For the first instalment of our Life Skills series, British soldier and survival instructor Steve Aley shows us his simple steps to create a campfire which can toast your marshmallows when you’re camping, or keep you warm in the wilderness.
Before you start, ensure an adult is present, ensure you have means to extinguish your fire, and check local rules on where you can light fires. Never leave your fire unattended. Always fully extinguish your fire before leaving it.
STEP 1: Collect your fuel
You’ll need three different types of fuel to build your fire, Tinder, Kindling and Main Fuel
TIP: Wood makes excellent fuel. Look for ‘standing dead’ wood. This is wood which is usually still attached to the tree (or is at least off the floor) and will snap with a single loud CRACK! Avoid any damp wood as this won’t light.
Start with tinder. This is the smallest of your fuel and can be birch bark, cotton wool, or a simple firelighter. This is what you’ll use to initially get your fire going.
Next, collect your kindling. You’ll need to collect twigs and sticks in three different thicknesses for this, all around 30cm long. You’ll use the kindling for feeding the fire once it’s lit.
- Size 1 should be as thick as a match stick. You’ll need at least a good double hand full.
- Size 2 should be as thick as a pencil. You’ll need double the amount you have of size 1 kindling.
- Size 3 should be as thick as an adult’s thumb, you will need a good two arms full of this, at least!
Next, you’ll need some logs to use as the main fuel. Look for a few different thicknesses, anything from thumb thickness right up to full size logs. The bigger the logs, the bigger your fire will be. The main fuel will keep your fire burning once it’s fully established.
STEP 2: Prepare your fireplace
Always carefully consider the ground you use to build your fire on:
- Ideally, you need a patch of bare earth, with plenty of space around it.
- If you’re out in the wild, make sure you’re away from trees and always clear away any debris, plants or grass from the ground which could be highly flammable and cause your fire to get out of control.
- Never build your fire somewhere where people or property could be harmed.
- Never build your fire on an upward slope or in windy conditions.
- Always check local laws on where fires are permitted before you get started.
- Make sure you have a responsible adult there and plenty of water or a fire extinguisher to put out your fire before you begin.
Once you’ve cleared a large, safe spot, dig down a few inches into the ground to make a shallow pit which will help to contain the fire.
Next, place your kindling in size order and close by. Keep your tinder packed away until the last moment so it doesn’t get wet!
Lay down a layer of your thicker kindling as an insulator. Then place a ball of pulled open cotton wool or other tinder on top.
Next, place a log (roughly as thick as your arm) across the top of the kindling. When your fire is lit and you continue to build it up, this log will help oxygen to circulate and keep your fire burning.
STEP 3: Ignition
You can ignite your fire using matches, or even just by rubbing sticks together which can build up heat sufficient to ignite tinder (although unless you’re well practised, the only thing you will burn rubbing sticks, is calories!).
Slowly bring your flame towards the tinder and it should catch alight. Be extra careful during this step. Always have an adult present, who may want to do this step for you.
STEP 4: Feed your fire
At this stage, you will need to nurture your fire and grow it. Place a good handful of your smallest kindling directly over the flame.
Once the flame is visibly flickering through the sticks, place another handful at right angles to the first.
Repeat this, working through sizes 1-3 of kindling, waiting for the flame to emerge and then placing the next handful perpendicular/at right angles. You should not need to blow your fire or do anything other than feed it.
STEP 5: Establish.
Once your fire has a strong, orange, glowing ‘heart’ it is time to introduce your main fuel.
As with the kindling, you will go through the sizes building from the thinnest to the thickest. These can be applied in different patterns depending on what you are using your fire for:
- TEPEE: This is best when your fire is to be used for boiling water or cooking in a pot [IMAGE]
- STAR FIRE: This is best used to keep the fire ‘ticking over’ the end of the logs is the area that burns and, when required, just slide the logs inwards. [IMAGE]
- LOG CABIN: This is a favourite, logs are placed parallel with the next pair in the opposite direction. This is great for cooking and especially useful when there is only damp wood available.
STEP 6: Enjoy!
Now is the time to break out the marshmallows or hang a pot over the fire for a nice hot chocolate!
STEP 7: Put your fire out
Once the fire has burnt down almost to ash, extinguish it by carefully pouring water over the hot ashes. Do this from a height to avoid any hot steam. Use a long stick to mix the ashes and ensure the embers have fully gone out. Check the surrounding area too for remaining embers. Always put your fire out and leave it only when all embers are extinguished.
TIP: There are three elements needed for a fire to burn, take away any of these elements and your fire will go out. These elements are Heat / Ignition, fuel and oxygen. If your fire isn’t burning properly, it probably means one of these three elements are lacking! It can be easy to ‘smother’ the fire and not allow enough air in, especially if you’ve built your fire in a hole.
Steve Aley has been a soldier in the British Army for 21 years and is also a Survival Instructor. He has been responsible for providing survival training across the whole of British defence, from submariners to special forces. Steve is also a proud husband and parent. His passion for the outdoors is plain to see in his children, Olivia, Harry and Sophia, who adore being outdoors too.
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