Camping Canada Campgrounds Campfire tips

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CampfireStarting a campfire!  One very important skill to have if you're a camper is the ability to start a campfire quickly with orwithout matches. A campfire allows you to cook food and boil water. It provides heat and light and can be used as a distress signal if needed. Here are some basic tips that will help you develop better campfire-starting skills.

The "fire pit"

The first thing to do when you want to start a campfire is to (a) ensure that you are in an approved area for campfires and (b) select a safe location for your fire pit. It must not be at close proximity to any flammable material and/or overhanging branches. Once you have located a spot, clear a circle of 2 to 5 feet from around the fire pit of excess pine needles and leaves and if possible, splash water on the ground around, but not in or on, the fire pit. Note that you should not use wet or damp rocks to line your fire pit as they can heat up and explode. Make sure the rocks are completely dry.

The ingredients

Wood - of course, you will need wood. Whenever possible use old dried wood from conifers (evergreens). Dry cones are great too. Remember that pine, cedar, and spruce will start a fire quickly but will also burn swiftly. Woods such as oak, ash and maple will burn longer but are more difficult to ignite as they are hardwood. Aspen, birch and poplar are quite common and they make good fires as they burn hot but fairly fast.

Another thing you will need is tinder (very fine kindling). Most materials will work, as long as they are dead, dry and natural. You can use old rope, hemp, jute or manila. You can use inner bark of most dead trees: cedar, birch, pine, spruce, juniper, etc. Following a wet period this may be the hardest item to find. However with a sharp knife, you can easily make you own by "shaving" a stick of softwood. The thinner the shavings, the easier it will be to start your fire.


Lay a foundation of fine tinder, such as shavings from dried twigs or pine needles, or whittle with your knife from a dried branch. If possible, do not use leaves as they can float into the air very easily and start another fire elsewhere. Above the fine tinder bed, crisscross a few larger dry twigs about the size of a pencil. Have increasingly larger pieces of wood at hand. Note that if the ground is exceedingly wet, lay a base of large logs and sticks and start your fire on top of them.

Starting a campfire

The simplest and quickest method to start a campfire is to prepare the wood as described above and to "light up" the tinder. If your tinder is dry, you should see flames within seconds. You can then add more tinder or twigs until larger pieces start burning.
This is the easy way .... but since you may end up in a situation where you don't have any matches (or a lighter), here's a few alternative methods to start a campfire.

During the day, eyeglasses (burning lens) can be used as lenses to focus sunlight onto the kindling. Of course, this solution assumes the sun will cooperate. To make this work, focus the sun's rays through your lens to form a "pin-point" on the tinder. Instantly you will see a glow on the tinder. Once the tinder starts to smoke, set the lens aside and gently blow on the tinder until the glow begins to grow.

Another method to start a campfire is to use two wires from opposing terminals of any battery connected together by steel wool. This setup provides a source of heat by way of electrical resistance. As the battery heats the steel wool contact between the wires, it (the steel wool) will get hot enough to light up the kindling. Note that all types of batteries (from car batteries to flashlight batteries) can be used in this way. The length of wire and amount of steel wool will vary but the principle is the same, resistive heating.

Another method is called the Bow Drill. It is the slowest and most physical method to start a campfire but it is also the most reliable and the only one anybody can make from scratch. It consists of a Fireboard made from a soft wood (such as Pine or Bass Wood), a Drill made from a hard wood (such as Maple or Oak), a Bow made from a piece of "springy" wood (such as Ash, Hickory, Osage or any "green" wood for an emergency bow) and a leather or Rawhide lace (such as a work boot lace), and a Hand Piece made from either a smooth, dimpled rock or a piece of hard wood. Look at the picture on the right to see how it should be assembled. To start a fire, place your tinder partially under the V-notch in your Fireboard. Wrap the lace around the drill one turn. Place the sharp end of the drill in the hand block and the dull end into the fire block. Begin to work the bow back and forth, like a sawing motion. Slowly increase your speed while keeping a steady rhythm. Watch for smoke coming from the fire block and continue until the smoke is constant (not just an occasional puff). Quickly set the bow and drill aside and dump the hot "sawdust" from the block onto the tinder. Gently blow. If no glow is seen, repeat the above. It may take several tries to get the "sawdust" hot enough to "light up" the tinder.

Last by not least, please ensure that your campfire is completely out before leaving. Douse with water, scatter cinders and cover with dirt. Check it at least twice by pouring water and checking for "hisses".

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