We all know ‘that bloke’ who stands by watching other people make fires and tells them they’re doing it all wrong. But do you just hate him because he might be right? Don’t stress, Gabby’s here to turn you into a campfire ninja who can (pretty much) set things ablaze with a single click of the fingers.
How hard can it be to make a campfire? After all, the Australian bush is notoriously dry, right? Sure, you can throw together some sticks and light a match or ten and eventually get something burning. Can you cook on it? Will it keep you warm (or just warm at heart) for hours without collapsing into a pile of tepid ash? Here’s a couple of campfire secrets that will have your camping friends impressed (or scared) by your survival skills.
First up, establish who is looking after the fire (one or two people tops). You know that saying about too many cooks spoiling the broth? Well, it applies to building a campfire too. Everyone else can gather firewood.
Next, like any good recipe, it’s best to get your ingredients ready before you begin:
- Firewood – break it into pieces suited to the size of fire you plan on having then sort it according to size (no need to get OCD about it, just roughly sorted will help)
- Kindling – small twigs, pine needles
- Tinder – dried grass, jute string
- Fire starting implements – ferro rod (flint and steel if you’re brave – matches as a backup)
IMPORTANT – Fire Safety
This article is about how to light a campfire, it presumes that you have checked whether you can or should light a fire where you are going and if you need to bring your own firewood. Please be aware of the dangers of inappropriate fire lighting, especially during bushfire season.
Before you actually start building the fire, ensure that the area in which you plan to have the fire is clear of sticks, grass, vegetation and anything else that can catch alight and spread your fire beyond your control. It’s a good idea to clear at least one metre around the fire site. Do this even if you are in a designated camping area with an enclosed fire pit.
If you are in the wild or a campsite without a designated fire pit, try to ring your fire with stones to help contain the perimeter (not from a creek or river – heating these up makes the water inside expand into steam and can cause them to explode) and ensure that your fire is at least 3 metres away from tents and gear. Once you have finished with your fire, return the area to how you found it as much as possible.
Have enough water at hand that you can douse your fire should it begin to get out of your control. Always douse your fire before going to bed or before leaving – with water and/or dirt.
Time To Start Building The Fire!
Start with a heavier piece of wood as your centrepiece, then build around that. Fire needs oxygen to burn, so for a successful fire you need to ensure that air can flow through your fire from the bottom up. Place one or two sticks, roughly 3-5 cm in diameter, on the ground perpendicular to your centrepiece. Across the top of these put another 4 or 5 pieces of a similar thickness to create a base through which air can flow (see photos below).
Next, prop 4 or 5 smaller sticks (say, finger thickness) from your base onto the side of your centrepiece, roughly in the middle, with a little space in between each. On top of these sticks, lay several very thin kindling sticks then a good handful of very dry grass (preferably dead – this needs to be very dry). Add another several very thin kindling sticks on top of this.
To the outer sides of your little platform, lay a few heavier sticks (2-5 cm in diameter), angled in at the top across the other sticks. You should now have a little lean-to of a few different grades of smaller width sticks.
Channelling Your Inner Neanderthal
Now the telling moment! Grab your ferro rod and scraper one in each hand. The rod should have an ‘up’ and a ‘down’ side. If your rod has a shoulder, place the shoulder against the scraper – that way you get two surfaces creating sparks for the same amount of effort.
Scrape against the ferro rod in a downward motion several times in quick succession while holding the rod close to the dry grass. It may take a few times to get the hang of this – some people find it helpful to rest the rod on something solid (like your centrepiece log). If you are getting plenty of sparks but the grass is not catching, try teasing out the fibres of a small piece of jute string (handy to keep a length of string with your fire starting kit).
The Importance Of Tinder
If your tinder is dry enough, the sparks will flare into flames quite quickly. This is the time to add more pine needles and fine kindling, taking care to feed without smothering. If your tinder is catching but not flaring into flames, you may need to gently blow on the sparks to help them along. Once they start flaring, feed kindling slowly, taking care not to smother the flames.
As the flames grow, keep adding sticks on top, still propping against the centre log. Gradually add heavier sticks until you have some good solid pieces burning, propping them across other pieces so that air flow is maintained. Now is the time to add another heavier piece.
The secret to getting a solid fire going is to keep adding some heavier and some lighter pieces – don’t think just because you’ve got flames that you can chuck the big log on, you need heat and flames to keep that fire going.
Cooking On The Fire
If you are planning on cooking on the fire, give yourself ample time. Depending on what you want to cook, and how, you may need coals (camp oven stews or potatoes in foil) which can take a while. To fry or boil water (and yes, coffee) you’ll want steady flames and somewhere to rest your pot or pan.
Now sit back, relax, unpack your tall stories and enjoy your evening around the campfire – if only everything in life was so simple!