Three Essential Campfires: Snack Fire, Cooking Fire, and Comfort Fire

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 22, 2009 · 22 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors

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You can tell a lot about a camper’s experience by the type of fires they build. Inexperienced campers usually build the same, heaped together bonfire for all their campfire needs. Sure, building huge ass fires is fun, but it’s extremely inefficient. The typical bonfire campfire burns a lot of wood, wastes heat, and isn’t very good for cooking food.

Experienced campers, on the other hand, build different campfires depending on their needs. These campers understand that when you build the right fire for the right time, you get the most efficiency out of it, the most comfort, and the most pleasure.

Below we’ve outlined how to build three different campfires for three different purposes. First, we’ll show you how to build the small snack fire. Next, we’ll discuss how to create the perfect fire lay for cooking. And finally, we’ll take a look at how to build a campfire for warmth and comfort after a long day spent hiking.

Snack Fire

tepeefireSometimes you just need a fire big enough to warm a pot of coffee or fry the afternoon’s catch. Or perhaps you’re not setting up permanent camp at a stop. You don’t want a fire that’s so big that cleaning it up when you leave consumes too much time. Enter the snack fire. The snack fire is just a basic tepee fire lay. It’s small, but very efficient.

To build it, simply start by placing small twigs up against each other until you form a mini tepee. Leave an open space in the center where you can place the tinder. Newspaper balls, dry leaves, and dry pine needles work best. With practice, you can start a small fire in seconds. To keep the fire going, keep adding small twigs to the lay.

To use it to boil some water for your coffee or broil some bacon, wait until the tepee falls and then put your frying pan or kettle right in the center. Keep adding little twigs around the pot to increase the heat.

That’s it! While this fire won’t keep you very warm and it isn’t large enough to cook much, it’s a good fire to use when you need one quickly or just want a little warm comfort on your travels.

Cooking Fire

10-cooking-rangeYou should implement the cooking fire when you plan on staying in a location for more than a day and you want to do some serious campfire cooking. Campers often try to cook by placing their pots and pans directly into the fire. But this typically achieves less than satisfactory results, burning both pans and food. This leads some to tote along a camping stove. But you can make an effective campfire cooking range out of all natural materials.

Start off by building a tepee fire. Make it a bit larger than you would for a snack fire. When you get a good fire going, lay two green logs side-by-side about 7 inches apart at one end, and 4 inches at the other. The two logs serve as a stove range where you can place pots and pans. You can put your smaller vessels like a coffee pot on the narrower end, and your larger pots on the wider end. This enables you to cook several dishes at the same time. Spread or pile the coals to create hotter or cooler cooking areas.

If you want to make it a bit more elaborate, you can rig up a pole over the fire as seen in the picture. Then you can then hang your pots a couple of inches above the fire for care-free simmering.

Comfort Fire

07-campfireWhat if you could bring the comfort and warmth of a fireplace with you on your camping trip? Well, with the reflecting fire you can. On a cold night you need more than just a simple tepee to keep you warm. You need something that will focus the heat directly at you. The problem with most campfires is that it throws heat off in all directions. A reflector fire lay solves this problem by replicating how a fireplace works. Fireplaces have a backdrop that reflects heat back towards the house. The reflector fire does the exact same thing.

You can use any fire lay to make a reflector fire- tepee, log cabin, star fire, whatever. We’re just going to place the fire in front of a backdrop to reflect heat.

Try to find a natural reflector to build your fire in front of. A cliff, larger boulder, or earthen bank will work. If you can’t find a natural reflector, build your own by driving two hearty stakes into the ground at an angle in front of your fire. Against these slanted poles, stack up a row of logs from largest to smallest to form a backstop that will serve as the reflector. Use only green wood so it won’t burn.

Now you can sit on your tree stump, eat s’mores, and enjoy the warmth and comfort of a fireplace out in Mother Nature.

Source:Woodcraft by George W. Sears

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Beat Attitude September 23, 2009 at 5:17 am

I love fires…I was a bit of a pyromaniac as a kid, but there’s something really invigorating about enjoying a warm fire outside on a cold night, especially when you’ve built it just right. Equally, there’s nothing more frustrating than a badly built fire: one that’s too hot to go near, or one that keeps going out. I really need to arrange a camping holiday soon :)

2 Jonny | thelifething.com September 23, 2009 at 7:29 am

Lol, great post. I will keep the three main fires in mind next time I am off getting lost in the woods.

Please, just a post on how to win in a fight against a particularly unfriendly bear and I am packing my bags.

3 Rh September 23, 2009 at 7:59 am

I don’t plan to use a tepee any more. Tepee fires are nice when you are a little kid in cub scouts, but we know now how to build fires a lot better. Unless you just want a mini-fire for quick use, try to use the top-down fire. You start the fire at the top, and the embers slowly fall/burn downward into bigger and bigger logs. it sounds counter-intuitive, but works.

4 Joanthan Cunningham September 23, 2009 at 8:22 am

A lot of national parks tend to frown on camp-fires in the wilderness, and they do tend to leave ugly ash rings behind. If you’re backwoods, avoid fires and use portable backpacker’s stove instead. Then again, there’s the economic/environmental cost of petroleum.

Seems a fella just can’t win.

5 Dustin | Engaged Marriage September 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

As a camper and Dad, I really enjoyed this article. I used to be “that guy” who would always build a huge fire regardless of its utility. Fortunately, I have learned a lot over the years (mostly from my father-in-law) and I now build better fires. I will keep your tips in mind as I introduce my own son to the ways of the woods. We had our first Dad-Son only camping trip this summer and, of course, the campfire was his favorite part (and mine!).

6 Fingersoup September 23, 2009 at 10:24 am

The reason national parks frown on campfires is because:

1. people are careless, and cause forest fires
2. People are messy, and don’t clean up after themselves

So, be responsible. Choose an open area for your fire. Keep your fires small, Never leave your fire unattended, and when you’ve put the fire out, spread the (cooled) ashes thinly over a large area.

As well, pay attention to campfire bans or forest fire risks. If the forest is dry, don’t light a fire. The last thing you want is to turn your camping trip into a state/provincial emergency.

7 P September 23, 2009 at 10:38 am

If you use bar soap on the bottom and sides of your pans, you can prevent the burning of your pans. Make sure your fire is dead out! Dig through the coals and make sure that everything has been throughly soaked. You should be able to place your hand in it. Also, if building a fire in a new location, not established fire pit, take off the topsoil before building your fire. When you are finished break up the coals and scatter them in the woods and replace the topsoil you removed for no trace camping.

8 Lee September 23, 2009 at 11:39 am

Another good tip I read from an Old-School Boy Scouts handbook (you know, the ones that actually knew what they were talking about…) was to dig yourself down below the topsoil, as was mentioned previously, but also to keep that topsoil handy with a shovel near it, to use as an emergency fire extinguisher. This is, of course, provided that the topsoil does not have too much organic or combustible material mixed in with it. This also allows you to bury your fire pit after you plan to move on, again keeping with No Trace camping ethos. Burying ashes and DEAD coals is a safe way to dispose of fire remnants.

9 Art Gonzalez September 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

I remember going camping with an uncle of mine, retired from the US Army. He explained to me the different types of camp fires that you could build and it was a great experience.

Thank you as always for your great postings. God bless you!

Art Gonzalez
http://www.quantumknights.com

10 Eric Olson September 23, 2009 at 11:40 am

There are ways to build fires that leave no trace. Do a Google search for Leave No Trace fires and see what comes up.

11 P September 23, 2009 at 12:21 pm

@Lee, old school handbook is coming back! The new edition is taking old school info and adding a modern “green” twist to it!

12 Mark Steven Czikalla September 23, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Gentlemen, As outdoorsmen we have the responsibility of commonsense stewardship in the great outdoors. There is almost nothing more manly than to build a proper fire setting, and to tend to the fire.To be a keeper of the fire is an invitation of great conversation, moral building, an atmosphere of quiet inner-thought and reflection of how blessed we are to share our fire. I’ve never sat at a campfire where I have’nt got to know about friends and strangers a little bit better. So, keep your fires burning brightly boys.

13 Bob September 23, 2009 at 5:21 pm

I have just got one of these stoves http://www.occuk.co.uk/outdoor
and I am very impressed it’s a great potboiler, I have the small one,
also it’s give me some thing to sit around it at night.Bushmans TV short of thing

14 Playstead September 24, 2009 at 2:10 am

Great tips, and knowing how to build a fire really comes in handy once you have kids. Nothing is more impressive to them than seeing their dad build one hell of a fire.

15 Nik September 25, 2009 at 2:53 pm

I certainly enjoyed the article, but I’m not sure how to approach the building of the two fires (the more functional two) that require “green logs.” I don’t think it’s a good idea to chop down trees for your fire purposes unless you’re on your own land . . . so what is one to do? Where do you scavenge up green logs? Or do you make sure to only cut aspen because it’s already a worthless pest tree?

16 Brian P September 25, 2009 at 7:39 pm

You left out the best cooking camp fire of all, the dakota fire hole. Granted most parks may frown on you digging holes but saving the sod and soil off to the side allows the hole to be filled when you leave. Check out this link for the best overview of them I have found: http://www.survivaltopics.com/survival/the-dakota-fire-hole/

17 Steve-O October 2, 2009 at 9:07 am

@ Brian P,

Thanks for posting that link!! Amazing…

I really like the Dakota Fire Hole method the best, and hopefully This article will be amended one day to accommodate it.

18 Ryan Fischer October 7, 2009 at 2:50 am

As an Eagle Scout, I completely disagree with your insinuation that inefficient fires are bad fires for cooking. Quite the opposite, by burning sticks over 1/4in. in diameter, but under 1in. you quickly create excellent coals which will fuel a dutch oven. The archaic method of constructing a spit with which to hand a pot over a fire is complete nonsense. Sure, you can do it if you want to, but there is really no point in doing it, as a coal based heat source is superior for camping or hiking. There are lightweight alternatives to a dutch oven.

Anything you can cook in a pot, you can cook in a dutch oven. If anything, cooking fires are an obsolete tool, much like rope harnesses for climbing. There are better alternatives out there.

As for a “comfort” fire: A fire is a fire. Get it started, and make sure it won’t spread. Also, never make one in a cave…

A “snack” fire is also an equally laughable concept. Throw some wood together, get your tinder and kindling in any place, and watch the fire spread (as fires will tend to do). Tepee abominations are good for show, but they take way too long to construct for practical purposes.

But hey, I’m more of a hiker than a camper: I like things to be quick to prepare, and quick to take down.

19 Nik October 12, 2009 at 2:48 pm

@Ryan

1. While it is nice that you are an Eagle Scout, it does not make you a subject matter expert on building efficient fires. Becoming an Eagle Scout in no way requires practical expertise in building fires.
2. It seems you looked at the picture rather than at the description of the cooking fire. The method described does not involve the spit; it involves logs on which you can rest your cooking pots and is clearly meant for a camp more on the Hemingway-long-term-fishing-camp model than a site at which you will be spending only one night.
3. Once again, the key point of the comfort fire is that it directs all of the heat in the direction you want it. If you know it is going to be a very cold night, you might want to take the time to make a fire designed to maximize heating in your direction.

20 Piph January 25, 2013 at 6:58 pm

gentlemen, methinks you miss the point in your corrective missives. these manly articles are general guidelines and introductions to various subjects for the reasonably intelligent. if your personal bend will not allow for generalities and basics, perhaps you’ll be good enough to expound on such in great detail on your own site and leave a link for those of us that want the absolute authority’s take.

21 Reccanello February 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm

I have found this tipe of Swedish Fire Torch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfRovJ1KcCg) and it’s worked to cook!!!

22 Alexander Connell April 22, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Good point in the last paragraph about using a natural reflector when possible. That greatly increases the efficiency. It’s also a good idea to sit ‘between’ the fire and the reflector so you’re kept toasty front and back.

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