Kneeling next to the fire ring we’d built a few minutes earlier, I listened intently as my dad waxed philosophical about the merits of a properly-built fire. We’d just completed a long, arduous hike into the wilds of the Appalachian mountains to find that our promised water source, a mountain stream, had dried to nothing more than a puddle. Though we had the best water purification system my dad could find, he still thought we needed to boil any water we used for food or washing.
“The important thing is to start small. Build a teepee with your kindling. A fire needs fuel and oxygen to survive.”
My dad was an Eagle Scout and has never, would never, start a fire with lighter fluid. Besides making food taste terrible and polluting the air for a 100-yard radius, using lighter fluid is just plain unnecessary.
It’s also lame. Seriously, don’t be that guy.
“The Indians used to be able to tell where the white people were because their fires made so much smoke,” my dad would say. “But if you do it right, there is very little smoke.”
That is the goal. A hot fire with minimal smoke. Let me teach you how I do this every time with very little fuss.
I start with about eight Lay’s potato chips. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it. At high elevations it is tough to get fires started because there is less oxygen. The potato chips always help me get over that hurdle. With eight potato chips and even just a stray tumbleweed I’ve been able to get enough charcoal going to cook dinner.
Next, I make a small teepee shape with some dry twigs or kindling. Not too many. The fire needs plenty of air at this point.
I light the twigs, not the chips. The chips are just there to help the fire through its young, awkward phase.
Once it starts, I add some more twigs or kindling. I let it grow a little before placing some bigger pieces of wood on top.
If the fire is going well, but I see some smoke, it needs to be fanned. With a little fanning, it takes the smoke right down. I use the lid of the plastic bin we store our charcoal in as a fan and it works perfectly.
Once the fire is really going, it should be sufficiently hot that there is almost no smoke.
When we are off-grid, we do a lot of cooking with our hibachi stove. A short cook time can be achieved with just some wood. For a longer lasting source of heat, I like to add charcoal. I usually start by putting it in around the edges to avoid smothering the fire.
The idea is to create the sustained heat of the coals you’d have at the end of a long fire. It takes a little time. This part can create a little smoke from the charcoal. If there is too much smoke, a little fanning usually does the trick.
As the charcoal start to turn white, I make sure they are touching each other so they can spread the heat to neighboring coals. And when they are all white it is time to cook. There should be enough heat to make a stew and even boil some tea for after dinner.
So to summarize:
1) A fire needs air and fuel. If it is struggling, it probably needs to be fanned a bit.
2) Lay’s potato chips are my favorite trick for getting a fire started. Light the twigs not the chips.
3) Lighter fluid is for pansies and should never be used by anyone ever.
My book, Camp Like a Girl, is available in Kindle format here for only $4.99. I had several requests for a physical version of the book and that is now available here thanks to the print-on-demand company CreateSpace. My apologies for the $23.99 price of the physical book. I worked on streamlining the book for two weeks to get the price down, but it is the inclusion of color pictures that make it so expensive. I didn’t want to give those up, so I finally relented and approved it for publishing.
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Upcoming posts are about building a choosing your mentors wisely, a review of our new Goal Zero charging unit, and my experience with a rocket stove.
I’m also thinking about adding a “Just Read” and “Just Watched” segment to the blog if I can carve out the time. First, I must finish my book Migraine: Finding My Own Way Out.
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