Ed. note: Often our hikes take us to remote cabins with wood-burning stoves. Or we heat our homes with wood. Or we build campfires (responsibly) when we're out in the wild. Fire is an essential part of the outdoors. Knowing how to build a good one is key.
Fire is life. Literally. At least it was back in the day -- and still is, in many places around the world. Fire is combustion that releases heat and light, both critical to survival, to the development of humans as a species. Plus, you can roast marshmallows and wieners on a good campfire.
Not only that, if there’s a monster in town, and all of the villagers are gathering in a mob with pitchforks down in the square -- what’re you going to bring? Your smartphone flashlight? No, I didn’t think so. To mete out vigilante justice, you’re going to want a good, old-fashioned torch.
So you see, building fire is still an essential 21st century survival skill.
Basic Fire Ingredients
To build a fire, you need some ingredients, three in fact. As you should remember from 4th grade science or know from experience, fire requires three main parts: fuel, heat, and oxygen.
Outside of author Justin Chapman's sauna. Image: Justin Chapman
Since heat is a bi-product of combustion, and at least for now, oxygen is readily available in most locations, fuel should be your main concern. For fuel, get some wood.
Dry wood. Hard wood. The harder the wood, the longer the burn. Ash is great, as is maple. Beech burns well, but is hard to split. Birch -- yellow or paper -- is nice to have, especially to get a fire going because it catches easily (when dry) and burns quickly.
Always nice to have reason to get out with a chainsaw. Image: Sylvia Chapman
We live in Vermont with lots of trees and lots of wind. So in the spring we have lots of blow-downs to buck up with chainsaws. Or you can buy cordwood from your local logger. Which is the sensible thing to do. A cord, by the way, is a pile of 12” split pieces of wood measuring 4’ by 8’. In Vermont you’ll have to pay about 200-250 bucks for one, delivered. It’s worth every penny if you have a woodstove.
Also get (or prepare) some kindling. If you need kindling, get a project. Projects are great for getting scrap wood for kindling. We built a small studio on our land a couple of years ago, and I’m still using scrap-wood from that project for kindling.
If your wood isn’t already, let it dry. Most “real” Vermonters put up two year’s worth of wood at a time. That way there’s always dry wood in store. Most real people buy cordwood every spring, so that you can at least have the summer for it to dry completely. Look for the cracks and splits in the end-grains, or get a feel for the difference in weight between green and dry wood.
Once you have your fuel, your dry wood and your kindling, you need a place to make a fire. We have a sauna that’s fired with a little iron stove (which I picked up at a big-box store that shall not be named, but is sometimes the sensible place to get something). You’ll also need some bark or wood shavings. Actually nobody really uses bark or wood shavings these days, so get some newspaper.
Take two or three pieces, separate them, and twist or wad them into balls.
Next, take your smallest kindling, and lay that on top of the paper in a crisscross pattern. (You might need to angle the crisses and crosses if you have a small stove.) I usually use two pieces of kindling per level, and I make two or three levels of kindling. (Since I cut my own, I’m really stingy and try to make fires with as little of it as I can.)
Next, have your smallest pieces of cordwood ready to throw on. You can prepare these with a hatchet or splitting maul, but having gradually bigger pieces helps to facilitate the burn. I usually toss a couple of small-to-medium pieces right on my kindling.
Now light up! Just touch a match or lighter to that paper.
Tender Care Mode
And now you’re in tender care mode. You have to nurse this thing to life, feed it gradually, and be sure to give it plenty of draft or air. (This is why you make a teepee or a crisscross with your kindling.)
Always be sure there’s space between pieces of wood, whether kindling or bigger chunks. Most woodstoves have venting both on the front and in the stove pipe -- open everything all the way -- to start.
Hot fire + sauna + fresh, ice cold water = amazing. Image: Justin Chapman
Let ‘Er Roar
Once you get your flames rolling nicely (you should even hear a “roar”), put the biggest log or couple of logs on, and shut down the vents. You’ll sometimes need to monitor the fire in this phase -- open up the vents a little if it starts to flag. You want your fire to burn down into coals, which really gets the heat radiating out from a stove, especially if it’s cast-iron or soapstone. And then, you just keep adding logs as needed.
Last, grab a beverage, and enjoy responsibly!
Ambassador Justin Chapman enjoys the simple things in life from his home in Vermont.