WHAT IS A CAMP WITHOUT A CAMPFIRE? No camp at all, but a chilly place in a landscape …
Only the ancient sacred fire of wood has power to touch and thrill the chords of primitive remembrance. When men sit together at the campfire, they seem to shed all modern form and poise, and hark back to the primitive – to meet as man and man – to show the naked soul. Your campfire partner wins your love, or hate, mostly your love; and having camped in peace together, is a lasting bond of union – however wide your worlds may be apart.
The Manual of Woodcraft Indians (1915)
It’s been said that “the campfire is the focal centre of all primitive brotherhood … we should not fail to use its magic powers.”
Now, I’m not sure about its magic powers, but I AM sure there is a magnetic power that attracts us to a campfire like moths to a flame. Sitting around a fire somehow inspires storytelling, deep-and-meaningful conversations, and camaraderie amongst men like nothing else I know.
And let’s be honest: it’s not a bad way to bring a little romance into a relationship either … who doesn’t love cuddling up to their sweetheart next to a warm fire?
Oh, and let’s not forget food cooked on a campfire: camp-oven bread, chilli, peach cobbler, s’mores … oh yeah!
But before we do the how, let’s first reflect on …
1 – Because It’s Quality Time
As I hinted above, there is no better place to catch up with friends or family than sitting around a campfire. Period. No Netflix, no smartphone (at least there shouldn’t be!) … no distractions. Just the fire’s ability to help us relax and lower our guards for a bit. To be present in the moment.
2 – The Food Tastes Better!
I’ll never forget sitting around the fire with my boys on a fly-camping trip. We had bacon and eggs for breakfast, and I’d just finished scraping the remnants onto their plates for seconds when my youngest piped up, “Dad, these are the BEST eggs I’ve EVER had!” Now, it was true – they tasted delicious! But, they were also sprinkled with a fair bit of ash, some kānuka leaves, and probably an insect or two. But it didn’t matter – to him, the whole experience only enhanced the taste of his food. And (for the record), he’s the fussiest kid I know!
3 – It Connects Us To The Divine
Inevitably, there will be a moment around the campfire when a quiet descends over the group, and you become entranced in the flames. The orange glow of the coals … the flicker of fire… is mesmerising and meditative. And in that moment (however long it lasts), we connect to the divine – the universe, God … whatever you want to call it!
We connect to something profound. And what you do in that moment is up to you.
4 – The Memories!
Being present in the moment is one thing, but enjoying your campfire experience also creates lifelong snapshots in the mind. Given a little trip down memory lane, I’m instantly back around a campfire with my family at Ward Beach … or hunting in the Kaimanawas … or cooking venison in the Greenstone valley … or eating buttery damper at Waikawau Bay … or discussing spiritual matters in the Kaimais … or working with American teenagers on the Mataura River. Great times with amazing people – never to be forgotten.
Maybe the campfire is a little magic?
Sitting around a smoky, anaemic, almost-dead campfire on a cold night does little to create a zen moment or put you in touch with your spiritual-self! But the chances of that happening can be greatly enhanced with a little campfire know-how!
Experienced campers build different fires for different purposes. So, first, let’s look at the fundamentals of good fire-craft:
1 – Create your fire bed
Safety first! You definitely don’t want to be that guy that sets one of our National Parks on fire! So always be aware of the risk. If you’re in the backcountry or somewhere without a designated fire site, you’ll need to prepare your own. Select a spot away from trees and bushes, and clear the ground of any leaf litter, dry grass, etc. Your fire-bed should ideally be on bare ground – so get in there and dig and rake away everything until you’ve got a nice patch of dirt.
2 – Gather your wood
You’re going to need three types of wood …
Tinder: This is the stuff your fire starts with – dry grass and leaves, bark, wood shavings, punga fronds, etc. It catches a flame or spark easily, and will make your life sooo much easier. The key here is DRY – crispy dry! If you’re keen, you can bring your own pre-prepared tinder, like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, rubber tube, char-cloth, lint, etc.
Kindling: Tinder burns fast (except my favourite Vaseline-soaks cotton balls – they’re awesome!), so you’ll need something a little more robust to keep the flames going … like twigs, small branches etc. Think something around the size of a pencil. Of course, the same deal applies; your kindling must be DRY!
Fuel wood: This is what’ll keep your fire going – and, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t need to be huge logs. Something the size of your forearm is good. And (I shouldn’t have to say it, but) it needs to be dry … not capital letter DRY, but dry-ish.
- If you’re using river-stones around your fire, make sure they’re not wet – otherwise, they can explode.
- Make sure you carry a back-up lighter or box of matches, in case your first effort fails.
- When collecting wood, don’t use stuff that’s been lying on the ground (unless it’s only recently landed there). Standing deadwood is ideal. Twigs and branches that snap cleanly are what you’re looking for – if your wood bends, it’s too ‘green’ (wet).
- If it’s been raining, you can shave the outside bark off with your knife, exposing the dry wood underneath.
- And lastly, always collect twice as much tinder, kindling and fuel wood than you think you’ll need!
3 – Lay your fire
There are several ‘fire-lays’ you can use – depending on your purpose. Here are the three most common, plus a few others in the images.
This is your typical, standard fire-lay most people recognise. It’s ideal for when you’re on the move … and you don’t want a fire so big it requires lots of resources … and time is of the essence. Perfect for boiling the billy – or frying a few slices of heart and liver after just shooting a deer.
Place your tinder on the ground (if the ground is wet, lay strips of bark or dry sticks down first). Above your tinder bundle, use kindling to build a small tepee – starting with small sticks first, adding thicker pieces as you go. Leave an opening on the windward side to ensure your fire gets the air it needs. Light your tinder bundle, and as the fire gets going and kindling starts burning, slowly add fuel logs in the same tepee shape.
This a great fire that burns big and hot and doesn’t require too much tending once you light it, as the flames start burning the surrounding larger logs.
Start by making a small tepee fire-lay, then surround it with large pieces of fuel wood, building a ‘log-cabin’ structure to roughly the height of the tepee. Next, light the tinder in the tepee and let ‘er rip!
This is the serious camp-cook’s fire – primarily used for a base camp, where you’re staying for more than a night or two. Its structure funnels air into the fire, creating a hotter burn, which can come in handy for cooking. Also, it can be a good fire-lay for windy conditions because of its structure.
Place two large green logs parallel to each other, about 15-20cm apart. Start a small tepee fire in between the logs. (You can also dig a long trench in the ground and start a fire inside.) When you have a good bed of coals, you can place your pots and pans across the logs or trench, adjusting the heat by moving more or less coals to different areas.
If you want to make it a little more fancy, you can rig up a pole or tripod over the fire and hang your pots for simmering.