you are using either a designated campfire pit provided by the park you may be in or if you are really roughing it in the backcountry, dig a hole and clear a spot so that it is free of dry debris for about a 6 foot radius around your pit.
Surround your fire with large rocks or ideally, a steel barrel and create a solid barrier around your fire to seal it off from anything that is flammable nearby.
When you are done with your fire, put it out safely by covering it with dry soil (free of any organic materials) and dousing it with lots of water. Make sure that thing is dead and dig around to make sure that the coals have also dissipated. It is all too common for wildfires to start from campers who didn’t put out their fires properly. Like good old Smokey Bear always says, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. Be sure your fire is DEAD OUT before you leave — drown it, turn it, stir it until it’s cool to the touch.”
To start a basic campfire, begin with quick burning tinder, stack some kindling in a way that allows for plenty of oxygen flow, and light it up with a flame or spark. Once it’s lit, it is your job to keep the fire alive to get a great cooking fire, and most importantly: hot coals.
There are three things that a fire needs to survive: A source of ignition, fuel, and oxygen.
A source of ignition: Tinder
Tinder is a material that is easy to ignite. It should quickly catch a spark to produce fire (carbon steel & flint for the hardcore, or a match for us normal folk), like cotton or some dry mosses.
In most places outdoors you will have the option of gathering your own tinder and maybe even wood, however if you are camping in a protected federal or state park, gathering may be prohibited so be prepared with a back-up. Some of the things we like to keep in our gear are: newspaper and dryer lint.
To source your own tinder, take advantage of daylight and look for some of the following natural things laying around you:
Cedar shavings: Collect the stringy shavings from the bark of a cedar tree for the best natural fire tinder. Rub it between your hands quickly to create a small fluff ball of shavings that will light quickly.
Birch bark shavings: Like cedar, just shave some bark off of a birch tree. The cedar shavings are like stringy wood, whereas birch shavings are basically nature’s paper. Thin, light, and easy to burn. Also very easy to peel off the tree.
Other types of tinder:
- Dry leaves, grass & saw dust can be found near or under downed trees and logs
- Cotton or old denim
- Dry pine needles
- Fat lighter, or black pitch: wood saturated in pitch or resin, usually found in pine tree stumps. Great for lighting a fire in damp conditions. Grab your trusty sharp knife and turn this into shavings
- Disassembled and bunched up string or non-synthetic rope (sometimes overlooked)
It is important for your tinder to be dry, so if there was a recent rain or moisture in the air, be sure to dry your findings for a day or so (if you don’t have the luxury of time use the backup in your gear).
Fuel: Kindling & Wood
Kindling is what helps produce and maintain a flame and in my opinion is key to starting a good fire, so keep a lot of it handy. The hardcore survivalists and outdoorsmen will put things like dry leaves and bark into the kindling category, but ultimately this is defined as small pieces of wood that are small in diameter and bone dry. Twigs and wood-chips also fall into this category, but please don’t break or cut branches off of living trees to get your kindling. There is plenty of dry and dead natural resources laying around on the forest floor and often the live branches are too moist to burn effectively.
Of course, wood logs are also going to be your primary means of feeding your fire. The best kind of wood is going to be dense hardwoods. If you have the luxury of choosing the type of wood you are going to burn, these types work the best: oak, hickory, madrone, manzanita, and mesquite. Pine and many other softwoods like willow, make a good kindling, but aren’t ideal for larger logs.
Oxygen: Maintain Air Flow
Promoting a healthy fire begins with the very first pieces of kindling you set in your fire pit. Stacking your wood against each other in a teepee or tent and leaving adequate space between them is the best way to ensure oxygen is going to flow through and build your flames.
Placing wood too close together with no room to breathe is a guaranteed way to struggle. A general guideline is to leave the same amount of air between pieces of kindling as the pieces themselves.
Heat vs Cooking Fires
There are essentially two types of fires that we use when camping: heat fires and cooking fires. For a long time I never realized there was a difference, but over time and with experience I began to understand the difference and why it is important. Here is the low-down for each type:
The heat fire’s primary purpose is for keeping you and your loved ones warm. It is generally a bigger fire with lots of roaring flames. A good heat fire is set up in the most familiar way to most, which is starting with a base of tinder — crumpled paper or cedar shavings — and stacking kindling against one another to form a teepee or tent. This formation is extremely efficient because it pulls a lot of necessary oxygen through the spaces in the wood and makes the flames grow larger.
An optimal cooking fire can take a lot more time with the goal of creating a solid foundation of hot coals that cover a large surface area. The coals are what you want to use to cook your food, not the flames. Coals have a much higher temperature and it is easier to control the distance between your food and coals than it is to control the distance between your food and the flames. Cooking with heat fires is difficult, contrary to popular belief, because the heat distribution is uneven and the flames are unpredictable.
When building your cooking fire, lay down your tinder and stack the kindling like a log cabin, laying them on the ground alternating pieces to form a square structure that allows for air circulation and creates a flatter heat source to cook over.
It can be more difficult for the fire to catch, so you can start the fire like a teepee to get it going. To get that nice foundation of coals, you’ll want to keeping adding fuel and burning that fire until there are plenty of hot coals to cook over and this could take a few hours depending on how much surface area you need and how much you are cooking. I recommend using smaller pieces of wood to more quickly burn down into efficient coals, and always stack your wood in a way that promotes air circulation.
Now go out and practice your new skills, and be safe in the process. Next time I’ll follow up with ways to best maintain a consistent cooking fire to produce delicious outdoors and well-cooked food.
A few items we like to keep in our gear for fire building:
- Storm-proof matches
- Small axe for chopping kindling
- A sharp knife to create shavings, if needed
- Newspaper or old bills to use as tinder
- Dryer lint for tinder (although synthetic materials don’t work well)
- A piece of styrofoam (not eco-friendly but good for survival situations)
- Carbon steel, flint and/or pocket-sized magnesium fire starter (for survival situation when there is no source of ignition available)