Building a cooking fire
Under most conditions building a fire is not difficult. Preparation is key, most beginners make some basic mistakes in their haste to get a fire going such trying to use damp fallen leaves as tinder or piling on wood too quickly.
- Gather all the dry fuel you will need to do the job so that you will not have to leave the fire unattended to search for fire wood.
- Clear leaves, pine needles and other flammable material around the area that you will start the fire.
- Find some dry tinder. Material such as Birch bark , dry grass, pine needles, very thin twigs and crumpled paper will all work well.
- Sort your fuel by approximate size. Push a small stick in the ground at a 45 degree angle and lean small thin twigs against the stick. Place a small pile of dry twigs and sticks within easy reach.
- Using a match shielded from the wind, ignite the tinder and gently feed the fire with twigs from the pile that you had set aside.
- Add some larger sticks. Once the fire has been burning for a few minutes and you have started to build a bed of coals you are ready to cook.
- Add wood from time to time to keep the fire going but use no more than you need to do the job. Remember that small fires conserve fuel and are easier to work around.
- When fire wood is wet , position some of it so that the radiant heat from the fire will heat and dry it before it is put in the fire.
- After the fire has burnt down, sprinkle water on the coals and stir them with a stick to make sure all the coals are extinguished. Make sure that there are no coals burning that could reignite and start a forest fire.
Tips and Notes regarding Fire Wood
- Hardwoods such as Oak and Maple tend to be dense and produce long lasting coals which makes them ideal to provide the steady heat needed for baking
- Soft woods such as pine or spruce and other evergreens are good for kindling to start fire. These woods tend to be resinous which causes them to burn quickly and often produce sparks. When burned in a wood stove or fireplace, they tend to generate soot or creosote which will accumulate on the walls of the chimney, especially if they are smouldering. If it is necessary to use pine or other conifers in a wood stove or fire place it is best to burn the wood hot and fast to prevent this.
- Do not burn treated wood, it will create toxic smoke and arsenic containing ash.
Finding Dry Firewood in Wet Conditions
Squaw wood is a term that refers to dead branches and twigs that are attached to living trees. As trees grow in height, new growth tends to shade the lower branches. Those branches that are not producing food for the tree drop their leaves and die off. These still attached branches provide a ready source of dry firewood even when conditions are wet. Twigs and branches should snap easily otherwise the branch is still green.
Cooking over a Wood Fire
People have cooked over wood fires for thousands of year. To anyone accustomed to a modern cookstove this can present some significant challenges. There is no heat control other than moving your cooking pot closer or farther away from the fire. Cooking on a wood fire requires almost constant attention. Some things to keep in mind are that a smaller fire is better for cooking than a large one. It will produce less smoke, be easier to control and it will be a lot more comfortable to work around. When ever possible I alway use hardwoods to develop bed of coals which will tend generate less visible smoke and will cook more evenly. Make sure that the fire is well contained in order to avoid producing wind blown embers which can start forest fires or damage tents and other equipment. Where winds are particulary severe it may be necessary to build your fire in a shallow trench.
- Never use sandstone, shale or other sedimentary rocks build a fire ring or as pot supports as these types of stone can contain water. When heated, water within the rocks can quickly turn to steam causing them to burst apart with explosive force.
- Soaping the outside of pots exposed that are to be exposed to woodsmoke beforehand will make them easier to clean. Just be careful not to apply soap to the interior of the pot which will contaminate any food it comes in contact with.
- House hold pots with plastic handles are inappropriate to use over an open fire. Pot handles may soften or melt from radiant heat creating a dangerous situation. Pots with a bail or metal handle are much better.
- Wood ash from the camp fire boiled in a greasy pot makes it a lot easier to clean. The potassium carbonate in the ash reacts chemically with grease to form a kind of soap.