The Science of a Good Campfire

The Science of a Good Campfire

Ah fire, isn’t it wonderful? The roaring flames, the heat, the marshmallows, and the best part getting it going and keeping it going.

What do you mean that’s not the best part? Maybe you’re just doing it wrong, sit down here you city-slicker and learn how to make a proper pyro-approved fire.

Alright first decide what kind of fire you need; do you need to cook with a pan, is the fire for warmth, do you need heat for an extended period with a limited wood supply, are you having a bonfire to celebrate the winter solstice (or to just burn some yard debris), do you need a fire to last all night without feeding it, or are you on the run from the 5-0 and don’t want any smoke giving away your location? Yes it is important to know what your purpose is before you start because now that you’ve figured out what your purpose is you are going to build a fire. Building seems to be a waste why not just throw logs down and light them? Well let me tell you a story it goes like this; stop being lazy and do it right it’ll make life easier in the long run, the end.

Well for any fire you’re going to need a few basic things; fuel (dried wood, other flammable items), kindling (small twigs, tried tree bark, paper, pine needles, leaves etc), an ignition device (lighter, match, flare, flint+ steel, fire piston, bow drill). and lastly oxygen (no starting fires in space please), optional items include a shovel (or other digging utensil) and a rake. The three most crucial elements of that being fuel, oxygen and heat for ignition. If you have too much of one and not enough of another your fire will struggle. Once you get the hang of it it’s pretty much 47.5% common sense 47.5% knowledge and 5% art ( yes proper fire construction and management is an art).

  • Step one: Clear debris from an area 3-10 feet around where the fire will be
  • *Optional*Step one B: Dig a pit to build fire in
  • Step two: Gather a fair bit of kindling and make some of it into small pile (fist size- backpack size depending on environmental factors; dampness of kindling and the air, windiness, dryness of main fuel)
  • Step three: Decide fires purpose
  • Step four: Construct corresponding fire for required purpose
  • Step five: Light it up (set ignition source in contact with kindling, blow on it as necessary)
  • Step six: Find marshmallows

Now if you want to build a cooking fire I’d go with a platform set up. The platform is a simple fire with logs stacked to form a square place logs across facing north-south |||| <- like that then place an equal amount on top of the ends of those east-west = <- like that and repeat until it is a few layers high ( the compass directions aren’t crucial it’s just to illustrate how to properly lay the wood). Place adequate kindling inside and light it up. Once the fire has burned for a while it will be down to a nice hot bed of coals that are great to cook on with a pot or pan.

Lost in the wilderness with limited wood to burn and it’s going to be a cold night? Try the Star fire, it wont burn fast or extremely hot but if you need a fire and have to stretch your limited wood supply out as long as possible this will do the trick. Place kindling into a tipi in the middle of your fire location and get it started, add sticks until it’s going well and place 3-5 log ends into the fire and the other ends away from the fire (the fire is only in the center where all log ends meet) as if you were trying to make it look like a star. As the begins to burn down push them further into the fire, it wont be any massive fire to talk about to your grand-kids but it could make all the difference when you need it. This fire can be used for cooking as well if you’re a big ingenuitive.

The most common form of warming fire I’ve come across is a tipi-bonfire type it’s very simple stack the sticks around on end in a circle and they will all meet in the middle and rest against each-other like a good ol’ tipi. Place the kindling in the middle with small sticks and larger sticks above those etc until you have the desired size. Enjoy. If you’d like you can build a smaller log cabin fire in the middle and build a tipi structure around it (this method has worked well for me in the past when I had trouble starting a tipi fire).

If you need a fire that will last for hours there are two that you can do there is the log cabin style (yes like Lincoln logs) where there are two logs |  | north-south and two logs on top of the ends of those going east-west. The log cabin can be stacked high and as it burns down the logs that were above slowly come down and add fuel to the fire. The other fire is what is called a self feeding fire where you gather a number of logs and a few strong branches. Angle the branches into a V shape with the fire in the middle of them (you’re making a ramp on either side of the fire for the logs to sit on and roll into the fire as it burns down) and pound them in until they are sturdy enough to hold all of your logs. Now build a small starter fire (tipi is simple enough to do), stack your logs up the ramps and light it up. As each bottom log burns the log above it will roll down and take its place. It will look something like this: two or three strong branches per ramp ->  \ fire here / <- opposite side of fire with another ramp. Here is a video on the self-feeding fire.

Now for this fire style let me set the scene; it’s 1938, you’ve just robbed the federal reserve for 14 million dollars and you got out into the wilderness by using your wits, ninja like reflexes and James Bond-esk escape skills. You have some problems now though they know what direction you headed and they have spotter planes flying, it’s getting dark however and you are starting to get cold seeing as how it’s the middle of winter. Without a fire you’ll certainly freeze tonight and 14 million wont do you any good if you’re dead. There is a thick canopy overhead so you know the planes wont be able to see the light from a small warming fire but the smoke will easily give away your position, or will it? Lucky you were a member of The Smarter Society a secret organization of the smartest people throughout history gathering to share knowledge among themselves, and you remember someone talking about a similar situation and how they make a Dakota fire-pit so that they wouldn’t give their position away to the enemy during the great-war. So you start digging a hole for a fire with the handy shovel you happened to bring on the robbery for no particular reason other than it’s always good to have a shovel around. You start by digging a hole 2 feet down or did he say three feet? Ah it wont make much difference make a judgement call at 30 inches (76cm) and you dig it 4 feet long and 2 feet wide so you can lay down next to it and stay warm. Next you remember that you need air vents so you dig an air vent every foot or so along one of the long sides of the fire and around one foot away from the fire pit itself these only need to be about 1.5 feet deep but you decide to be safe and go 30 inches deep on those as well. Now you start connecting the air vents to the fire pit by digging a tunnel from the bottom of the fire pit to the bottom of the air vents. Now to build the fire in the pit with as much dry fuel as you can find. Congratulations you’ve just evaded the authorities!

Remember always use safe fire practices and have adult supervision (if you are an adult and need help find an adultier-adult).Only you can prevent forest or wild-land fires!

Happy camping my friends.

Profile photo of Jon


Creator of The Smarter Society.

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