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Wilderness Wednesday's - Fire Building and Tending

I love fire and I absolutely love starting them and building them, and this is not for throwing junk in a pile and dousing it in lighter fluid. There are so many off shoots I can go with fire (survival, campfire, cooking, rescue, etc.) and I will over time. However, what has been on my heart and mind a lot over this past week is how to make and tend that precious light. Whether it is for warmth, for cooking, for rescue, for entertainment, for s'mores, for a ceremony, or for a dance-party, that light and warmth is essential. I believe that all fires are a conversation and a relationship with the earth because the materials matter, they are about 75% of the equation. The rest of the equation is knowledge, skills and heart, or I like to think of it as just awareness. This will simply be how to build a simple fire for a nice campfire, especially as summer is here and camping season is here.


If you are building a fire with a lighter or a match and not using a primitive friction fire such as bow-drill or hand drill, it is still important to know what kinds of materials you need and how to use them. There are three types of fuel you need; tinder, kindling and larger pieces of wood. When you think of tinder, you want to picture a bird's nest, it is dry, fluffy and sometimes even powdery. If you are camping in wet weather it is wise to grab materials along your walk. Poor options are grass and dry leaves, these tend to be wetter than you think they are and do not transfer heat from a coal well. However, cedar (ash juniper) bark, fluffy seed pods, inner bark of china berry, cottonwood and aspen are all great options.

Kindling is comprised of small sticks, generally toothpick size to pinky size and dry. Avoid gathering sticks from the ground unless you really know it hasn't rained in some time. First look up in the trees (high and dry!) find the old branches that are thin and snappy, if you bend the branches and they do not snap, they are not dry.

The larger pieces of wood that will keep you the warm and give you the best coals for cooking are hard woods. These burn long, slow and hot! These are woods that give you those beautiful large coals. Especially in a survival situation, using soft, half rotten wood is going to keep you very busy and not very warm. Look for woods such as oaks, pecan, ash, hickory, birch, beech, apple, cherry, maple and cedar. I realize these may not always be around if you are foraging from the landscape but it is a good place to start. Again, the wood will need to be dry, so fallen trees and branches are always best. If you are buying firewood for a family cookout or camping trip it will be a hard wood.

Fire Lays

There are many fire lays out there and they all have pros and cons associated with them. They can also shift slightly depending on the weather such as high wind or rain. I am not going to go in depth on bad weather fire lays, that is another post. However, here are a couple that most people already know.

The Teepee, which is probably the most go-to fire lay around. To arrange, put the tinder bundle source in the middle of your teepee. The foundation will be comprised of the small kindling sticks and have larger pieces ready that are thumb to wrist size. Leave space to access the tinder and light it. The design will allow air flow to carry the flames up lighting the rest of it. To avoid it toppling over, grab a large stick in the beginning and stick in into the ground, then build the teepee around that center stick.

The Lean-to, is a modified teepee, and works well in high wind or rain. Have a center stick laying at a 30-degree angle with the end in the ground facing into the wind. The wind should blow across that long stick. Put your tinder bundle under that stick and build a teepee structure around the center stick. Then light the tinder bundle!

The log cabin, looks exactly like it sounds. Put the tinder bundle in the middle, with a small teepee around it. Then stack larger pieces perpendicular to each other to make a square. Keep repeating the pattern and build it up tall, like Lincoln logs, using smaller pieces as you go up. This will help build a cover on the top. Light the tinder and it will carry the heat up into the small logs.

My personal favorite is basically a rat nest, actually called a haystack. I like to make a nice tinder bundle, close to a beach ball if it is damp or wet conditions. Gather kindling and other sticks into sorted piles of similar size, from toothpick to wrist size, a decent two handed bundle of each is more than needed. Once the tinder is lit, I pile on the stacks of sticks, from smallest to largest after each pile is sufficiently lit. It is safe to add more wood when the flames are higher than the wood. Once the larger pieces get burning, I will add sticks in a teepee shape and then move to a platform or stacked log cabin to keep it going. Fire loves messy!

Reflections on Fire

It is beneficial to know your materials, know what you are working with, how it behaves and responds. Knowing paves the way for a relationship, which builds confidence, which establishes peace of mind, which cultivates a deeper connection to self and then to nature.

Have a strong foundation, a stable and a dry platform and be sure to shield from wind and rain. These only want to put out your fire but there are ways to work with them and utilize them without taking away from that fire.

There will be moments when the fire needs to be tended to, it will not burn on it's own indefinitely. Sometimes, it only needs a few small sticks, sometimes it is time to add a few large pieces to keep it going. Other times, it just needs some air to allow some other areas to contribute to the fire. Perhaps, just turn a piece over or provide a lever stick to lift up a larger log or provide some smaller wood to catch the flames to provide more heat which will transfer back to larger logs, even the large ones need some help and support sometimes. Invariably, we may even forget about it, it may have almost gone out, but chances are, there is enough heat to transfer to a tinder bundle, to small sticks, to large sticks to large pieces to sustain that warmth and comfort. The important part is to give awareness, pay attention and tend to it as needed, give it love because that fire is life, security, and the light that we need to illuminate the darkness.

The darkness is not inherently bad but it is often unknown and mysterious, this can cause fear, denial, avoidance and even hatred. However, all it takes is a little bit of light to show us what is truly there, if we are willing to look and I invite you to look. It takes courage, it takes bravery and it is not always inviting for there is danger and even evil sometimes. However, if we are ready to look we can handle it, and face it and become even better for doing so.

How strong can I build my fire? Which areas do I want to illuminate and explore? How can I do this with love, compassion, understanding and true vulnerability? How can I continue to learn and to lead, to guide, to mentor and to teach with openness, love and empathy?

It is my hope to do this, to continue to try and to continue to build my fire, learning what it takes to do so and learning what it takes to keep it tended to, with love.

"When we can truly be ourselves, it is quite relaxing!

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