How to Build a Fire

The art of building a fire. The simple act could, one day, save your life.

To Build A fire by Jack London is one of my favorite short stories, The story is about a man traveling on foot through the wilderness of the far north on his way to meet up with friends in camp. The man has been traveling since early morning and is tired, cold and hungry. In his rush to get back to camp he becomes careless and falls through the ice of a frozen stream. At 30 degrees below zero his clothes starts to freeze immediately and he knows his only hope for survival is to build a fire and to build it fast. He gathers the wood and after struggling to light a match with his rapidly freezing hands he finally gets the fire started. Unfortunately, he selects a spot under a pine tree and wind dislodges snow from the branches above and smothers the fire. The man is now so cold that his blood is thickening and he freezes to death.

Unlike the man in the story, there's little chance that any of us will ever find ourselves in a situation where the simple act of building a fire could save our lives. But there are many who have. The recent natural disasters in Haiti and Chile left hundreds of thousands with out heat, light or the ability to cook. Something as innocent as a short camping or hiking trip can end in disaster with a miss-step or a turn of bad luck.

I think that the ability to build a fire should be common knowledge to every man. My father taught me when I was very young and I've used that knowledge many times throughout my life. It's true that, with the advance in technology, the skill has gradually disappeared and been replaced with high tech camp stoves, gas grills and the heat pump. But, under the right circumstances, the need is still there. Which brings me to the reason for this article.

A couple of weeks ago a bunch of us guys, between the ages of late teens to early twenties, went on a trout fishing trip in the Pisgah National Forest in the North Carolina Mountains. We setup camp on a favorite trout stream and headed out fishing. As evening approached, we gathered back in camp ready for a hot meal of fresh trout and fried potatoes. Everyone pitched in and gathered wood for the fire and I sat down against a large rock perfectly willing to let the others do the chores and build the fire. The teens and twenty somethings enthusiastically set to the task of building the fire. I sat and watched as they argued back and forth about what went where and how best to proceed. It wasn't long before I realized that, if I wanted a hot meal and a warm camp, I was going to have to build the fire.

I will admit that I was disappointed that none of these young men knew how to do, what kids of my generation, could do easily. None could have survived a cold night if lost in this wilderness. They also didn't know that acorns turned into Oak trees or that pines trees didn't shed their needles in winter. So the trip turned into a fishing slash nature slash survival lesson. I explained that there was a method to building a fire and that you started at the bottom and worked up. The things necessary to build a fire are:

Tinder is the first thing and is anything that is easy to ignite and burns quickly. If you have paper by all means use it, it works well. Other things are dried grass, tree bark, pine cones or dried needles.

After the tinder comes kindling,which is small twigs and sticks that will catch fire easily.

Next, after the kindling is burning well, you gradually add larger pieces of the sticks and twigs increasing the size as the fire builds.

Finally, now that you have the fire going and a nice bed of coals, you can add the fuel or larger split logs.

The photo to the right shows the components. From left to right there is a paper bag that my BLT came in. Next is dry, rotting tree bark, then an assortment of different sized twigs and sticks and finally split oak logs.

If you follow these simple steps anyone can have a nice fire burning in a matter of just a few minutes.

I enjoy sitting around a fire at night and fortunately I live in a place where having a camp fire is not a problem. I built a stone fire pit in my back yardstone fire pit last year just for that reason and I use it frequently. It's nice on cool winter evenings or even summer nights to just sit around the fire with a beer and talk with friends. If you're alone, which I am a lot, it's a time to reminisce or just ponder life.

Another great thing about campfires is cooking. I enjoy cooking on an open fire. One of my favorites is barbecue. Charcoal or gas grills work well and are really convenient, but, they don't compare to a wood fire when it comes to taste. Just try a Boston Butt over wood coals and see for yourself.


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