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A campfire is a fire lit at a campsite, usually in a fire ring. Campfires are a popular feature of camping, particularly among organized campers such as Scouts, Guides or Royal Rangers. Without proper precautions they are also potentially dangerous. A certain degree of skill is needed to properly build a campfire, to keep it going, and to see that it is properly extinguished.

The dangers

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A campfire may burn out of control in two basic ways: on the ground or in the trees. Dead leaves or pine needles on the ground may ignite from direct contact with burning wood, or from thermal radiation. Alternatively, airborne embers (or their smaller kin, sparks) may ignite dead material in overhanging branches. This latter threat is less likely, but a fire in a branch will be virtually impossible to put out without firefighting equipment, and may spread more quickly than a ground fire.

Embers may simply fall off of logs and be carried away by the air, or they may be ejected at high speed by exploding pockets of sap. With these dangers in mind, some places prohibit all open fires, particularly during times of the year that are prone to wildfires.

Campfires are prohibited in many public camping areas. Public areas with large tracts of woodland usually have signs indicating the level of fire danger, which usually depends on recent rain and the amount of deadfalls or dry debris; when the danger is highest, all open fires are prohibited. Even in safer times, it is common to require registration and permits to build a campfire. Such areas are often kept under observation by rangers, who will dispatch someone to investigate any unidentified plume of smoke.

Finding a site, and other safety measures

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Ideally, every fire should be lit in a fire ring. If a fire ring is not available, a temporary fire site may be constructed. One way is to cover the ground with sand, or other soil mostly free of flammable organic material, to a depth of a few centimeters. The area of sand should be large enough to safely contain the fire and any pieces of burning wood that may fall out of it. Sand piles should be scattered after the fire has been put out. If the topsoil is moist, it may suffice to simply clear it of any dead plant matter. Fire rings, however, do not fully protect material on the ground from catching fire. Flying embers are still a threat, and the fire ring may become hot enough to ignite material in contact with it.

No fire should be lit close to trees, tents or other fire hazards. This includes overhanging branches; some carry dead, dry material that can ignite from a single airborne ember. In addition, a fire may harm any roots under it, even if they are protected by a thin layer of soil. Conifers run a greater risk of root damage, because they lack taproots and their roots run close to the surface.

Fires also should not be lit on bare rocks. The ash will leave a black stain that cannot be easily removed, but the fire's heat can lead to more dramatic consequences. It will cause the outer layer of the rock to expand, possibly causing it to crack. It may also boil pockets of water contained in the rock.

An additional safety measure is to have sand and water on hand to smother and douse the fire if it does get out of the fire pit. It is wise to gather these materials before they are actually needed.

Types of fuel

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There are, by conventional classification, three types of material involved in building a fire without manufactured fuels.

  • Tinder is anything that can be lit with a match. The best natural tinder is dead, dry pine needles or grass; a more comprehensive list is given in the article on tinder. A quantity of tinder sufficient to fill one's cupped hands to the top is the bare minimum needed.
  • Kindling is an arbitrary classification including anything bigger than tinder but smaller than fuelwood. In fact, there are gradations of kindling, from sticks thinner than a finger to those as thick as a wrist. A quantity of kindling sufficient to fill a hat may be enough, but more is better.
  • Fuelwood ranges from small logs two or three inches across to larger logs that can burn for hours. It is typically impossible to gather without a hatchet or other cutting tool, so fuelwood must usually be brought from home or purchased at a nearby store.

The gathering of fuel in natural areas is often restricted. Cutting of living trees is almost always forbidden - but neither is it very useful, because sap-filled wood does not burn well. Squaw wood (dead parts of standing trees) may also be prohibited. Wood lying on the ground is usually permitted.

Building the fire

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Having found a suitable site and gathered materials, the fire-builder has a variety of designs to choose from. A good design is very important in the early stages of a fire. Most of them make no mention of fuelwood - in most designs, fuelwood is never placed on a fire until the kindling is burning strongly.

The tipi fire-build is perhaps the best, but it is takes some patience to construct. First, the tinder is piled up in a compact heap. The smaller kindling is arranged around it, like the poles of a tipi. For added strength, it may be possible to lash some of the sticks together. A tripod lashing is quite difficult to execute with small sticks, so a clove hitch should suffice. (Synthetic rope should be avoided, since it produces pollutants when it burns.) Then the larger kindling is arranged above the smaller kindling, taking care not to collapse the tipi. A separate tipi as a shell around the first one may work better.

A lean-to fire-build starts with the same pile of tinder as the tipi fire-build. Then, a long, thick piece of kindling is driven into the ground at an angle, so that it overhangs the tinder pile. The smaller pieces of kindling are leaned against the big stick so that the tinder is enclosed between them.

A log cabin fire-build likewise begins with a tinder pile. The kindling is then stacked around it, as in the construction of a log cabin. The first two kindling sticks are laid parallel to each other, on opposite sides of the tinder pile. The second pair is laid on top of the first, at right angles to it, and also on opposite sides of the tinder. More kindling is added in the same manner. The smallest kindling is placed over the top of the assembly. Of all the fire-builds, the log cabin is the least vulnerable to premature collapse, but it is also inefficient, because it makes the worst use of convection to ignite progressively larger pieces of fuel.

A variation on the log cabin starts with two pieces of fuelwood with a pile of tinder between them, and small kindling laid over the tops of the logs, above the tinder. The tinder is lit, and the kindling is allowed to catch fire. When it is burning briskly, it is broken and pushed down into the consumed tinder, and the larger kindling is placed over the top of the logs. When that is burning well, it is also pushed down. Eventually, a pile of kindling should be burning between two pieces of fuelwood. The logs will eventually catch fire from it. Another variation is called the funeral pyre method because it is used for building funeral pyres. Its main difference from the standard log cabin is that it starts with thin pieces and moves up to thick pieces. If built on a large scale, this type of fire-build collapses in a controlled manner without restricting the air flow.

The traditional Finnish rakovalkea (literally "slit bonfire") is constructed by placing one long piece of fuelwood atop another, parallel and bolstering them in place with four sturdy posts driven into the ground. (Traditionally, whole unsplit tree trunks are used for the fuelwood.) Kindling and tinder are placed between the logs in sufficient quantity (while avoiding the very ends) to raise the upper log and allow ventilation. The tinder is always lit at the center so the bolstering posts don't burn prematurely. The rakovalkea has two excellent features. First, it burns slowly but steadily when lit; it doesn't require arduous maintenance, but burns for a very long time. A well constructed rakovalkea of two thick logs of two meters in length can warm two lean-to shelters for a whole sleeping shift. The construction means that the logs themselves act as wind-cover! Thus, exposure to smoke is unlikely for the sleepers; nevertheless someone should always watch in case of an emergency. Second, it can be easily scaled to larger sizes (for a feast) limited only by the length of available tree trunks.

Lighting the fire

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A campfire

Once the fire is built, the next step is to light the tinder, using either a match or a lighter. A reasonably skillful fire-builder using reasonably good material will only need one match. The tinder will burn brightly, but be reduced to glowing embers within half a minute. If the kindling does not catch fire, the fire-builder must gather more tinder, determine what went wrong and try to fix it.

One of five problems can prevent a fire from lighting properly: wet wood, wet weather, too little tinder, too much wind, or a lack of oxygen. Rain will, of course, douse a fire, but a combination of wind and fog also has a stifling effect. Metal fire rings generally do a good job of keeping out wind, but some of them are so high as to impede the circulation of oxygen in a small fire. To make matters worse, these tall fire rings also make it very difficult to blow on the fire properly.

Steady, forceful blowing may be in order for a small fire in an enclosed space that has mysteriously slowed down, but blowing may extinguish a fire if it is done abruptly or when it is not needed. Most large fires easily create their own circulation, even in unfavorable conditions, but the variant log-cabin fire-build suffers from a chronic lack of air so long as the initial structure is maintained.

Once the large kindling is burning, all of the kindling should be put on the fire, save for one piece at least a foot long. This piece is useful later to push pieces of fuelwood where they are needed. Once all of the kindling is burning, the fuelwood should be placed on top of it (unless, as in the rakovalkea fire-build, it is already there). For best results, two or more pieces of fuelwood should be leaned against each other, as in the tipi fire-build.

Without matches

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There are several ways to light a fire without any matches. All of them work with only the lightest and most flammable tinder, such as paper.

On a sunny day, a lens may be used to focus the light onto the tinder. The most suitable lenses are magnifying glasses (included in some compasses), but eyeglasses may also suffice.

The "bow and drill" method is also well-known, but it is a lot of work. The bow is similar to that used for archery. To make such a bow, find a thin rope or flexible but sturdy vine, and a sturdy stick about two feet long. Tie the rope to one end of the stick, and make another knot on the other end of the stick, with the rope between the ends not quite taut. The drill is another straight stick, thin but strong, preferably stripped of bark and with a sharpened end. The center of the bowstring (rope) is wrapped around the drill, with the two sticks at right angles to each other. The end of the drill is placed on a piece of bark in the middle of the tinder. The bow is moved rapidly back and forth to rotate the drill and create heat and friction on the bark. This method works best with an assistant feeding the tinder to the hot spot.

The crudest method of igniting a fire is to strike two hard objects (at least one of them combustible) together to produce a spark, and ignite tinder from the spark. The substances traditionally used to produce sparks are flint and either steel or pyrite. Replacing the steel with ferrocerium (lighter "flint") produces more sparks with less effort. Rotting wood (punkwood) or charred fuel are sometimes used as tinder when using this method.

Campfire activities

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Australian "snags" cooking on a campfire

Campfires have been used for cooking since time immemorial. However, portable stoves have all but replaced campfires in this regard. For cooking information, see cooking on a campfire. Other practical, though not commonly needed, applications for campfires include drying wet clothing, alleviating hypothermia and use as a distress signal.

Most campfires, though, are lit exclusively for recreation. People tend to find something fascinating about flames and glowing coals, so a campfire is usually an agreeable way to pass the time from dusk to bedtime, particularly for those in a pensive mood. Campfires are also good venues for intimate conversation and storytelling; yarns and stories about poltergeists are particularly popular.

Another traditional campfire activity involves impaling marshmallows on sticks or uncoiled coat hangers, and roasting them over the fire. Roasted marshmallows may also be used for S'mores.

Extinguishing the fire

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Leaving a fire unattended is dangerous! Any number of accidents might occur in the absence of people, leading to property damage, personal injury or possibly a wildfire. Ash is a very good insulator, so embers left overnight will only lose a fraction of their heat.

Large amounts of water are indispensable for extinguishing a fire. To properly cool a fire, water should be poured on all the embers, including places that are not glowing red. The water will boil violently and carry ash in the air with it, dirtying anything nearby but not posing a safety hazard. The water should be poured until the hissing noises stop. Then the ashes should be stirred with a stick to make sure that the water has penetrated all the layers; if the hissing continues, more water should be added. A fire is fully extinguished if the ashes are cool to the touch.

If water is scarce, sand may be used. The sand will deprive the fire of oxygen quite well, but it is much less effective than water at absorbing heat. Once the fire has been covered thoroughly with sand, all water that can be spared should be poured on it, and the sand stirred into the ash.

Finally, in lightly-used wilderness areas, it is best to replace anything that was moved while preparing the fire site, and scatter anything that was gathered, so that it looks as natural as possible.