The orange glow of a happy little campfire warms the heart and mind as well as the body. Food can be cooked, water boiled, clothes dried, cold nights are made comfortable and fears are soothed. Being able to make a fire is an essential outdoor skill and luckily it’s also an easy one, provided you approach the task with the right frame of mind. We’re going to show you how and when we light campfires on our travels and perhaps more importantly show you how to put one out and leave no trace.
First things first, it’s vital to consider the natural environment and whether there is a suitable site available for a campfire. Fires should not be lit in areas where they could spread easily or cause permanent damage or scarring to the landscape. Potential hotspots for danger include coniferous forests with a large amounts of dead, flammable material on the ground and areas with peat rich soil and heathland. Fires should not be lit on grass or in an obvious beauty spot; you don’t want to ruin the aesthetic for other outdoors users. If you can’t be certain that your fire poses no risk or that you’ll be able to leave no visible evidence then don’t light one! Use your hiking stove instead. It’s also important to be aware of any legal restrictions on lighting fires; in England and Wales for example it is illegal without permission from the landowner and similar laws apply in some places in Europe and the US, particularly in national parks and nature reserves.
The key to successful firelighting is preparation and this starts at home. Before embarking on any journey make sure you have at least one means of lighting a fire and some dry tinder to get a fire started. Our favourite tool is the Firesteel or flint and steel. This produces hot sparks when scraped with a knife (use the back!) that will light natural or manmade tinders. It will light gas stoves or spirit burners too. For tinder we use nature’s ultimate fire lighter: birch bark. You can collect bark from dead birch trees if you happen to find some near or on route to your campfire site but it’s a good idea to have some with you before you set out just in case. We’ll be posting some ideas for other natural tinders in a future post so check back for more.
An ideal campfire site is in deciduous woodland where the top layer of debris can be scraped back to the bare earth. On top of the bare earth place a platform of dry sticks around thumb thickness; this will keep your dry tinder off the cold, potentially damp ground.
Collect and prepare fuel for the fire. The fire I’m making here uses dry, dead sticks which require no splitting or sawing. Fire needs three things in roughly equal quantities: heat, fuel and oxygen and successfully managing a fire is about keeping these elements in balance. Large fuel (wood) will require a lot of heat and oxygen to burn, therefore start small and build up. Start by collecting very thin twigs, kindling, as dry as possible. They should be matchstick thick and you need a good handful. Avoid collecting wood off the ground as it may be damp; look for dead twigs and sticks suspended in the canopy of other trees. Next collect sticks about pencil or little finger thickness. Again these need to be dry and dead and ideally off the ground. Finally collect sticks around thumb thickness. Depending on the intended use for your fire this may be as large as your fuel needs to be; it will certainly suffice for boiling water and cooking. Keep your collected sticks in separate bundles graded by size and have them all to hand before lighting the fire.
Put your tinder on the platform of sticks and light it. I’m using birch bark so I scrape the surface of the bark and then ignite the shavings with my Firesteel and Opinel. I then add more birch bark to get a good sized ball of ignited tinder. On top of this place the smallest twigs in two bundles in a loose cross; the twigs should not be bundled so tightly that they exclude oxygen supply to the tinder or your fire will go out. Allow the kindling to ignite and avoid fiddling with the fire; use this time to put your knife and Firesteel away. Once the flames reach through the top of the kindling bundles add the little finger sized sticks in a similar criss cross fashion, taking care not to smother the fire. Repeat the process with the thumb sized sticks and you should have a well established fire. You may find your fire needs more oxygen to get going; this can be increased by blowing on the embers. As you add more fuel remember to keep the elements in balance.
More importantly perhaps than knowing how to light a fire is knowing how to put one out and leave a tidy site. This is made easier by keeping your fire small; large fires consume more fuel anyway and are no good for cooking. If you’re cold, sit closer! Before you go to bed or move on, with the embers of the fire still hot, feed all the unburnt ends of sticks into the middle of the fire. These will burn off leaving nothing but ash, which is easy to remove. When the ash is cool pour water all over it. Poke holes into the ground with a stick and pour water in these to ensure nothing is smouldering underground. Check the ash is cold, pick it up and scatter it around far and wide; this will minimise the visual impact on one area. Touch the ground with your hand to ensure it’s cool and then scrape back the leaf litter and earth to cover any evidence of charred ground. If you have done it correctly it should look just like it did when you arrived.
If you have any questions, please leave a comment below and we'll be sure answer. Here's to happy and responsible fire lighting in the great outdoors!