How to make a great campfire

This is far from the complicated mess folk end up with. Especially in Australia. Clearly the secret is having something that burns quickly and easily (like eucalyptus leaves full of oil) to ignite slower burning sticks (like small branches from eucalypts, full of oil) that ignite chunky blocks of slow burning logs from hard wood (like eucalyptus, not pine). It’s unlikely that you won’t have access to eucalyptus in the Australian bush (think mallee in the desert) however if that proves to be the case, then quick burning leaves can be substituted with tree bark, paper or fire starters (worst case scenario). If using paper think of packaging you have with you that can be used. Biscuit boxes, deli meat paper, the gin and tonic 6 pack box or the pop up shower owners manual.

Here’s a really big tip (and a serious one) – do not use an accelerant. It’s not worth it. I’ve seen people severely burnt from playing with accelerants in the bush (I’m an ex ICU nurse so I mean badly burnt and hospitalised on ventilators and requiring skin grafts etc). It’s a bad idea at the best of times, but miles from anywhere it can be life threatening and catastrophic. It also sets a bad example for children. Which brings me to big tip number 2. Don’t allow kids to play with fire. There’s no need to and it can end badly. My kids have never been allowed to and consequently they’ve never been the kids with blistered fingers, singed hair or holes in their clothes. They haven’t missed out on anything and they’ve learned to respect fire. If it helps to satisfy their curiosity let them help to make the fire and gather the wood.

Back to making a great fire. Think teepee. Quickly burning fuel inside a teepee of intermediate burning fuel. Light the quick burning stuff and watch the teepee catch. Add to the teepee (inside and outside) piece by piece until there is a bed of little coals and then add some more intermediate fuel across the coals. Add a piece or two of slower burning fuel. The secret ingredient, we all have lots of, is air. Don’t smother. The teepee works because of air. Make sure your fire can draw. Allow air to get between your intermediate fuel and your slow burning fuel. Add pieces slowly and fan your fire if needed (adds the secret ingredient!). Once you have a good bed of coals your fire will burn forever with good fuel. Make sure your wood is dry. By dry, I mean not green. This applies to the starter, intermediate and slow burning wood. They all need to be as old as possible. Green fuel is hard to burn and will be smokey. If you can’t find fuel (or you’re not permitted to collect it, for instance in a National Park) then buy dry stuff from Bunnings or elsewhere. It’s not that expensive, I can do a fire for an evening for $10.00.

A few pointers – Clearly dry fuel is a good start. This is were a bag of fire starters comes in handy. If fuel is wet use fire starters and get something going. Feed it slowly and dry out other stuff around it for burning later. As you burn a dry piece, dry the next piece out. Store wood so it will stay dry. If you think it will rain overnight then put the wood under the picnic table or some where else. I have a storage bag. Believe it or not it’s a body bag (unused) procured during my time as a nurse. It’s made of blue plastic, like the tarps, so you could essentially do the same by throwing down a tarp, putting the wood on half of it and covering it with the other half.

Marshmallow toasting is a must. But remember burning, melted sugar is HOT! My kids still talk about the time that a friends child ended up with a severely blistered lip from a hot marshmallow.

Fires smoke if they can’t draw (air, not pictures). In my fathers language this is known as being reekie. The best things to do is add the secret ingredient. Get air under your fire. Lift pieces of wood, add dry bits between smokey pieces and the coals, add intermediate fuel to get a flame. Or, sit up wind from the fire and let other people deal with it. But the wind will shift or you’ll need to get up and someone will grab your seat, so build a good fire to start with and sit back and enjoy it.

You don’t need a big fire. In fact, there are two types. A cooking fire (small and warm) and a warming “social” fire (slightly larger and hot). Neither should be huge. Both will cook a great spud. It wastes fuel and is potentially dangerous. If you aren’t using a designated fire pit make a ring of stones and keep the fire contained and small. Think about it like your outdoor tv. If it’s too big, you have to move further away from it! You want to enjoy it, not be spread out trying to cool down or shouting across a huge blaze to converse with your fellow campers.

If you don’t need a fire don’t burn. If you’re done cooking breakfast and heading off to explore, extinguish the fire. Always extinguish it completely. The Australian bush burns. Easily. That’s how we got the fire going in the first place. Always completely douse your fire with water. It’s simply irresponsible to leave a fire burning and is never acceptable. And yet I’ve seen it done everywhere and all the time. It’s easy to start again when you next need to cook or stay warm. And respect the rules. If fires are prohibited, it’s for your safety and mine.

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