Starting a fire in your fireplace or a backyard fire pit is a skill that many people feel confident in, but how about starting a fire in the backcountry, without a Duraflame fire starter and a foot-long fire stick lighter?
When I first began backpacking, I hadn’t started a fire in years. I had a fire pit at home in the backyard, but my husband usually set the fire when we had one. On a trip to Munising Tourist Park, which my friend Robin and I used as a basecamp for hiking Pictured Rocks, we struggled to build a campfire with thunderstorm-dampened scavenged twigs and purchased wood, ending up buying lighter fluid from the camp store to get it started. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who struggled with this, as someone stole the lighter fluid right off of our picnic table!
On group backpacking trips, someone else always started the fire. While I was happy to collect firewood and kindling, I wasn’t the person staging it in a teepee or cabin configuration and deciding when it was ready to light. It wasn’t until a group trip where the trip organizer and I were the only ones to arrive the night before the hike began that I tried starting my first fire. I recall Brady saying something along the lines of, “Men often jump in and do the fire, and women sometimes don’t get the chance–do you want to start the fire?” and I said “Yes,” thinking it would be a good opportunity to try. While it took a lot more kindling than I expected, and a fair amount of coaching from Brady, the fire eventually took off, and I realized that this was something I should do more often.
It surprises me how many new hikers carry a flint-striker with them as an emergency fire-starting device. Have you actually tried starting a fire with one of those? For those who are new to firestarting, it’s hard enough with a Bic lighter. The torch-style lighters made for cigars, or the extended Bics that look like mini-versions of the firesticks you’d use to light a grill work much better. They keep your fingers further from the flame if you need to keep the lighter lit for more than a couple of seconds. If you do carry a flint-striker for fire-starting, be sure to practice with it to make sure you could get it to work for you in an emergency–my guess is that you might replace it with a small lighter.
One tool that I have found invaluable is a pocket bellows. This little gadget allows you to fan your flames without getting your face right into the fire. It’s great for restarting a fire from coals, and for getting damp wood to burn. Another option is to use a sit pad to fan the flames–just don’t melt it!
Practice is the best tool you can have, though. You want fire-starting to come easily, and this happens through repetition. Practicing in less-than-ideal conditions will build your skills. Just like it’s a good idea to give your gear a try in the rain or snow, it’s a good idea to practice fire-building with foraged wood and the tools you normally carry in your pack.
Yesterday I gave this a try. We had a blizzard about a week ago, and then an unseasonably warm couple of days with some rain. Everything was muddy and wet. But New Year’s Eve Day I had a free afternoon and it wasn’t raining, so I decided to sit around the firepit in the backyard and enjoy being outdoors. I collected fallen birch branches from the yard and neighboring woods to use as kindling. Even when wet, birch bark burns easily and hot. It doesn’t last long, but it is good kindling. I found a couple of maple limbs that had fallen to break up and use next to the kindling. I used my folding backpacking saw to cut up a small tree that had fallen in the woods earlier this summer. A few pine cones to add to the birch kindling completed my materials search.
It was a challenge to get the bigger pieces of wood lit–the kindling went fast, and while the mid-sized maple branches caught from the kindling, they didn’t burn hot enough to really get the bigger pieces going beyond a smolder. I needed more kindling and medium branches than I had anticipated, and so collected more while returning back to keep what little fire I had going. A big fallen birch branch provided the twigs and bigger pieces I needed.
The larger pieces of wood steamed and sizzled as they heated up, and required constant fanning to stay burning instead of smoldering, but eventually the fire began to give off heat and develop coals that would have been suitable for cooking, or just providing warmth. It was not the peaceful afternoon of sitting around outdoors that I had envisioned, but it was a fun challenge to see if I could keep the fire going.
While I don’t always build a fire when backpacking, (sometimes because it’s not permitted, and sometimes because it’s light so late in summer that I don’t see a need) it’s a nice skill to have. When it’s damp or chilly, a fire can be such a mood-lifter, and it gives the group focus to have a common task. On a hike on the AT last fall, a thru-hiker who we shared a shelter with acted like it was Christmas when he came down the path and saw we had a fire built.
A campfire can feel like a luxury, but there may be times when it’s a necessity. Be sure that you’re comfortable getting a fire going.
Here’s what’s generally in my fire-starting kit:
Folding Saw (I don’t usually take this on extended backpacking trips, but if it’s a shorter hike with lots of time in camp, I’ll bring it. It’s also handy for trail maintenance.)
Fire-Starter (homemade using a cardboard egg carton with dryer lint from loads of towels or other cotton-heavy items, and melted wax from old candles poured over the carton and lint, cut into bits)