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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Beginners Guide To Making Campfires

     One of the most critical skills for all who venture into the outdoors is the ability to build a fire quickly. Fire allows you to cook food, boil water, provide heat and light; it is a companion that offers self-assurance and it can be your distress signal if needed. Here are some basic tips that will help you develop better outdoor fire-starting skills:

  • Preparation: Whenever you build any fire, for warmth, overnight, or for cooking, get all the materials together in their proper place, before you strike your match. Stack the firewood by size about five feet from the fire pit. Splash water on the ground around, but not in or on, the fire pit. Clear a circle of 2 to 5 feet from around the fire pit of excess pine needles and leaves. Know where your matches are, they are one of your most valuable physical assets in the outdoors, and haste and poor preparation defeat the purpose of being able to efficiently start a fire.
  • Location: For a midday cooking fire, pick a sheltered location, away from overhanging branches and on solid ground, and make a very small fire. For evening cooking and for overnight, plan for a larger fire or several small fires around you, this will help provide for greater warmth. But be careful in how you arrange multiple fires -- three fires in a triangular arrangement are a recognized ground to air signal of distress.
  • Overnight fires: Pick your sleeping location first and then build your fire in relation to it for maximum warmth. Do not set your sleeping bag too close to the fire, and make sure your fire pit is a safe distance from overhanging trees, etc. Do not use wet or damp rocks to line your fire pit -- they can heat up and explode.
  • Patience: Start any fire with the utmost patience. Plan it carefully and one match will do. Get out of the wind as much as you can before striking your match. Shield the fire area with your body or make a windshield with your jacket or other gear before lighting your match, or you can light a candle in a cup, then use the candle to light your fire.
  • A good foundation: Lay a foundation of fine tinder, such as shavings from dried twigs or pine needles, or whittle with your knife from a dried branch. If possible, do not use leaves, they float into the air very easily. Perhaps the simplest and most effective approach is to use fire starter such as a solid fuel tablet.
  • Build up: Above the fine tinder bed, crisscross a few larger dry twigs about the size of a pencil. Have increasingly larger pieces of wood at hand. A good method is to lay your tinder beside a short length of stick 3 to six inches in diameter, lean the larger twigs over the tinder and against the large stick. Now, when the tinder catches, the twigs will flame up quickly allowing you to add still larger pieces of wood and before you know it you'll have a good blaze.
  • Fire starter: Use a waterproof match, or butane lighter to light it, and slowly add increasingly larger twigs, branches and pieces of wood, building the fire up gradually.
     Make sure your fire is completely out before leaving camp. Douse with water, scatter cinders and cover with dirt. You should feel confident about putting a finger in the fire pit and not being burned. Check it at least twice by pouring water and checking for "hisses". Practice good environmental habits, restore the ground around your camp to the condition you found it, and distribute the ash residue from your fire don't leave ashes in a pile.

Other things you should know…

  • Cooking fires: Look for flat dry rocks to surround the fire so you have containment and a place for your utensils. A small pit built with dry rocks laid out in a "V" or a "U" with the open end toward the breeze will allow draft in the open end to help keep the fire going. If winds are strong, reverse the open end of your pit.
  • Wet conditions: In rain or snow, fire-making becomes more important, and also more difficult. Try making a tripod of sticks over your chosen fire area and draping your jacket over the tripod to shelter the fire base. Carefully light the tinder, add some twigs, and remove your jacket. If the ground is exceedingly wet, lay a base of large logs and sticks and start your fire on top of them.
  • Types of wood: Whenever possible use old dried wood from conifers (evergreens) for starting fires. Dry cones are great too. You may not have the time or the energy to go around and select woods, so burn what you can, get warm and safe and then look for more wood. Just remember that pine, cedar, and spruce will start a fire quickly but will burn swiftly. Woods such as oak, ash and maple will burn longer but are more difficult to ignite. Aspen, birch and poplar are quite common and they make good fires as they burn hot but fairly fast. Whatever you have at hand to burn, gather at least three times more than you think you will need, experience shows that you will use it.
  • Tinder: Solid fuel tablets make excellent fire-starter material in place of wood tinder. However, you can make your own fire starter kit, too. Simply saturate lint, sawdust, etc. with charcoal lighter fluid or kerosene, and carry it in film canisters that have been sealed with duct tape.
Create your own fire-starting kit by taking two small plastic resealable bags, insert 6 to 8 strike-anywhere matches in one bag along with a small piece of emery paper or sandpaper to strike against in wet conditions. Include a combination of dried wood shavings, made or picked up on the trail. Seal this bag then put it upside down inside the other bag and seal the outer bag. This will provide maximum waterproof protection. Keep your fire-starting kit in your jacket pocket, just in case you ever need it. Lastly, always have an "extra" supply of matches stored away for emergencies.


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