Location, location, location -- it's vital in real estate and in fire starting. Your first step to a good campfire should be to survey the land around you so you can choose the best spot. Here are a few things to look for:
- Dry ground
- Flat surface
- Wind protected
- Close to firewood
- Close to your shelter
- Close to water source
You should already have your shelter and water taken care of before you try to build your fire. Once you've picked a good location, clear away any brush and dig a pit 4-6 inches deep and 3 feet across. If there are large rocks nearby, place them around the pit to help contain the coals. Don't ever use river rocks, they will crack and burst when heated. If the ground is snow-covered, build a platform of medium-sized green branches.
After you dig your pit, collect the firewood. Fires need to start small and build up gradually, so gather a variety of sizes:
- Tinder - easily ignited fire starter
- Kindling - small twigs to medium sticks
- Fuel - larger branches and logs
There are many things you can use as tinder -- as long as they're absolutely dry. Brown pine needles, fallen leaves, birch bark, bird feathers, cotton balls, lint and dried moss are just a handful of items you can use. If you have a knife, peel some bark away from a pine tree and scrape fine shavings from the trunk. If you use leaves or pine needles, crumple them up into a ball.
Your kindling can range in size from small twigs to larger sticks and should also be dry. Adding moist kindling to your burning tinder will snuff out your fire before it gets started. Break the kindling up into pieces that range in size from 2-8 inches.
The fuel is what really gets your fire hot. Look for dry branches under thick trees. Fuel pieces should be 8-24 inches long. Birch trees grow near streams and lakes and burn very hot and fast. Spruce trees smoke more in the spring and summer than the fall and winter. If it's an emergency, don't get too picky -- any kind of dry wood will do. Look for lighter knots -- bulbous chunks of wood on branches. This is accumulated sap and will burn long and slow.
When breaking larger branches, avoid doing so over your knee -- it's a good way to injure yourself. Place one end of the branch against a large rock and use the bottom of your boot and body weight. Another good method is to find two trees very close to each other, place the branch between them and use leverage until it breaks. If you find a nice long log you can't break, just feed it into the fire little by little.
A good rule of thumb for gathering wood is to get as much as you think you'll need -- then double it. You'll go through wood much faster than you think, and the last thing you want to do is run out in the middle of the night. Once you gather enough, stack it near the fire pit in like-sized piles. If you're stuck with mostly wet wood, do your best to get the fire started, and then stack wet branches and logs around it. As they dry, add them to the fire and replace with more wet wood.
In the next section, we'll reveal the secrets behind getting your fire started.