How to Build an Ethically Clean Campfire
It is discouraging to walk into a scenic backcountry campsite only to find that others before you have left large, charred logs lying across the fire pit. These types of fires are not all that impressive or warm, plus what they leave behind is ugly and detracts from the aesthetics of the area. The key to a hot, bright and ethically clean campfire lies on the ground under your feet, even at campsites seemingly scavenged of all suitable wood. The reckless fire builder looks for the largest log in the forest. The responsible fire builder looks for small twigs and branches, which are much more abundant and typically overlooked by others.
Smart campfire building begins with the collection of small branches and twigs in three sizes: small, medium and large. Be sure to collect only material already on the ground. Do not cut or break branches from standing or downed trees. The smallest branches and twigs should have a diameter similar to a pencil and be broken into 6″ lengths. These will be used to build the initial pyramid. Branches in the medium category should have a diameter of approximately ½” to ¾” and be broken into 8″ to 10″ lengths. Finally, large wood for our purposes is anything you can break by hand or foot. This typically includes branches and small logs up to approximately 1″ to 2″ in diameter. If you are packing an axe or saw, then you can go a little bigger. Try to keep the length of wood in the large category to around 12″. As you collect the wood for your campfire, create three piles. One pile for each size mentioned above. The amount of wood in the picture to the right will keep a campfire burning for approximately one hour.
If you are camping in non-established area, there won’t be an existing fire ring, so one will have to be created. Here’s how:
1. Choose a spot that’s protected from the wind, and at least 15 feet from your tent and gear.
2. Clear a 10-foot diameter area around the site. Remove any dry grass, twigs, leaves and firewood. Also make
sure there aren’t any tree limbs or flammable objects hanging overhead.
3. Dig a pit in the dirt about 6″ deep, or, pile up loose dirt into 6″ mound and then create a crater in the center.
4. Circle the pit with rocks.
Now it is time to construct the initial pyramid. In the fire ring, create a pyramid from the pile of small twig and branches. Push them into the ground an inch or so in a small inward-leaning circular pattern. Leave an opening in the front of the pyramid so you can place tinder or fire starter in the middle of the pyramid’s base. After the initial circular row is constructed, stack additional small twigs and branches around the outside of the pyramid. Insert your tinder or fire starter and light it. As the pyramid burns, keep adding more material from your small pile to the outside of the pyramid. After the small pile is gone, move to the medium-sized material. Follow the same steps of adding the material to the outside of the pyramid. It won’t take long for your fire to become hot and bright. If your pyramid collapses, continue adding wood but now in a crisscross pattern at the center of the fire. Soon you can start adding your larger material. Once you start adding wood from your large pile, your fire won’t need as much attention. Now is when you can kickback and enjoy your fire’s warmth and glow.
The type of fire described here burns hot, rapidly and thoroughly, leaving behind fine ashes that are easily dispersed (when cooled, of course) and will leave no lasting impact on the surrounding environment. At the end of the burn, this type of fire cools down rapidly, so you can go to bed without worrying about the wind blowing hot embers onto your tent or gear, or worse, starting a grass or forest fire. If there are any remaining hot embers, extinguish them with water and not dirt. At non-established campsites, don’t forget to dismantle your fire ring and restore the area to its original condition before leaving.