Holy blazes.... fire starting, a vital outdoor skill!
|Blazing fire in Lakehead Hut on a cold rainy day|
Do I REALLY need a fire?
If you are sitting in a hut and it is 30 degrees outside it would be madness to start a fire. You may laugh but this has happened to me a couple of times. One blistering hot summer afternoon I arrived at Boyle Flat Hut where two Swiss hikers had the fire going. The hut was hot...like 45 degrees hot! They had all the windows open because it was too damn hot in the hut to sit inside.
|Blazing hot 30 degree day on the St James- not a good day for a fire!|
I suggested politely but firmly that possibly that wasn't an awesome idea...it took 6 hours for the hut to cool down!
Again if you are camping and it is raining it would also be mad to start a fire. You are going to find it hard to find dry wood, the rain will dampen your fire and you would be sitting outside getting warm on your front and wet everywhere else.
|Cooking over fire in the rain...not my idea of fun.|
You need to pick if and when you are going to light a fire carefully.
When is a fire appropriate?Good question. Here are some things to consider when deciding if a fire is suitable:
|A more appropriate way to heat water at lunch- a gas canister stove!|
- How long is your stop? In the old days trampers made a fire every time they stopped for a brew, you can still do this but is it necessary.
- Wood supply: is there any wood available? Often the answer will be no, especially around the well used non serviced huts and above the bush-line.
- Temperature: Do you REALLY need a fire if it is 30 degrees Celsius?
- Is there a fire ban in place? This is a lot more common now with climate change.
- Is a small fire more appropriate than a large one? You may only need a small fire to heat the newer 'insulated to death' DOC huts. Don't go overboard and try to melt the window glass...
Wood selection for fire making
Do not bother with rotten wood, it will never burn even if it is bone dry. Bark/cones are also difficult to light- keep them for when the fire is really blazing.
|Cutting logs into kindling, Lakehead Hut|
|Some log splits for the wood box in John Tait Hut, Nelso Lakes NP|
Tools of the trade
Your first tool is yourself, break small branches in your hand, over the knee or around a tree. Slightly larger versions can be leaned against a rock and broken in half with your feet. Breaking wood this way is as old as humanity, we have used this method for the last 100 thousand years.
|Tools of the trade: Axe and saw|
|Using a knife and a log to split wood, photo Paul Kirtley|
Types of fires
|Some different types of fire formation|
|Classic star pattern fire set up|
Once the fire is burning the various logs are slowly feed into the centre maintaining the flame.
Building an outdoor fire
|A scratch camping spot with fire circle near Mt Richardson, Canterbury|
- Locate a site for your fire. When using 'leave no trace' methods this should be in an existing fire circle, or on a hard impermeable surface such as rock, compacted sand or compacted soil
- Gather your wood: you need tinder, kindling and fuel wood. Make sure you have more than enough wood to maintain the fire until it is going well
- Place a bunch of tinder in the middle of your camp-fire site, if the ground is damp construct a wood platform for the tinder to rest on using larger kindling
- Form an initial teepee of small kindling around your tinder regardless of the form of fire you are building
- Add kindling to the pile, working up to pencil sized pieces
- Create a larger teepee/log cabin/upside down pyramid around and above your kindling teepee using fuel wood,
- Light your fire. If you have some type of fire starter (rubber tube/candle stub/soaked cotton waste) this is when you should use it.
|Different types of firewood ready for use|
|Lighting a classic 'pyramid' fire outdoors...note the hard rocky ground|
|A small campfire at the Ryde Falls camp-site, November 2012|
Make sure that you:
- Conserve wood- only use what you need, when you need it- don't waste wood just because it is there. Leave some for the people coming after you.
- Keep fires small, they use less fuel and usually do the job perfectly adequately.
- Don't use smooth river stones in a fire circle- they may explode as they heat up and expand.
- Don't light a fire on humus (the dry, crumbly soil you find on a forest floor) as it can smoulder and eventually catch fire long after you are gone.
- Watch your fire, never leave it unattended in case it gets out of control and starts a larger fire.
- Make sure it is fully out before departing: use the douse, crush and mix method. Put the fire out with water/soil/sand then crush the embers with your feet. Mix it around with a stick to make sure all embers are out. Repeat until fully doused.
Building a fire in a hut
|The classic 'corker cooker' wood burner, Magdalen Hut|
|Fire prep done and wood laid in for when needed|
|Partially full wood shed at Nina Hut|
|Look at that beauty: a full wood shed at John Tait Hut|
|Basic framework for your fire- log cabin type|
|Ready to go: tinder and kindling added...note the air regulator|
|It need not be perfect...my slightly shambolic pyramid...it still worked!|
|Supply of wood ready for when fire requires it...|
Some huts will also supply coal for the hut fireplace. I'm constantly surprised by the number of people who have never used coal before, when I was young everyone used it on their open fires so everyone knew how to use it.
|A bag of coal in fire wood shed, Lake Daniels Hut|
|Coal being used in an open fireplace|
What to do once the fight is burning
|Larger splits being added to a well blazing fire...|
Practice makes perfect
|In the firebox and ready to go, Mid Robinson Hut|
Keep an eye out for good tinder, I collect Fuschia bark every time I see one of these trees as they make excellent tinder. I have a couple of kilos of it at home drying out for future use.I always carry a handful of it in a tied off plastic bag as an emergency back up.
|Paper like bark of the native Fuschia Tree...great tinder!|
Final thoughts on fire making
When I am tramping in the summer months (when fires are less of a necessity) I always take the opportunity to cut & gather wood when I get to a hut. Cut some kindling and gather dry branches, put these in the woodshed, under the veranda or under the hut if possible so they can dry.
|Best way to stack ready use wood- cross hatch stack- it dries faster|
I wont need it but I'm providing for leaner times when dry wood is not so easy to locate. If you pass a likely looking log close to a hut by all means carry it with you, chop it up and put it in the wood shed. Obviously don't carry it for 5 kilometres just in case...that would be mad.
One other point- all of these skills are covered in a basic bushcraft course run by climbing/tramping clubs and safety organisations. If you want to get some fire making skills sign up for one of these courses and learn how to do it from an expert.
Be safety conscious- don't leave a fire un-attended and for pity's sake don't touch a wood burner once it is going. Those bastids get hot!