How to Start an Eco Friendly Campfire?
Whether you are camping in a public park or in the wilderness, a campfire can be a pleasant blessing, a comfort, and troublesome all at the same time. In my circle of RVers, there has grown an unspoken campfire etiquette: keep it simple and keep it small.
There are two camps when it comes to campfires. One side doesn’t see the need to have a campfire at all, especially in summer when the evenings are warm. They are a hazard in summer months and the gathering of firewood can be a problem. The other camp sticks a tongue out at these fuddy-duddy party poopers and will not hesitate to light a campfire any time.
Those who do choose the fire route often do things that don’t groove with good fire etiquette. There are a few simple, common sense rules to choosing a fire site, starting a fire, maintaining and caring for the fire, and what happens after you are gone.
How to Light a Campfire
As I’m sure you already know, it takes practice. Being a survival skill that you may not need to use very often, many people feel that it is enough to know only the theory. The fact of the matter is this is one of the most important skills to keep on top of. The ability to produce fire at will in a survival situation cannot be overstressed.
While on a camping trip, it can be helpful to know different ways to start a campfire or to light the camp stove. Knowing how to use more standard methods, such as matches and lighters, is good, but what if these items are accidentally left at home or lost? Below are some ideas for making a fire that includes regular techniques, as well as some more creative options.
Using Matches to Start a Campfire
Matches are a common way to light a fire. They are cheap and lightweight. Strike-anywhere matches can be used on many surfaces to ignite, and combined with some dry tinder, can quickly start a fire. Carry matches in a small, plastic, waterproof container that is always left in the pack.
Using Lighters to Start a Campfire
Cigarette lighters are another cheap and lightweight option. They do not require a separate striking surface to ignite, and can be quickly relit if the flame goes out or fails to light the tinder. Lighters can be purchased at convenience stores. REI sells the Colibri Extreme II Wind Resistant Lighter. This lighter is designed for use at altitudes up to 13,000 feet, is wind resistant, and burns butane fuel that can be refilled.
Starting a Fire With a Magnesium Strip or Scraper
Magnesium strips or can be used again and again to start a fire and are lightweight. Using a knife, one can scrape the magnesium shavings into some tinder, then ignite the shavings by scraping the knife against the sparker. A similar method is a scraper that utilizes technology similar to flint and steel to create a spark.
There are several primitive fire-making techniques that can create fire. It takes skill and practice to master these methods, but once learned these can be helpful.
- Bow drill set: This method involves using a fireboard, spindle, top piece, and a wooden bow with string or leather. By pulling the bow back and forth while creating downward pressure onto the spindle and into the fireboard, an ember forms in a hole in the fireboard. This ember can then be transferred to tinder and blown into flames.
- Hand drill: Similar to a bow drill, hand drills utilize a thin stick or reed that is rotated by spinning it with the hands downward into a hole, creating an ember.
Using Firesteel or Sparkling Tool to Start a Fire
The firesteel or sparking tool produces a hot, resilient spark when the back of the knife is forced down its length.There are couple of really good ones out there, the ones I have tried and can recommend is this one and also the Bear Grylls fire starter which works really well. The spark then ignites the material underneath and you have a flame. This statement is of course entirely true but as with most things there is more to it than that. The following is no more than a basic guide to what can be a very frustrating skill to learn.
Firstly, the angle that the back of the knife makes with the sparking tool should be around 30 degrees from the axis of the sparking tool. The position of the sparking tool along the back of the blade is important and should be as close to the knife’s grip as possible to give good control for the duration of the blade’s travel along the length of the sparking tool.
The contact pressure between the knife and the sparking tool should be heavy but the speed down the sparking tool should not be too quick or you will lose control of where the spark will land. Practice this until you become consistent and can produce controlled, good quality sparks in the right place every time.
Using Tinder to Start a Campfire
When lighting a campfire, having tinder to maintain the flame from matches, lighters, or other fire-starting techniques is important for maintaining the flame and building the fire. Many kinds of tinder can be found in nature, while others can be purchased from outdoor retailers.
Natural tinder comes in many forms, depending on the geographic region. In the eastern half of the United States, the leaves of deciduous trees can be used. In the American West, pine needles and the bark from juniper trees may be more popular. Some common forms of natural tinder include:
- Pine needles
Do not gather material from live trees or plants to avoid creating an eyesore and impact. Besides, tinder burns better when it is dry and has no moisture content.
These are made from a piece of standing deadwood (wood that is dead but not lying on the floor) about an inch in diameter and 15 inches long. Take your knife and gently shave each curl down the stick to about an inch from the bottom. The curls should remain attached to the stick. When you have about 30 tight curls at the bottom of your stick it is complete; two or three feathersticks will be enough to start your fire. Remember to keep the hand holding the featherstick well behind the blade at all times.
If you are having problems producing your feathersticks the most likely cause is that your knife is not sharp enough. If you cannot shave the hairs from the back of your hand with a single stroke you will struggle to produce a good featherstick. Always keep your knife sharp; you are more likely to cut yourself with a blunt knife than a sharp one due to the amount of extra pressure you will need to apply, reducing the amount of positional control over the knife.
Creating a Nest of Tinder to Start a Fire
Once the tinder has been gathered, create a small nest or pile of the material. The nest can be as big as a pair of cupped hands holding the tinder. Form a hole in the nest to hold the flame from a match or an ember. A flame burns upward, so make sure that the tinder can catch it and burn. Once the tinder has caught a flame, one can add additional tinder, as well as smaller twigs and sticks to build up the fuel and create a fire. Have the nest as well as smaller pieces of fuel ready before igniting a flame.
Man-Made Tinder Uses Dry Paper, Cardboard, Cotton, Lint
There are different types of material that are man-made and perform the same function as natural timber. Some can be easily found around in the backpack, others can be purchased from an outdoor retailer. Some common items that can be brought from home are:
- Cotton balls
- Lint from the dryer.
Keep these items in a resealable plastic bag to keep them dry.
Outdoor retailers sell commercially made tinder, which often has special properties. These can include being water-resistant, having the ability to light quickly, and being portable.
One form of tinder is Coghlan’s Emergency Tinder. The pieces of tinder look like cotton balls, but according to the manufacturer, they can be lit when wet and burn for several minutes. Another product made by Coghlan’s is Fire Paste. This flammable paste can be squeezed onto burnable material, then lit with a mach or lighter. It is a good idea to apply the paste to the base of the fuel so that the flame can climb up and ignite the wood.
Producing the Flame
Place your tinder on a cleared, solid base and then rest the end of the sparking tool on the tinder. Position the back of the knife at the top of the sparking tool and with a firm, controlled action produce a good quality spark onto the tinder. The tinder should now have a small flame that you will need to nurture in order to take the kindling and ultimately the fuel.
You will find that the silver birch bark will take a spark really well but if you can’t find a silver birch tree you can use your feathersticks directly; to use this method your feathersticks will need to be of excellent quality and your technique very good. Once the flame has become strong, hold the kindling over the flame until it catches. The main fuel can now be added, smallest pieces first.
How to Dispose of Campfire Ashes
In popular front-country camping areas there are established campfire rings that are maintained and cleaned out by campground staff. However, at remote back country campgrounds there may not be anybody maintaining the campsite, except perhaps a local trails organization that may not get to every single part of the trail they maintain every weekend. Therefore, it is up to individual backpackers and hikers to clean up after themselves.
If left unchecked, ashes will build-up in fire-rings used by multiple visitors, until the ring has completely filled up with ashes and is unusable. Hikers may try to expand the fire-ring to create more space, or start another fire-ring nearby. All of these situations goes against low-impact camping, and can be an eyesore.
Cleaning up campfire ashes can be a simple task, but it does require getting a little dirty. First, make sure that the campfire is dead-out, such as by pouring water on it before going to bed the previous night, and that the coals are cold to the touch. Using a camp shovel or, with just your hands, gather all the ashes together in the center of the pit and grind them up as finely as possible. Do not crush ashes on rocks, as this can stain the rocks with ash and create an eyesore.
Once all the ashes have been crushed, gather a large handful and walk away from camp and scatter them into the woods. Do not dump them into a pile, rather cast them into the air in a wide, rainbow-like pattern. Repeat this process until the pit is clean. If the campsite gets a lot of use, consider carrying the crushed coals in a plastic bag or trash bag for the first few minutes down the trail and scatter the coals away from the trail.
When disposing of campfire ashes, keep these safety considerations in mind:
- Make sure the coals are dead-out and cold to the touch before crushing them. This not just for personal safety, but scattering hot coals through the woods can be a fire safety hazard.
- While crushing the coals watch out for shards of glass or metal from cans. Consider wearing leather gloves for protection.
- If the local rangers have different recommendations, follow what the rangers say for their own area.
Campers should always check the regulations at individual campgrounds before making a fire. Some campgrounds only allow fires in designated camp fire rings. If the weather has been really hot and dry with no rain for several weeks, camp fires may not be allowed at all.
You should use large rocks to build a fire pit if there’s not already one at the campsite and clear litter and burnable materials out of a 10-foot circle. Only then should you construct the fire pit in the center of the circle.
It is always wise to mention that you are likely to be in dense mixed woodland and the risk of fire is always present. Take five liters of water with you to pour over the hot embers and always make sure that you handle the embers to ensure they are cold before cleaning the area, leaving it exactly as you found it.
If there is no water available you can also use dirt to extinguish the fire. There are couple of tricks to this, however, because simply burying the fire in dirt is not a good idea as it could smolder and start burning again. You should mix the dirt or sand with the embers until the fire is out and keep adding dirt and stirring until the fire remains are cool to the touch.
Build the fire away from overhanging tree branches, stumps, dry grass and leaves and store the firewood away from the fire pit.
Do not leave the camp fire unattended and if the match used to start the fire is not tossed into the fire, campers should hold the match until it’s cold before discarding it.
In some parts of the world it is not allowed to light fires, so please check the local laws beforehand. Unattended camp fires cause forest fires every year and a strong breeze may come up and blow sparks that could ignite a forest fire. Check the The Forest Service website for more information on this.
Behaving well and acting responsibly is not something you should only do at home. In fact, it is even more crucial to behave responsibly in the nature where more depends on you than you think. The danger of forest fires is very real, as many people in California know it way too well.
By creating fires in a safe and responsible manner and disposing of their own campfire ashes wisely you create a better camping experience for everyone and have the peace of mind knowing that you did your best to protect the nature!