Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Depending on where you backpack, you're better off to use a backpacking stove. There are two main types, the canister stove in which the little folding stove screws into an isobutane canister, and alcohol stoves, most of which are homemade from pop or cat food cans. A few people use solid fuel (Esbit) stoves. A search through the forums will give you some ideas (for instructions on searching, look in the General Discussion section).
Right now, in much of the western US, campfires have been banned altogether, and even alcohol stoves are illegal in some places. Fire danger is extreme. Even when the fire danger is not high, most national forests in the western US don't allow backcountry campfires at or above timberline (or above a certain altitude) because there just isn't enough wood up there to go around. Campfires also have considerable impact on the landscape as they leave permanent scars. Here's good info on minimizing campfire impacts.
In other words, please use a stove for cooking and don't depend on campfires. They are fun where they are legal, there is already an established fire pit, small dead wood on the ground is plentiful and the fire danger is low. But they should not be relied upon. A backpacking stove for cooking and a few more ounces of insulating clothing (be sure to keep it dry!) to keep you warm are better.
I have not built a campfire in the past 30 years except in car campgrounds or on the beach below high tide line. Even though my childhood was spent around campfires, I don't miss them. I'd rather watch the stars!
Loc: Marina del Rey,CA
Step one - make sure fires are legal where you are going. Step two - sit down in front of your computer with a snack and your favorite non-alcoholic beverage (only because you need your memory intact, no moral judgment here) and turn to the Oracle of all things, YouTube. No, I am not kidding. Search for fire starting or similar terms and you will find dozens of videos on the topic, from how to use a firestarter (some made by people seliing their product) to making a fire using old school native methods. Here are a couple of examples I found in about 30 seconds (haven't watched them except to see they are on topic) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VvIbroqGBM
Loc: California (southern)
I chuckled at Tom's post, which is perfectly valid in the contemporary era. In the old days, when campfire were routine, we learned the old fashioned way, by trial and error, learning about the necessity of absolutely dry materials, etc.
Fire building remains an absolutely vital outdoor skill. In my SAR experience, the ability to ignite a fire was the difference all too often between the quick and the dead. However, today it very easy to carry a stove to accomplish the same purpose. Fires do leave scars. Badly managed and done at the wrong place and time, they become epic disasters.
So, learn the skill, apply it carefully, and carry a stove.
Final note: There are situations where even lighting a commercial stove can be dangerous. That is when I stay out of the woods and read a good book or watch the playoffs...
Even more important than "starting" a fire is putting it out properly. Do not take short cuts. At the end of your campfire time start putting on smaller wood so that you can almost completely burn the wood - not leave large chunks. Douse the fire with water - LOTS of water. Stir the coals with a stick. Then, use your hands and feel the bottom of the fire pit- it should be cool, not hot. Check the perimiter of the fire - it too should be cool. If you have built a fire on virgin soil, then you should clean it up- leave no trace. This is a LOT of work. After you are sure all coals are totally out (big chunks can hold heat inside so break these apart) scoop them up and either thinly scatter them or burry them. Then do some "gardening" - smooth the site and put back some natural material. Lastly, if you have wood left over thinly distribute them about so it looks natural. Because this is really a lot of work, it is advisable to ONLY build fires in existing fire rings.
Also, when building a fire, first step is to clear the area around the fire of burnables, especially if it is very dry. One cause of forest fires is a fire built on top of tree roots. You think you put the fire out but the fire has gotten into the tree roots and is smouldering up the roots. Also a seemingly put out fire can re-ignite under windy conditions.
And speaking of sparks, put your tent a good distance UP-WIND of the fire. Sparks can fly onto your tent fly and burn tiny holes. Same for rain jackets. I usually do not wear anything while around a fire that I want to keep waterproof. A lot of the sparks are very tiny and make very tiny holes, but nevertheless, destroy tents and rain jackets. I also never wear my very expensive down sweater while sitting around a fire. Cover it with another fleece layer. Sparks and nylon = tiny holes. Also, be careful drying boots in front of a fire- you may not feel the heat but the soles can get hot enough to start to melt. Whatever you dry by the fire, feel it often so you do not burn it. Sort of like roasting a marshmellow- one second to long and bye-bye clothing.
Everyone wants a fire. No one ever wants to put it out. They just want to leave it smoldering all night and rationalize it won't get out of control.
Pay close attention to the rules where you go, don't do that stupid trick of dragging the end of a log into the fire, and have a care where you start one. There have been forest fires that started because someone built a towering inferno that lit the underground roots on fire, and long after they left the fire smoldered until some of it reached the surface and began above ground.
Don't use big wood - keep all the fuel about the diameter of your arm, or smaller. You won't need to haul around an axe if you can break it anyway.
Don't use it to burn trash! Plastics and plasticized paper give off toxic fumes. Pack it all out.
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few." Shunryu Suzuki
Lots of real good advice already but I happen to have two pennies on me so , here's my wood fire method. I dig a hole. Not crazy deep, any where's between 8-16 inches deep. Usually it's a foot across, could be twice that. I build up the sides with the dirt I take out of the hole. Nothing fancy. I also dig a tunnel to the bottom of the hole with a stick, again nothing fancy. It feeds air into the base once the fire gets going a bit. I gather dead fall and break down dry branches till I've got a couple handfuls of kindling sticks half the width of my finger. I stand them up in the bottom of the hole like a teepee, leaving a space open. I take a branch the size of my finger and with my knife I shave up little feathers on it, like curls of wood. Once it's got plenty of the curls I light that, in the hole so it's out of any wind, and I stuff it into the opening of the teepee. After the teepee gets going I slowly add some more pieces of wood, nothing too big and never above the top of the built up sides of the hole. When the fires going okay the tunnel will allow air to be sucked into the base and it feeds the fire really well, usually. I use water to put the fire out, and then kick in the sides of dirt to bury it, making sure to it's good and out by touching the bottom. I collapse the tunnel too. Maybe it sounds like a lot of work, but it's a couple of minutes tops. I should say too, I didn't invent this, it's an old hillbilly thing and probably goes back to when man first started making little fires in the woods hundreds of years ago, maybe even longer - can't be sure cause history and all that stuff is written in languages I don't understand, but I digress. So, that's how I do it, if I burn wood outside.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
If it's just you two make a small fire. A small fire made with small branches is much easier in many ways and it's safer.
The key to getting a fire going is to make sure that all your fuel has air space around it. You can't line and stack up your sticks like 2x4s on a pallet. You only want to do that with one layer of sticks on the ground, after that you want them loosely stacked with lots of air space between them.
Play around with teepee and log cabin style stacking your fuel. Some people like to make a loose pile of tinder and assemble progressively bigger stuff around and on top of it. You light the tinder under it all and that catches the bigger stuff above it on fire. This is called a "Bottom Up" method of starting a fire.
There's also a "Top Down" method. For this you might build a log cabin style box and fill it with pencil sized sticks and then put a pile of tinder (toothpick sized twigs) on top of that and light the tinder.
Experiment with different methods of assembling your fuel, kindling, and tinder when you make your fire.
Some people bring fire starters. I do. A few cotton balls with some Vaseline rubbed into them work well to help start a fire. Dryer lint is another. Or you can buy some in the camping section of most Wal-Marts. You don't need to use an entire stick of that stuff, one of those will light several fires. Just break off a small chunk and light your tinder with it.
Another idea is to use those crappy magnesium fire starter sticks. I pre grind some mag with a wood rasp then add a pinch of the shavings to a properly built tender bundle. Adds enough umphhh to get even damp wood lit. A few table spoons of these shavings weigh nothing and always work.
The wind wont howl if the wind don't break.
rock shaving the magnesium at home is ok I guess... but its real hard to light with a spark. An esbit tablet assures plenty of heat to get a fire started.
And as we ofen say - it depends on where you are. In one of our Oregon rain forests you can forget about building a fire. Out in Eastern Oregon its dry desert and you have to very careful because its so flamable.
Well anyway hers some constructive input. You start with very small dry wood - think match sticks. You can probably light a couple of match sticks on fire with one match. The principle being that the flame and heat from any given piece of wood burning, is enough to ignite some more wood about the same size. If you put all of the fuel on at once it won't start burning. You must start with a tiny fire and make it slowly grow by placing the right size of dry wood in the rizing flames from underneath. The fire will grow upwards and pull air up through the wood above. As this wood get going, lay a few more pieces over the flames, cross wise, and then continue to add wood changing directions so the wood stacks up with a lot of air in it, instead of all being lined up like spagheti in a package. Only add larger wood when you get a good little fire going and the fuel in it is atleast half lit on fire. The principle being that cold wood cannot burn. It must first be warmed by the heat of fire underneath it.
I find a teepee fire to be the easiest. Put some tinder on top of a piece of bark and put a few small sticks around it like a teepee and light the tinder. Then feed in small sticks through a opening in your teepee and get a fire going inside it. Later just angle more wood and larger wood over it, but always keep the sticks about as far apart as the are in diameter to assure good air and heat flow around them.
In closing, I have a snowcreek gigatorch that goes on a butane bottle and should assure a fire most anyplace except an oregon rain forest...
Oh ok - collect thin dry pieces of dead stick from close under trees. If you have a chain saw and an axe you can burn heart wood from a dead tree...
There may be an "eastern" and a "western" attitude but theres also a PNW entry. We have billions and billions of pine trees. We burn them to heat our homes - atleast out here in the country we do. Jim
These are my own opinions based on wisdom earned through many wrong decisions. Your mileage may vary.
You've gotten some great advice! Here is some more.
1) Make sure a fire is legal, smart, and you really need one. 2) Practice on your bbq grill at home, in yucky, wet weather. 3) Carry matches or a lighter, not a a "fire steel". Matches skip a step and give instant fire with kindling, any altitude. 4) Make up some "fire bunnies"...tightly wadded paper towels saturated in paraffin (gulf wax). These work better than dryer lint, light quickly, burn for about 10 minutes, weight very little, and cut building time. Birthday candles are handy too. 5) Take your time. Spend a good 30-45 minutes gathering tender, kindling, and fuel, all ready to go for ignition. 6) Have an emergency "extenguish plan"!!! Jug of water, dirt, whatever. Don't make fires bigger than what you need and can handle. Sparks can (will) get away and even light dry tree canopys so THINK!
I consider items 6) and 2) most important. If you can get a fire going in cold, wet, uncomfortable conditions, you can do it anywhere, but you also need to be able to put it out.
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
The REI emergency matches are great! They stay lit for quite a while and are almost impossible to blow out (something to be careful about in dry conditions). Considering that the quality of wooden safety matches has deteriorated almost to the point of uselessness (at least a third won't ignite when struck), the REI matches are a good investment, and make the "one match fire" a possibility again. While I don't build campfires, I take half a dozen of the REI matches along in case of emergency.
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
Back in the Boy Scouts, we had to light a fire with 2 matches. Without adding wood once it was lit, it had to burn a piece of twine 18 inches high. Then we had go cook a pancake, turn it by flipping it without a spatula and eat it.
We we competed in groups of three. One would collect all the material. The other would build the fire from the material. The third would cook and eat the pancake. At least that's the way I remember it.
These early years shaped my fire building strategy. I made this video early this year. The conditions were pretty good, so it looks easier than it would be with wet wood.
Loc: Ozark Mountains in SW Missouri
Originally Posted By JImShaw
There may be an "eastern" and a "western" attitude but theres also a PNW entry. We have billions and billions of pine trees. We burn them to heat our homes - atleast out here in the country we do.
Yeah, fires are absolutely regional, and fine grained at that because it comes right down to the very spot you choose to build one.
I admit it, I build campfires almost every time I go backpacking. I love them. I think they're great. It's one of the joys of living in the Ozarks that we can have them here.
Lot's of Rural Ozarkers heat there homes with wood too. Most all save up dead fall over the warm months just to have campfires in the cold months. The neighbors and I cut, split, and share fallen trees and gather deadfall after storms in our yards and from the forest. Then we'll all join together down at the fire rings we all have over the course of the cool season and whoop it up outside. Our kids have bonfire parties "down at the creek", and together, we burn it all up. It's a way of life here, and if we didn't do it we'd all be at risk from wildfires during the dry spells.
I don't think I've ever been anywhere wetter in my life than the rain forest in the PNW. It's funny, but around here if you start a story with "I was hiking in the rain forest in California" you'll see some very puzzled looks.
Fine steel wool makes a good fire starter too. ULHiker showed me that last year. He lit it off a small bit with a fire steel and man, that stuff took off fast and burned hot. Got our campfire going with one strike.
Loc: Gateway to Columbia Gorge
Actually, our rain forest is pretty darn dry, after no significant rain for over 2 months! It's burning in a lot of places. Then there is the smoke (once again moving into the Portland, OR area).... And the weather forecasters are not optimistic about any measurable rain in the near future.
These conditions are actually quite normal for the PNW. We always have--and enjoy--a dry season of several months. We usually do have at least some fire bans during the dry season. What's different this year is, first, the very wet spring that stimulated growth of now-tinder-dry grass and brush and second, an unusual number of dry lightning storms in late August and early September.
Edited by OregonMouse (09/27/1207:44 PM)
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
"The REI emergency matches are great! They stay lit for quite a while and are almost impossible to blow out (something to be careful about in dry conditions). Considering that the quality of wooden safety matches has deteriorated almost to the point of uselessness (at least a third won't ignite when struck), the REI matches are a good investment, and make the "one match fire" a possibility again. While I don't build campfires, I take half a dozen of the REI matches along in case of emergency."
I've been toting this little box of matches for years and years. It started out as a box of forty and now I'm down to six. they're Sea-Dog impregnated safety matches from Sweden. Don't even remember where i got them, but I do remember getting them as a kind of joke on account of the the hype. Well I haven't been rash about using them, but by gully every time I needed a light in a crappy situation, they worked. I wonder if they're still available anywhere?
If you've got birch trees in the area you're trying to get a fire going there's this cool fungus that grows on them. It burns, but more ember burn than flame, and you can actually make a little stove out of it. Burns for quite some time too, very good in a wet environment as it takes the spark well. I've heard the old fellows call it tinder fungus. You can recognize it as a black mass growing on birch trees, easy enough to spot, and once you take a piece off you light up the inside. Where there's birch there's fur trees too, and it isn't any big thing to collect a bit of resin. Between the two you've got the makings for fire even in the wet.
Loc: Northern KY USA
Originally Posted By lori
I usually have a few waterproof matches, a couple REI matches, a striker strip, and two mini bics. One of them will work - if I can find old man's beard, or have vaseline-soaked cotton with me.
I have a slightly different take on the vaseline-cotton ball. Although they work great, I take a magnesium bar (do this at home, before you leave) and shave off a little pile. I then open the vaseline treated cotton ball and pour some in each and roll them back up. It acts as sort of a "turbo charger", magnesium burns really hot, and works very well when whatever you have to work with is a little wet. I personally don't recommend using the magnesium as a primary source outdoors. Besides, 99% of the time, some tinder and a Bic will do the trick, first time, if you know the basics of starting a fire. I use the other stuff that I have in my little "fire kit" when resources are scarce, or the weather is just absolutely not cooperating. Trying to shave the flakes into a little pile in the tinder is often very difficult to use this method when the wind is blowing, sometimes even in a very slight breeze, the flakes just want to blow away. I put these into a freezer bag, with a couple of bags of other materials suitable for tinder, and use them when you can't find anything at your campsite.
With a little practice you can literally start a fire in a down pour. As mentioned already, practice several of the afore mentioned methods at home. On the trail, especially in the case of an emergency, is not the place to learn. Good luck, and no worries, it's a lot easier than most (non-outdoors) people think. It is so easy, even a cave man could do it.....o.k., sorry, I just had to say that...