Roasting wieners. Making s’mores. Cooking in the great outdoors. Snuggling next to that special someone while you enjoy each other’s company and watch the flames die to embers. All of these are things that many people feel they just simply must do when they camp out. And all of them need one thing to make it happen- fire. Let’s look at how you can safely use fire in your camp and keep your best friend from becoming your worst enemy.
The first thing you must do is a bit of research. Check the laws, rules, and regulations of your intended campsite. Find out if fires are even allowed- in some locales they are not, or there might be a seasonal burn ban in effect. If fires are allowed, check to see if you need a permit. Also discover whether you must use a provided fire ring. If so, the next step is already taken care of!
Let’s assume fires are allowed, and you can make one where you want. Now you need to pick a good spot for your fire.
Look for a flat, level spot at least ten feet away from any tents, bushes, boulders, trees, woodpiles, or other features. You want a level spot because fire burns “up”. You run the risk of accidentally igniting anything uphill from your fire if you build it on too great of a slope. Avoid tents, bushes, trees, and woodpiles because a stray spark can start a wildfire. Only You can prevent them, right? Stay away from the bases of boulders and rock faces so you don’t scorch the rocks and make an unnecessary impact on the environment.
So, you’ve found a spot. Great! Do everyone a favor and look up. Make sure there are no tree limbs, especially of the dead and dry variety, over your proposed fireplace. Sometimes sparks fly up from a fire, and it’s a genuine Bad Thing to have them fly right into a dead pine tree…
Next, you need to clear an area at least ten feet in diameter. Sweep away any leaves, grass, twigs, bushes, or any other flammable material. In fact, it’s best to take it right down to the bare dirt. A fire can’t spread easily if there is nothing for a stray spark to ignite, right?
Now, go to the center of your cleared area and mark off a circle a bit bigger than you want your fire. Then grab your shovel and start digging. If you didn’t bring a shovel, use a stick to loosen the earth and your hands to scoop it out. Dig your pit six to twelve inches deep. Pile the dirt in a ring around the pit.
If you start digging through a root system, you must stop digging and find another spot. Believe it or not, roots can burn underground and set trees on fire from below! This would be another Bad Thing.
Once your pit is dug you can line it with stones if you have enough and want to. Just DO NOT use rocks from the stream, or rocks that are wet. The fire will heat the rocks and can turn the moisture into steam. This steam expands and can cause the rock to explode. (Bad Thing #3.) If you want, you can make a ring of (dry) stones around your fire pit on top of the dirt. This provides another barrier to sparks and helps stop logs from rolling out of the pit. (This is a Good Thing!)
Okay, so now you have a picture-perfect fire pit. Let’s build a fire to go in it!
Go scour the nearby woods for some tinder. Tinder is the smallest size of material you need to start a fire. Pencil lead sized twigs. Tufts of grass. The fibrous inner bark of trees. Leaves. Wood shavings. Any small bone-dry material will work. Gather at least a fist-sized bundle of tinder and place it in a loose pile on the center of your pit. If the ground is damp lay some dry wood on the floor of the pit to act as a platform.
Next, pile some pencil-sized sticks on top of your tinder bundle. Make sure to leave enough space so you can get a match or lighter to your tinder. This is your kindling.
Last, pile your fuel on your tinder and kindling. Start with finger and thumb-sized sticks, and make sure to leave plenty of space in your fire lay. The fire needs to have airflow to burn, so don’t put so much stuff on that you smother it.
Now put your match or lighter on your tinder and watch the fire take off! You can feed it bigger pieces of wood as the fire gets stronger.
Now that your fire is lit, NEVER leave it unattended. According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, 90% of wildfires are caused by humans. Don’t be the cause of the next one.
Keep a container of water near the fire, and your trusty shovel, too. Don’t make your fire any bigger than it needs to be. A smaller fire is more controllable than a big one. Also, you should stack your firewood upwind from your fire. This helps keep sparks from lighting your stash.
Speaking of sparks, avoid poking the fire and moving burning logs around. This can cause a shower of sparks to fly up and land who knows where.
As common-sense as it sounds, try to stay out of the smoke. If you’re leaning over the fire and inhale smoke, you can pass out and fall in the fire. (Bad Thing #4.)
When you are ready to leave your camp, let the fire burn completely out. Drown the coals with water and stir them around. Use the back of your hand to feel the pit, and only leave when the coals are DEAD COLD. Then you can fill the pit in with the dirt, but don’t do this if coals are still hot.
A campfire is one of the great pleasures of being in the outdoors. It can keep you warm, purify your water and cook your food. It can give you light, and it can help create the perfect ambiance. Enjoy it- but do so responsibly.