Smokey Bear used to warn, “only you can prevent forest fires,” as if the whole dang wilderness were spontaneously com-busting like a drummer from Spinal Tap. Why is it then when you desperately need a cooking fire that even the tiniest hint of moisture makes it seem impossible to light anything, including the frigging match?
Apparently fires when you don’t want them are readily available, yet fires when you do takes some serious coaxing. To increase your burn rate, we offer up a few basic tips to get you fired up.
Fire requires heat, oxygen and fuel. It is most likely to occur when treated as a gradual progression: from ignition source, to tinder, to kindling, to fuel. If you have ever tried to light a log on fire with a match, you understand the difficultly in bypassing the progression.
Ignition starts combustion by providing a burst of heat in the right conditions. The ignition source may be as simple as a friction match or a lighter, it may be as primitive as flint and steel or rubbing sticks together, or it may be as creative as focusing the sun through a magnifying class or touching a 9 volt battery to steel wool. For most of us, a boring match or lighter will do just fine.
Love Me Tinder
Tinder is the high school romance of fire: it starts easily, burn hot, and dies quickly. It is often described as material which can be ignited with a match. The purpose of tinder is to catch the ignition and create a flame hot enough to be transferred to the kindling.
Sources of tinder readily available in the wilderness include leaves, dried grass, and pine needles. Beware that some bark shreds such as redwood may look like great tender but actually contain tannins which naturally protects the tree from fire. That is great news for the tree, but not so great for the tinder. Another enemy of tender is moisture. If it is raining, or has rained recently, you may have to dig to get passed the surface moisture. Some people carry their own backup dry tender, such as laundry lint, in a plastic bag. It burns great and it is more practical than harvesting from your own navel.
Kindling is the next step in our pyro-progression. It is larger than tinder, but smaller than fuel. Kindling is usually made up of small sticks, the diameter of a pencil or finger. It does not catch fire as easily as tinder, but it will burn longer, and is much better at sustaining enough heat and flame to catch our fuel.
Fuel is wood ranging from your finger to your arm. Anything bigger than your arm is probably not appropriate to burn in the wilderness. As a young scout I was taught the politically incorrect saying:
White man make big fire – sit way back, Indian make little fire – sit real close.
When it comes to fires, we were always taught to be Indians. Now days we would probably have to be indigenous people and purchase carbon offsets just for thinking about making a small cooking fire.
There is no right way to construct a fire. Any structure that works will do. Once properly constructed, a good scout can light the fire with 1 match. In fact, if you tell a scout he only get one match, he will probably take much more time in the preparation phase. Or he may just be tempted to soak it with white gas first, so you really got to watch em.
Some common fire structures are the tepee, the log cabin, and the lean-to.
A tepee is sort of a free for all pile. Start with a pile of tinder. Lean kindling size sticks against the pile, with the tips pointed to the center. Continue adding progressively larger sticks until you reach the small fuel size.
Log Cabin Fire
For a log cabin, you start with the kindling size wood. Place two sticks on opposite sides, about 4-6 inches apart. Then stack two more sticks across the other sticks completing the square. Continue stacking opposite parallel layers as if you are making a log cabin. Once you have a reasonably sized box, fill it with a handful of tinder. Place sticks across the top of the cabin, covering the tinder.
In the lean-to you place the tender next to a medium sized log. You then lean the kindling against the log, across the tinder. After multiple layers of tinder, lean several fuel size wood on that.