25 Oct, 2018
“How come it takes a single match to start a forest fire, but a whole box to start a campfire?”
We love campfires; in many ways they are at the root of much that is best about family life outdoors. Not because we have campfires all of the time - we don’t - but because there is no warmer, happier, more unified of complete feeling than lounging round a campfire with our children and friends after a big supper has been devoured and looking at the stars while talking nonsense and sipping on something appropriate.
Fire was the first thing that truly set us apart from other animals; once we could make a good fire we could cook, fend off predators and stay warm. The essence of a good fire is a reliable method of lighting, good tinder and good wood.
PREPARE THE GROUND
First, scrape a bit of ground clear of dry grass or pine needles or whatever and build a good surround with stones. The more careful you are at this stage, the more you can relax later. We didn’t build a good enough surround once when we were on holiday in a very dry France, and nearly lost control of our fire.
CREATE A SPARK
We have tried using things such as flints, like real men, to spark fires and have made them work, but we far prefer something simple like matches, a lighter or even - our favourite - a firesteel (a piece of ribbed steel, along which you drag another piece of metal to create a spark). If you’re worried about getting matches damp you can buy the expensive all-weather version (available in most camping shops and which are incredibly efficient) or dip normal matches lightly in varnish, which not only protects them but makes them burn more fiercely, too.
LOVE ME TINDER
The best tinder is probably dry newspaper, which needs to be bundled up, loosely in single sheets to light a good fire. If newspaper isn’t available, try tiny dry twigs mixed with equally dry pine needles, unravelled natural rope or shredded cedar or redwood bark. Whatever you use, make sure the tinder is dry. If everything to hand is wet then the inner wood of a semi-rotten log sometimes works. Pile the kindling onto the inner in a loose conical shape; you need to let air get to the fire, so don’t pack it too tightly.
FROM SMALL BEGINNINGS
Next you need lots of kindling. Softwood - wood from conifers/evergreens - makes the best kindling; but most woods will work well if they are small, dry and you have a good quantity (more than you imagine you need). The key is to find bits of dead - but not too rotten - wood; wood torn from living trees damages the tree and has very high water content.
NOW FOR THE BIG BOYS
Once the fire is burning, gently add larger logs, trying to keep a rough conical shape. Hardwoods - generally speaking, broad leaf trees - are best at this stage: they will burn longer and hotter than softwoods.
You’ll always use more wood than you think you’ll need.
Finally, make sure that the fire is properly extinguished before you move on. This may sound a bit elementary but fires can take root and travel underground if the ground is made of peat or a deep mulch of leaves and needles.
PREPARE FOR COOK OFF
To make your campfire suitable for cooking on the simplest thing is to find some sort of metal grill; sometimes we use a shelf from the oven, but it takes a hell of a lot of scrubbing before it is suitable for use in the oven again. Lay it over the rocks that surround the fire, or drop some stones of a suitable size to hold it up (do build the fire around the grill rather than the other way around if you plan to cook on it). The other key thing I’d suggest building in is a tripod from which to hang your kettle and any saucepans; you can also buy these - but if you build your own do it out of solid wood and make sure it’s high enough for the flames not to reach it, and that it is outside the stones so it’s not sitting in the fire.
Extract from Pedlars’ Guide To The Great Outdoors by Charlie & Caroline Gladstone (Square Peg, 2012).
Photos by Tim Winter. Illustrations by Matt Blease.