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To Build a Fire

Hints and Tips From All Points of the Compass

By Tamia Nelson Fire and Air

January 27, 2015

Lighting a fire under trying conditions — wet, wind, cold — was once the test by which outdoorsmen (and outdoorswomen, too, though they were few and far between) were measured. Today we have self‑contained stoves, but fire‑lighting is still an essential skill, and every skill needs periodic honing. Which is why I built a fire in the rain recently, and then wrote a column about the attempt. The trial was a success. But I'm not such a fool as to think my way is the only way, and when I invited readers to show me how they meet this test, I fully expected to learn new (and likely better) ways of doing things. I wasn't disappointed. And thanks to these same readers' generosity, I can now reveal their secrets to the larger world.

So here goes, beginning with …

The Art of Fire‑Lighting

Thats Art as in Art Denney, a regular contributor to this column, who has a trick or two up his sleeve for Southern paddlers:

Birch bark is not that prevalent down South; therefore, I carry trick birthday candles along with a few candle stubs in my fire kit. The trick candles self-start when they are blown out. One builds a fire per your instructions, but with the birthday candle in the middle. Wet wood doesn't stand a chance. Now, the question arises: How many trick candles? I don't know. While I carry them, I've never had to use them, because regular candle stubs have worked, so far.

Also, while I haven't tried it, I've seen pictures of crayons tied around a regular birthday candle. I don't think the crayons add color to the flame, but they sure burn for a long time.

I'd never considered using trick candles — they're also known as self‑relighting candles — for this purpose, but since they're designed to defeat attempts to extinguish them, they'd seem tailor‑made for lighting fires in terrible conditions. That said, there are two caveats to bear in mind: For one thing, you sometimes need to put out a newly lit fire. (You might have to leave the fire to rush down to the beach to recover a drifting boat, for instance, or a sudden shift in the wind might threaten to throw sparks on your tent or tarp.) If there's a self‑relighting candle at the heart of the fire, however, you'll probably find the job that much harder. The remedy? Floods of water, apparently. And the other caveat? Self‑relighting candles are banned in Canada. Paddlers from the States who want to avoid extended delays at the border would do well to leave their trick candles at home.

Crayons shouldn't cause any problems, though, and since they're mostly paraffin wax — the same material that's used in many candles — they ought to serve as "booster engines" for an ordinary candle, making an already good fire starter even better. (A bonus: You can use them to color the sketches in your journal.)

Art has pointed out that birch bark can be a scarce commodity in southern forests. Reader Steven Hartman echoes that concern, and he suggests an alternative:

The Fat(wood) of the Land

Fortunately, I live in the South, and we are blessed with an abundance of the greatest fire-building substance known to man -- fat lighter! I'm sure this is the case anywhere there are pines, but the southern pine beetle has played havoc down here, so [there are] lots of dead pines in the area. Anywhere you go, you'll find the stumps of cut or dead pine trees. After the bark and the subsurface layers rot away, what's left is a core of really hard, super-sappy wood. It's easy to verify when you have fat lighter. It's an orange-brown color and richly aromatic. If you ever smell it, you'll always be able to identify it. It only takes a very small piece to start a fire, maybe half the size of a candy bar. It splits easily, as well.

The deluxe version is old fence posts. Years ago, instead of creosote-soaked posts, heart pine was used. Many of these posts still exist 100+ years after they were installed. These have an especially straight grain and split even better. Heart pine was also used in construction of buildings due to its insect resistance, strength, and longevity. Unfortunately, its ease of ignition led to many a tragic house or business fire over the years. When a whole bunch of it is roaring, it's almost impossible to extinguish. This stuff will almost burn underwater! I have started fires with it when I had no overhead protection and it was pouring rain. And once it's lit, it stays lit. It also burns with a very hot flame, so intense that it will even ignite wet wood.

Fat lighter sounds like an ideal fire starter, and I can remember seeing splits of this resin‑rich heart of pine sold in bundles at the Orvis shop in Manchester, Vermont, under the name "fatwood." It was advertised as a sure‑fire firelighter, but I never bought any. It carried a properly gentrified price tag, and I was saving my money for a new trout rod.

Anyway, the depredations of the southern pine beetle seem to have done paddlers in the American South a good turn, a conclusion supported by another letter, this one from Tennessean Paul Shaw. He, too, looks to pines for his fire starters, but in addition to using splits of fatwood, he advocates going right to the source, or …

Pitching In

That's pitch as in pine pitch, of course. Otherwise known as sap.

Here in the southern states, we have an abundance of pine trees which yield some ready-made fire-starting materials. In areas where the southern pine beetle is found, it's fairly easy to find a pine tree with bubbles of sap. The same goes for white pines. Sap from pines roars when lit, making an excellent substitute for candles. Break off a chunk, stick it under your kindling tepee and there ya go.

In the piney woods, there are always remnants of pine tree stumps, easily kicked up with a boot. As you know, the lighter wood found in a pine stump is akin to lighting kerosene.

A birch tree is hard to find in these parts. I don't recall ever seeing one in the woods in this part of the country. But beech trees abound. The bark peels away naturally. Those peelings of beech bark are good for starting a fire. I carry a bag of them when hiking, and when I pass a sap-leaking pine tree, I add a chunk of that to the kit. In wet conditions, the chunks of hard pine sap are the most valuable items in my pack.

I've never used beech bark as tinder, though there's no shortage of downed beeches in the forests of the Adirondack foothills, many of them the victims of questionable "forest improvement" schemes. I'll pick up some peels of bark and give them a try, and I'll grab some resin blobs from white pine, while I'm at it. You can't have two many arrows in your quiver, after all.

Now it's time to look north, where Canadian Jim Penistan wields (literal) paddle and (figurative) pen with equal dexterity. Jim offers …

Three Tips from the Heart of Canoe Country

Most conifers carry small dead branchlets low on the trunk (known traditionally, and regrettably, as "squaw wood"); these are easily snapped off since they are dead and dried, and make excellent kindling. (Trees around well-used campsites are usually denuded of this resource. They seem not to suffer from the mistreatment.)

Photos H and L [in your original article] show a reflector log on the right of your tepee. This, I think, has two functions: it props the small stuff in a stable configuration; and it directs air flow upward through the tepee, since it's on the leeward side. (Pronounced lee-ward on land, loo-erd at sea -- but I suspect you knew that.)

Established fireplaces often collect water right where you might want to start a fire. Sodden ground under the tepee guarantees failure, so some dry, solid material between tinder and ground is vital. That material is likely to raise the base of the fire, and thereby improve airflow. Bonus!

The "reflector log" that Jim mentions can be seen in these photos, reproduced from my earlier column, with yellow arrows added by way of identification:

Time to Reflect

As Jim suggests, something of this sort is a useful addition to any tepee fire lay, simultaneously providing structural support and enhancing the draft, while reflecting a modest amount of heat outward. However, I'm much less sanguine about the use of "squaw wood" — this contentious epithet is also heard south of the Canada–US border — in anything short of a bona fide emergency. There's no doubt that these dead, dry branchlets make good kindling, and Canada's vast forests aren't likely to be much injured by casual wood‑gathering. But I'm reluctant to encourage paddlers to forage for "squaw wood" in the more circumscribed wilds of the eastern and northern United States, not least because such activity is often illegal — as is indeed the case within the confines of New York's Forest Preserve, where all "cutting" of standing trees is prohibited by law. Only "dead and down" wood can be burned.

In any case, as Jim is careful to note, the trunks of most trees in and around established campsites have already been stripped bare as high as a tall man can reach. ("Squaw wood" is therefore a somewhat misleading term, as well as one likely to give offense.)

Of course, it's one thing to wring one's hands over the despoliation of the woodlands near established campgrounds, another thing altogether to arrive at a remedy. But there are some workable alternatives to provisioning solely from the "closet of the woods," as Matthew Dubas points out. His suggestion?

Cash‑and‑Carry Fire‑Laying

I've found that on three-day trips, even with a half-mile portage on the route, it pays to bring a bundle or two of kiln-dried (certified pest-free to avoid introducing invasives) firewood from a local convenience store as an insurance policy (stored inside our SOT fishing kayaks). Especially in heavily-used areas where finding campfire fuel may be difficult, it is really nice [to have] on those shoulder-season nights/mornings that dip into the 30s. I know it's heavy, particularly on the portages, but luckily, high-weight-capacity wheeled carts ease the load.

The teepee method is the best for a starter fire. Once it gets going, I use the heat to dry any existing fuel and store it under a tarp.

In the age of gadgets, Snow Peak's GigaPower 2Way Torch is a lightweight (if you're already using canister stoves) option to replace the candle method if winds kick up. But I tend to use a Bic lighter most of the time.

Matthew's "convenience‑store option" makes a lot of sense for short trips, particularly if you employ a wheeled cart to ease your burden on portages. Traditionalists who snort at such mechanical contrivances should weigh the words of Canadian writer‑historian Peter C. Newman, who observed that the two‑wheeled Red River cart was "the Métis equivalent of the fur trade's … canoe," and every bit as important to the development of the Canadian West. (An 1847 pen‑and‑ink drawing titled "Birch Bark Canoe Being Carried on a Red River Cart" is reproduced in Newman's Caesars of the Wilderness.) It's also worth remembering that even the sainted Nessmuk — he of the go‑light brotherhood — began at least one Adirondack trip by portaging his little canoe on a "lumber wagon." Canoes and wheeled carts have long been partners.

Another example of convenience‑store provisioning is illustrated by Ryc Williamson, whose alternative to more orthodox fire starters is …

The Ubiquitous Chip

Not a better way, but a different tinder. One can carry, additionally, a bag or two of Fritos or Doritos. These nearly explode when ignited. Eat half the bag, use the other half for starting the fire. If one carefully opens the bag from the end, the [metalized] Mylar bag may be used as a mitten for those cold, wet fingers. As always, I enjoy reading your articles and hope that I use and adapt your ideas skillfully.

I must confess that the Fritos fire starter didn't come as a complete surprise. If memory serves, Art Denney once mentioned that Pringles potato chips made pretty fair firelighters. But I'd never put the idea to the test. Until I read Ryc's note, that is. I had a bag of store‑brand tortilla chips handy. Why not seize the moment? And I did:

High-Calorie Snack

It wasn't a very testing test. I didn't light a fire with them. But I did confirm that they burn with a nice, hot flame — and they burn for a good long while, too. They should prove equal to the job. And how many other fire starters can you also use to quell mid‑morning hunger pangs?

This talk about fire starters and hot flames is all well and good. It is, after all, central to the topic of kindling and nurturing a fire in adverse conditions. But it's important not to lose sight of the reasons why we want a fire in the first place. And cooking is high on the list. That said, leaping flames aren't an ideal working environment for the camp cook, as Mike Lee pointed out. Instead, he makes …

The Case for Cooking on Coals

My wife and I used to backpack in the Sierras. We carried extra weight to feed our vegetarian diet back when there were fewer lightweight options available. Therefore, we did not carry a stove and fuel (they weren't required back then), and relied on being below the tree line for cooking.

On one trip we had just set up camp where we started a fire and dinner prep, when a late afternoon thundershower blew up. We ducked under our tarp and waited until it stopped. By that time, our fire was mostly doused, though coals still glowed. Hungry and not wanting to search for more downed fuel near a popular trail in the gathering darkness, we poked the coals and plopped our pots and pans directly onto them instead of above the fire as we normally did. Dinner cooked faster than normal, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that our pans did not have a new layer of soot deposited on their bottoms.

Cooking directly on the coals was faster, easier to control (more or fewer coals under a pot), and cleaner. The coals from a small, quick fire of sticks could boil water easily or reheat the dried beans we may have started the night before. We even made biscuits when I was ambitious enough to create a granite-lined oven in the bottom of our fireplace, with coals to cover it. After that, one of the ways I lightened our load was to never carry a small grate that had been part of our gear.

What can I say? It's no secret that I consider myself a passable camp cook. But Mike's letter opened my eyes to possibilities hitherto undreamt of — by me, at any rate. I've cooked over coals many times. I've also baked in a variety of Dutch ovens, from spun aluminum to cast iron. But I've never deliberately cooked on the coals using light pots. That's going to change. Soon.

And now, a quick backward glance at the critical step which precedes fire‑lighting: fire‑laying. Ric Olsen, another long‑time reader, whose observant eye and genius for improvisation we've tapped in many earlier columns, demonstrates what may well be …

The Ultimate Fire Lay

Building a fire is all about preparation. If you take the time building a sound structure that will catch easily, you will have a fire in a short time and with little effort. It is important to have lots of tinder on hand to feed the fire once it has started to burn. I have seen lots of people who, once the fire starts, just watch it go out. Or they start adding [too much] wood to the fire and put it out that way. Fire-building is a skill of great importance, and should be practiced often. If you do not use it, you will lose it.

Here are two photos of how I build a fire, a front and a side view of the structure:

Ric's (Fire) Place

There is enough room from the front or side to insert one's cotton ball or other tinder after it's lit and burning. I have found this "fire house" the most successful method for me, and it is how I've taught my grandchildren and the Rangers (our church group, like Scouts) to build their fires.

By the way, what's the name of your tiger in the pictures [see below]? Very nice touch.

Ah, yes. The cat is out of the bag. Still, I suppose the secret had to come out sooner or later. The diminutive feline — He's a leopard, Ric, not a tiger! — is none other than Farwell. A while back, worn down from years of unremunerative toil at the keyboard, Farwell lapsed into a sullen silence from which it was impossible to rouse him, and when, in a moment of irritation, I resorted to the familiar gibe, "Cat got your tongue?" he made no reply. But seconds later there was deafening thunderclap. A great mass of dark smoke filled our office. And whom did I see seated in Farwell's chair once the smoke had cleared? Well, you can guess the answer to that, can't you?


The Cat, Out of the Bag


Even though wood fires play an ever‑diminishing role in the lives of most backcountry travelers, there are times when a campfire can literally be a life‑saver. So fire‑lighting remains a vital skill. But paddlers are most likely to want a fire when conditions are least propitious: when all the available wood is wet, when the wind blows hard from every point of the compass, or when arctic cold numbs fingers into immobility.

Fortunately, practice — practice building, lighting, and maintaining wood fires — makes perfect, or near enough. It's a subject I've revisited several times over the years, most recently in a column last month. But the letters reprinted above show just how much I still had to learn. Now, though, thanks to the many knowledgeable readers who took the time to write to me, I'm much better prepared to meet the challenge of fire‑making under adverse conditions. And I'll wager you are, too.


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