Scouts today know there are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors without kindling a campfire.
Modern sleeping bags and layered clothing can eliminate the need of fire for warmth. Lightweight stoves bring instant heat for cooking meals. And one can discover appreciation for nature at night without a dominating firelight.
Still, there’s nothing quite like a campfire. Knowing when, where and how to build one is an essential Scouting skill and a useful skill for life. From a council camp closing event to home fireplaces and backyard barbecues, there will be plenty of times when it will be helpful to know how to build and manage a fire.
To build or not to build
The Outdoor Code and Leave No Trace principles teach Scouts to be careful with fire and considerate in the outdoors. Sometimes that means not building a campfire at all.
Consider the impact on the environment and the potential damage of building a fire. Where wood is scarce, opt not to start a fire and consume what little wood is available. Wood is a valuable resource for not only other campers, but also wildlife.
Where fires are allowed, the best places to build them are in existing fire rings. Making a fire on a mound of mineral soil or in a metal fire pan can shield the ground below from being scorched.
Fire is arguably the oldest of all STEM subjects; our early ancestors had to figure out the science, technology, engineering and math of fire before civilization could advance. Here’s what they discovered.
Three elements are required to make a fire — fuel, heat and air — combined in the right way to achieve a sustainable reaction. How you put them together makes all the difference.
You’ll want at least a hatful of tinder, material that will ignite easily when touched with a match. Use a pocketknife to carve thin shavings from a piece of dry wood. Fluff from cottonwood trees and milkweed plants works well, too. Consider collecting the inner bark of cedars and other downed trees, as well as dry needles from many conifers.
Next comes kindling: dry sticks with diameters up to that of a pencil. Dead wood found on the ground works as perfect kindling. It should be easy to break by hand. Gather enough to fill two hats.
Finally, look for fuel, pieces of wood larger than kindling that will sustain your fire once it has gained a life of its own. To avoid environmental harm, collect wood from dead or downed trees. The amount of fuel you need depends on how large your fire will be and how long you plan for it to burn. Obviously, a quick fire for cooking breakfast requires less wood than a winter campfire meant to warm an evening and dry everyone’s socks.
Light your fire
Place a heaping pile of tinder in the middle of a fire ring, and then organize plenty of kindling over the tinder. You can arrange your fuel wood around and above your kindling in dozens of different ways. Remember to leave space between the logs so oxygen can feed the flames. Smoke can be an indicator your fire needs more air.
Light the base of the tinder, which should ignite and carry heat upward into the kindling. You could also use a homemade fire starter, like cotton balls rubbed in petroleum jelly. To safely start fires, don’t use liquid fuels. As the kindling catches fire, the flames will gain strength, producing enough heat for the fuel wood above it to combust.
You can nurse a fading fire back to life by adding kindling and blowing on embers to supply more oxygen.
Don’t throw trash into the blaze. Not everything turns to ash, and litter could remain after the fire is out. Pack out all trash.
Never leave your fire unattended. A wayward spark could spell disaster if it spreads beyond the fire lay and is not stamped out.
Extinguish a fire by eliminating the fuel, the heat or the air vital to its existence. Pour plenty of water on the campfire, and then stir the ashes with soil. Keep at it until the fire is out and you can touch the cold ashes with your hand.
Campfire etiquette includes following any local regulations and burn bans before, during and after a fire. If you don’t, not only could you face fines and imprisonment, but you could also risk igniting a dangerous conflagration in a dry area.
Many Scouts are fascinated with campfires. Helping them understand when to light one is as important as teaching them how to build one. By instructing them on both, they’ll have the skill they need to be efficient fire-builders — and the wisdom to do it responsibly and well.
The fiery string
An old Scout fire-building contest to test fire-building skills features two wooden stakes, each about 2 feet high, placed on either side of a fire lay. Tie a string between them 12 inches above the ground and another string 6 inches above that one. Keeping it beneath the 12-inch string, each Scout or team arranges the tinder, kindling and fuel wood for a fire. All the fires are ignited at the same time. The first fire to burn through both strings is the winner.
Robert Birkby is author of three editions of The Boy Scout Handbook, two editions of the BSA’s Fieldbook and the latest edition of The Conservation Handbook.