Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Ode to Campfires

Nothing beats a good campfire, especially when you're worn out after a long day on the trail. My Uncle Steve is a master fire builder, and is the person who taught me the tricks of the trade. One of those tricks is to start small. People have a tendency to start too big, but you need tinder in the beginning. Tiny twigs, old man's beard, pine needles, and even wood shavings all make good tinder. Once the tinder is nice and hot and burning good, you can start adding the kindling. But remember, if you throw in the bigger stuff too fast, your fire will die.

My Uncle Steve tending the fire.

This lesson is especially true in wet conditions. On the Olympic Coast I day-dreamed of the campfire. It was always wet and windy and cold. I remember our second night, all of us were soaked to the bone by the time we reached our camp, and all the wood available was soaking wet. The principles of starting a fire in the rain is the same, but it takes more time, and a heavy dose of patience. Start small, but keep it small longer than usual. Keep feeding it tiny twigs until you have a small ball of burning red coals, and then slowly start adding bigger stuff (still feed small stuff as well). If the fire is dying, get on your hands and knees and blow into the coals. Build a wall around your small fire with your kindling and larger wood. The fire will dry it out over time, and it will also help shield the fire from wind and rain. It can take a lot of time to start a fire in wet conditions, but it's definitely doable. My cousin Luke and I spent hours once trying to start a fire in the backcountry after days of rain. But our efforts paid off, and eventually the fire was so hot, anything we put in it, no matter how wet, caught flame. You'll have to constantly tend it, constantly blow on it, and constantly feed it, but it will be worth it in the end.

Steve starting small in the rain.

Building a good fire is sometimes challenging, but for me it's a lot of fun. If you arrive in camp early, building and maintaining a good fire is a fun way to just pass the time. It can also be a big morale booster, especially at the end of a long, cold, hard day. Just don't forget your lighter or waterproof matches, or at the very least Swedish Fire Steel. When I backpack I bring two 2 sources of flame, usually a small lighter and a box of waterproof matches (as a back-up) in my first aid/survival kit. Lately I've ditched the lighter in favor of Swedish Fire Steel, which when combined with good tinder will produce flame. I always bring tinder as well. Something that will easily catch a flame and burn long enough to ignite the organic tinder I add. You can find all kinds of fire starting materials at REI or any other outfitter. I just take a few cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly. You can make them easily at home, and they are cheap and lightweight, and will immediately ignite from a spark.

Chillin' by the fire.

I leave you with my favorite campfire ever. I think Its my favorite mainly for the location, on Gem Lake in the Seven Devils. We had the lake to ourselves. It was so clear and still, and beautiful. We sat on that log and cooked trout for dinner that we caught from the same lake earlier. It was an amazing evening in the backcountry.


  1. thanks for the tips! your photos are awesom as well!!

  2. Great pictues. I want a camera like yours!! :-)

  3. Nice article. Love burning stumps at camp