FIRE Part 2: Got Wood
In the previous article, we discussed various methods for starting a fire. In this article, I will cover proper preparing, starting and sustaining a fire, as well as information on the basic application of specific types of fires. Not all fires are the same. Different preparation and fuels are needed to produce differing levels of heat, light, and fuel sustainability in your fire.
One of the more overlooked aspects of starting a fire is preparation. One can’t just go about willy-nilly and throwing sparks onto logs to create fire. It just doesn’t work that way. Starting a fire takes careful planning and gathering of materials to ensure success. If you don’t have the energy to do things twice or you see inclement weather rolling in and you’re short on time, proper preparation may save you from having to endure a cold night.
Tinder - The most important element to starting any fire is tinder. Without good tinder no amount of spark or friction-produced ember will be useful. Tinder comes in many different forms from natural to synthetic and may or may not include additives. This is the base fuel needed to start your fire and it will provide the first flames which you’ll apply to your kindling.
Kindling - The second element of producing a sustainable fire is kindling. Types of kindling can vary from unaltered pieces of fuel such as small sticks and pine duff, to prepared pieces like feather sticks and artificial fire starter sticks. Kindling provides the first base of flames strong enough and long-lasting enough to light your main source of fuel.
Fuel Wood - This is the last fuel step of your fire. Depending on the type of wood you choose you can dictate how hot your fire burns, how bright it burns, and how long your fuel will last. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of different varietals of wood you can use to make application-specific fires, but I will go over just a few of the common North American woods.
Types of TINDER
Moss/Fungi - Mosses like Spanish Moss abound here in the South and they can used as very effective tinder. Find some dry moss, collect a handful between your hands and buff it up to make it fluffier. It will catch a spark easily in that form, and as I stated before, moss is easy to find in the South as well as some of the other wetter regions of North America.
In addition to mosses, certain fungi can make excellent tinder and have been used throughout history by countless cultures. The most common type of fungi used for tinder are shelf fungi. You may have seen these growing on trees or downed logs in the woods. While there are many different ways to produce tinder from shelf fungi, you can improvise useable tinder from these sources by cutting the fungi open and splitting down the layers until you reach one layer that will fuzz up when scratched with a knife.
While ample information exists for the creation of amadou or amadou substitutes from shelf fungi, I personally have yet to accomplish this. The various woods that I’ve come across have not been suitable habitats for these types of fungi. Thus, I have never tried. The one fungus I have used successfully as tinder is cramp balls (Daldinia concentrica.) These fungi grow primarily on Ash trees and can be used as a fire starter. When you drop sparks onto split pieces of this fungus, it will produce an ember that will spread throughout its entirety. I like to think of these as nature-made Match Light coals.
“Downy” Seed Heads - There are many plants that produce downy seed pods that can be used as tinder. Some types of seed heads that are commonly used for tinder are Dandelion heads, Cattail seed pods, Thistle seed heads, and Clematis seed heads. When you look at these seed heads, it is obvious why they make good tinder. They’re essentially natural lint balls that, when dry, will easily catch sparks and ignite. One consideration should be taken into account when you use these types of tinders: they burn very quickly! Gather an ample supply to ensure you don’t run out before your kindling can take flame.
Tree Bark - A variety of tree barks also make good tinder. Cedar bark is considered one of the better natural tinders available as its high resin content allows it catch a spark and burn slowly. Other tree barks like Poplar and Juniper can be used with a little processing. Similar to the Spanish Moss, a handful of bark buffed up between the hands can produce a very effective, easy to light tinder. I’ve found that Juniper bark can make a very good tinder bundle to drop your friction-created embers to start a fire.
Grass - Dry grass works the same way as the previously mentioned Juniper bark and Spanish Moss. Simply grab a handful of dry grass and buff it up between your hands to create a mass of fluffy tinder. There are considerations when using dry grasses. Dried grasses work best when the grass has died naturally rather than having been cut. Cut grasses contain higher levels of naturally-acquired nitrogen which can inhibit the tinder from catching flame.
Also, many varieties, depending on how long they’ve been dead and standing, will catch light and burn off very quickly. Like seed heads, dry grasses should be collected in sufficient quantity to ensure you have enough to effectively light your kindling.
In A Pinch - So what do you do if you’re trapped in an urban setting and these natural tinders are unavailable? There are several types of tinder that can be utilized in a pinch and still be effective at helping you start your fire.
- Feathers: Feathers and down can be used as tinder to start a fire if you can acquire enough of them.
- String/Twine: Most string and twine (as long as they are not treated or made with a flame-retardant chemical) can be used as tinder. Simply unwind the string strand by strand until you are left with a mass of thin fibers. These will catch a spark easily.
- Pencil Shavings: Another good tinder that most people don’t think about are pencil shavings. I used to camp with a guy who would keep a pencil sharpener in his fire starting kit. He would go out and find a stick roughly the diameter of a pencil and run it through the pencil sharpener making a nice pile of tinder. It worked great, and as long as pencils or dry twigs were around, he always had a good source of tinder.
- Charred Wood: Another way to start a fire is to not start one from scratch, but to rekindle one from old pieces of charred wood. While charred wood will catch a spark and create a small ember, it will not easily bring the log back into flame. This technique is most effective when used in conjunction with kindling. Blow gently on the charred section that has caught the ember until it is large enough to catch very small pieces of kindling.
Types of KINDLING
Dry Twigs and Sticks - The obvious example of good kindling are small dry branches and twigs. The important thing to remember about kindling such as these is to have a good supply of them. One of the main reasons why fires fail after initial ignition is that large fuel logs are added to a fire without a proper bed of ignited kindling that produces the necessary heat to light the logs. Always gather more than you think you need as kindling is an easy way to revitalize a fire that has become weak or is dying.
Pine Needles, Dead Pine and Juniper Boughs - Resinous conifers like Pine, Fir, and Juniper provide very effective kindling that will burn very hot. Like other kindling these should be gathered in good supply as the resin content in the wood and needles cause them to burn quickly. Be careful when you use this type of kindling in an area that is saturated by pine duff and deadwood. Sparks can fly out and ignite nearby dry vegetation. So always ensure you have cleared the area around where you are constructing your fire.
Feather Sticks - My favorite type of kindling has always been feather sticks. Feather sticks are small to medium diameter sticks that have had their sides shaved down but not off, kind of like a peeled banana. Feather sticks work even when wood has been lightly soaked by rain and take flame quickly but do not burn out as fast as other kindling types as there is still a good core of fuel wood underneath the shavings.
To make a feather stick, take your stick and firmly draw your knife blade down the side to shave off a small sliver. Repeat this process around the entire circumference and length of the stick. Ensure you make a few of these to create a good base of heat to ignite larger pieces of fuel. You can pluck off any wet slivers of wood to ensure the stick lights easily without having to dry any wet slivers before they light. Feather sticks, if created with very thin slivers, can also be used as tinder.
Bark, Pine Knots, and Fatwood - Pieces of resinous bark make good pieces of kindling as they burn hot. Conifers and Cedars yield some of the best bark to use as kindling but should be gathered in ample supply as they can also burn very quickly.
Pine Knots are essentially the points at which branches sprout from the trunk. Being the transition point from trunk to branch, these areas often contain high concentrations of flammable resin which can help light wood. I advise against taking knots from living trees as they will most likely contain too much moisture and could expose the living tree to an infection.
The best sources of Pine Knots are fallen tree trunks. Oftentimes, when you come across a large soft decaying log in the woods, you may notice that the only parts of the log unaffected by decay are the knots. This is because of the aforementioned resin they contain. Simply kick the knots parallel to the direction the log has fallen to dislodge them from the trunk. Pine Knots also provide high heat and light when burning which is useful for when you need to increase the output of your fire at night.
Fatwood is similar to Pine Knots in that the main reason for its effectiveness is its resin content. But it differs in that it might come from any part of the tree. This type of kindling can typically be found in stumps, upturned root sections, or within the bases of large fallen branches. If you come across of piece of wood that doesn’t have the same texture of typical wood but rather a “plastic-y” or waxy texture, it is likely that it is a piece of fatwood. There are certain species of trees that produce more fatwood than others but any resinous tree can produce it. While it doesn’t shave down or cut as easily as normal wood [it usually chips or crumbles depending on resin content], small chips or even shavings of fatwood are great long-lasting sources of both tinder and kindling that burn hot and bright.
FUEL WOOD Considerations
Different types of wood can be used for different purposes when constructing a fire. Hardwoods such as Oak, Beech, Pecan, Birch, Hickory, and Ash are the preferred woods for cooking and heat as they produce very little smoke but output high levels of heat. Softwoods like Cedar, Pine, Poplar, and certain Maples don’t last nearly as long and depending on the moisture content can produce a considerable amount of smoke. The way wood is prepared for fires also plays a large part in how efficient and how strong a fire can burn. Split wood burns better than whole logs so it is better to split your wood, even if only once, before you place it in your fire.
If you look at your pile of collected wood and deem it enough to last the night, it’s always prudent to double it. You never know what may happen in the night. Having ample fuel on hand prevents you from having to leave your camp in the middle of the night to gather more.
Fire Construction per Application
Light - Small fires needed for making a pot of coffee or heating up a trailside snack need not be big roaring affairs. Heck, you could probably get by with just an ample supply of kindling for this fire and not go through the trouble of finding and splitting wood. For this fire, I would recommend a probably familiar type: the teepee fire. While teepee-style fires are familiar, sometimes the actual procedure to build one isn’t.
Make sure you’re not starting your teepee fire on any peat-rich soil as the peat may catch fire and literally set the ground ablaze. After the area is clear, it is prudent to also make a hearth of stones to restrict any possible movement of the fire. Then, stack large pieces of kindling in a round teepee shape leaving a small, roughly 45 degree opening at the base to the hollow center of the teepee.
Under the teepee, stuff a good amount of very fine or resinous kindling and beneath that, place a good amount of dry tinder. Light the tinder under the teepee and gently blow until all the tinder is lit. The fire should rise up from the tinder into the smaller pieces of kindling and then catch the larger sticks that make up the teepee. Once all the sticks are lit, centralize the embers and coals to use as heat for cooking or brewing.
Cooking - To make a fire sufficient for cooking a meal and/or staying at camp all night make a teepee fire as described above. As the kindling burns into coals, add 2-3 pieces of split wood on top. After the split wood has caught fire, rake the coals into a central bed to use for cooking. You can either place your cookware directly onto the coals or use a suspension system to hold your pot or kettle just over them.
As these coals burn out, add 1 or 2 pieces of split wood on top to keep your fire going and produce more coals. Before you decide to bed down to sleep with an active fire burning, check your local laws to see if this is a wise decision, and consider the wind and amount of flammable material around your camp.
Comfort Fire - When in cold environments that would call for an overnight fire, the easiest way to stay warm is to create a reflecting wall. To use a reflecting wall fire, you just need to build a stone or log wall on the opposite side of the fire. This causes heat to reflect off of the wall and radiate towards you and your camp.
To construct a reflecting wall from logs, drive 2 to 3 stake poles into the ground roughly 1 to 2 feet from the area your fire is to be constructed. Stack unsplit logs against your poles until you have a height just above the intended height of the fire. This wall should provide not only reflected heat, but it also helps to create a wind barrier for you and the fire.
Fire is a mysterious thing. Not only is it a vital tool for self-sustainment, it can also be considered a living entity with its own unique characteristics from one type to the next. Different fuels and environmental conditions will provide different fires that produce differing levels of heat and light. The best way to determine how fuels will burn and to see what available types of fuel are around you is to go out and try these techniques yourself.
There is something primal and spiritual about sitting next to a built fire that communicates deep inside every one of us. The skills and techniques we have looked at in this article were common knowledge not too long ago. By practicing them now, we are allowed a glimpse into where we came from as a people. Keep these skills close at hand and remember that this information not only serves to make your outdoor adventures comfortable and enjoyable, but it could one day save or sustain your life. Thanks for reading and please feel free to ask any questions or comment with any good campfire stories you may have! As always, stay dry, stay motivated, and keep moving.