CAVEAT: The following applies only to locations where it is safe and legal to have a campfire, and only using wood that is legal to use.
By Greg Illes
Just about everyone loves a campfire. There’s even a word in Swahili that means “dreaming the fire,” it’s such a compelling experience. Perhaps the first “tool” you need is a deep sense of appreciation – of the beautiful spirit of the fire and of your responsibilities with it.
It’s certainly possible to gather a bunch of wood lying around, stack it up and set fire to it. That’s if you find some wood, if it’s the right size and length, if you have some decent kindling, and if you have a safe place to burn it. And there are pitfalls.
One time, long ago, I gathered up some forest-floor wood, an eclectic lot of sticks and branches. I put a too-long branch across a rock and stomped on it to break it in half. Ouch!!! That hurt, and I suffered a slight sprain for a few days. After that, I used the proper tools.
To gather and prepare wood for a campfire, you’ll need at least a small bow saw or long pruning saw. What about an axe? Yes, an axe will cut wood – with the proper skill and patience – and it’s still the least-safe method. But the saw will rip through a three-inch branch in one-fifth the time it would take you to chop it. You’ll find out that an axe is mostly useful for splitting, and for this task a specialty tool like the “Fireside Friend” is better and safer (Amazon, about $35). You can also use the saw (when permitted) to cut deadfall branches off of dead or downed trees. For the hyper-macho types, a small electric chain saw (Amazon) is lightweight and takes only a little juice from your inverter/battery setup. Quiet, too.
An absolutely awesome kindling product is the wax-impregnated sawdust that is sold under different brand names like Sure Start, Safe Lite, etc. (Find them at Amazon.) These will get small branches going with no paper or other help.
A general rule is that large wood needs large fires. If you split your wood into small diameters, you can nurse a small fire along for hours with much less wood consumed. It just depends on whether you want a bonfire or a hunter-trapper fire.
Now, let me say that I do know how to start a fire with matches, or even flint and steel. However, it’s a tedious and painstaking process, and once you’ve done it, you realize why the Bic was invented. Unfortunately, the little wimpy lighters for cigarettes and barbecues are often not up to the capricious winds at a typical camp. Instead, I use a disposable propane bottle with an instant-light burner (same kind used for sweating copper pipe joints). Okay, slam me, but I get those fires started right now.
Once it’s going, there are always one or more “fiddlers” around the fire – you know who you are. You just can’t resist tweaking the logs and embers, poking the fire into a different configuration, or just plain fiddling with it. The most proper tool for this is not a poker (although it will do), but a scissor tong that lets you pick up pieces of burning wood and reposition them. There are a variety of these (Amazon) for $20-$50 depending on size and quality.
There are also other tools you may take a fancy to: grills, dutch ovens, and other cooking-oriented tools can turn a campfire into a kitchen. Sadly, not enough space here to get into this category. (But you can check out campfire cooking equipment at Amazon.)
But frankly, the most important fireside tool is a shovel. The shovel is used to help prepare a fire pit and, vitally, to help fight any unwanted flare-ups from flying sparks and embers. However, DO NOT use the shovel to put the fire out. It’s been proven time and time again that buried embers can survive for days, re-emerging later to ignite the woods when you are not there.
Use water to put out the fire. If you hate using your precious water, be sure to burn the fire down to cold ashes – ashes that you can touch. Then you can use the shovel to cover the ashes and keep them from blowing around and messing up the camp.
Be safe with your fire building and burning. There are a lot of ways to get hurt, so exercise attention and care to keep your campfires joyous.
Greg Illes is a retired systems engineer who loves thinking up RV upgrades and modifications. When he’s not working on his motorhome, he’s traveling in it.