Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Perfect Campfire

When the gloom of night begins to close in around you, swallowing the world in blackness, there is nothing nicer than the warmth and glow of a campfire. But the fire itself is a multi-faceted servant that, if put together right, can perform many more tasks than just being the cheerful centerpiece of camp. The ideal campfire should be able to keep us warm, illuminate the immediate area, dry our clothes, cook our meals, purify the drinking water, and signal for help. But each of these chores requires a unique arrangement, and it is necessary to configure the campfire in different ways to suit each of those jobs.

The Pit

You might conclude that you need more than one fire in camp, in order to enjoy all the benefits of every different type of fire. However, one firepit can serve many functions, if it is laid out in the shape of a large keyhole — with a big, round section to hold the primary fire and a narrow, elongated arm where the cooking will be done on hot coals that are raked into the area from the main fire. This arrangement is what I consider to be the perfect campfire.

Surrounding the fire area with stones is not just for aesthetics and safety — it’s also to help concentrate the heat and keep ground-level breezes from blowing the heat away. This is especially important in the cooking wing of the firepit. A few small stones can be placed among the coals to serve as a trivet to stabilize a pot while cooking. And you can also cover the floor of the firepit with stones, if the ground is wet. 

Arranging The Fire

A warming fire is most efficient if it employs some type of vertical surface that can reflect the heat toward the campers. A wall of green logs, a large boulder, the face of a cliff — all of these can serve as reflectors to bounce the heat. If the fire is built several feet from the reflector, the campers can position themselves between the blaze and the reflector so they can get toasted on both sides at once. Naturally, the gap between the fire and the reflector must be suitable to the size of the blaze, so the reflector will be effective but the space doesn’t get too hot.

For illumination, larger blazes and those with the most active flame will throw the most light. At night, lots of illumination is just what you need, if you are using the fire as a signaling method. In fact, it will be even more effective if you spread the fire out into three separate blazes, arranged in a triangle formation. This not only creates a broader area of light, but three fires are recognized as a distress signal. At the same time, you can position yourself inside the triangle and take advantage of heat from all sides.

Signaling during daylight hours requires something other than flaming illumination to get the job done. Smoke by day, flames by night — that is the rule. To create white smoke, make sure your fire is strong enough to survive the addition of some moist or green vegetation, then feed those items slowly into the blaze. Black smoke can be generated by burning rubber or oil. In either case, a strong, hot fire is necessary.

Cooking, on the other hand, requires a much smaller fire, and very little flame. Think of a cooking fire in the same manner as a barbecue — hot coals, not a towering inferno. The same goes for boiling water for purification; coals will do a better job than the lick of flames. One of the reasons for this is because, when you’re cooking, you’re working very close to the fire, reaching in to handle the food or the cooking utensils. You can’t do that if the fire is too vigorous.

The fuel

Birdnest-fine and dry as dust, it’s the tinder that will catch the flame instantly and help it grow to ignite the kindling. Tinder can be made of shredded bark of some trees and bushes, or from dry grasses that are twisted and wound together into a tight bundle. If you’re lucky enough to find an abandoned birdnest or packrat nest, you’re in business.

Kindling consists of long, thin splits of wood that range in size from the thickness of a wooden match to that of your little finger. The more dry, shattered and split the kindling, the more readily it will catch fire. Use a hatchet or a hefty survival knife to split larger wood into kindling. If those tools are not available, lay the wood on a boulder and smash it with a heavy rock until it shatters.

Pitchy wood (wood with lots of sap) gives you an advantage for starting the fire, but not for cooking. If you’re cooking over the open flames of sappy wood, the food might absorb a bitter flavor. It’s best to cook on hot coals of hardwood, if it’s available. Collect your fuel wood from somewhere above the ground, if possible. Wood that has been in contact with the ground is more likely to have absorbed moisture that will hamper its suitability a firewood.

If possible, stack a full night’s supply of firewood close enough to the firepit that it will dry out, but not so close that it will spontaneously ignite. If you have a tarp, cover the wood and an extra supply of tinder and kindling to protect it from wet weather; otherwise position the wood supply beneath overhanging branches of a tree. And if you’re in rain country, consider ways to erect some kind of protective shelter over the fire itself, but make sure the covering is high enough that it won’t ignite from the heat or sparks.

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