Camping is merely a ho-hum outing until a campfire lights up the evening. The warmth and odor of burning wood create ambiance and safety. Imagine sitting under tall cottonwoods on a dark moonless night, without a campfire as companion. Re-imagine the scene with a campfire quietly casting shadows on the trees and offering conversation by way of crackles, pops and other sounds. Pop: there goes a pocket of sap trapped in the wood fibers. Woosh: that log just caught fire. Thug poof: a large log just rolled over. Beasts of the night would not dare to come close, so I sit in my camp chair safe, warm, like an eagle chic under her mother’s protective wing. So comforted, I stay occupied with the goings-on within the fire ring. The sparks of renewal are all mine.
Campfires have their utilitarian aspects—cooking, making coffee. For many people, fire is critical to their survival. However, I am drawn to the esoteric joys. Consider this: nearly all people, from now back to a million years ago, sat around a camp fire after a long day of activity. It was there, after the work was done, that our ancestors found peace and solace. In this stuff-filled world where I am sometimes adrift, I find a bond with humanity and a subsequent grounding through the shared experience of a simple campfire.
Campfires also to evoke the presence of the spirits. Many religions use fire as a symbol of faith. I remember seeing the eternal flame in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, burning softly but determinedly through the ages, bringing hope and comfort to the burdened souls whose attention was captured by the flame. At times that eternal flame seemed to be leaning right towards a person, perhaps bowing in recognition.
Hope is the message offered by the eternal flame, but fire has been assigned many other spiritual qualities as humans march ever forward through history. At times it is the refiner’s fire; purifying and strengthen the soul. At its worst, the flames of Hell are punishment for the fallen. At its best, a flame symbolizes the Holy Spirit who has descended from heaven and resides within, empowering sorry humans to buck up and participate in God’s world.
Having said all this in celebration of the simple campfire, I will also admit that not all campers approve. Seven years ago I camped with a friend who adamantly refused to make a campfire. The night offered us instead, a bright, full moon, which was quite an acceptable substitute. The reason for not having a fire, though was a concern about pollution and global warming. When burned, wood releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air, which is a factor in global warming. Some CO2 release is a part of the natural cycle, but humans pump it out in horrifying amounts. Avoiding campfires is a way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. The amount I burn makes little difference, but it is the cumulative effect of ones’ carbon foot print that matters.
In this windy, arid ecosystem in the Rocky Mountain West where I reside, my bigger concern is wildfires. Up to 90% of forest and wild land fires are caused by humans;, often the result of a campfire gone crazy. The joy of a simple campfire becomes horror and loss if it grows out of control. I know firsthand the fear that an approaching wild fire brings. When my son was about 8 or 9, we were camping in Northern California. The campground was on a hill, and the fire started in a gulch just below us. We were awakened during the night by firefighters who needed our site—the closet one to the fire– to stage their attack. We packed up quickly and scurried along.
In recent years, I have learned that tree diseases are spread by moving infested wood harvested in one area that is subsequently moved to another, uninfected area. Since I often cross between Colorado and Wyoming, I am learning to leave my Wyoming wood at home and buy (overpriced) local wood. Buying wood seems silly when you live in a rural area full of downed wood, but I have smaller and fewer fires when I buy wood, which is a good thing. Moderation is always the solution when an activity has such pros and cons.
Jane’s Campfire Building Secrets
If you camp in isolated areas and along water, wood is usually plentiful. I can spend hours roaming the area, checking out the flora, and gathering wood. Otherwise, bring your own or buy locally
Building the Fire
I love to have my fire ready to go at dusk, so I make this a day-time project. A fire needs to be built up like a little teepee to ensure air flow. Alternatively, you can build it upagaint the grill or grate inside a fireplace ring by laying wood at an angle.
I build a layered fire, starting with paper (cardboard bits, pineneedles, etc.) Often, I place fire starter on top of this first layer. Many people consider tht cheating, but I am at the age where I am less concerned about image and more concerned about getting the fire started. The next layer should be small twigs and sticks. Next, small logs, followed by one larger log.
Lighting the Fire
Another thing I do not worry about is the “one match” rule for starting the fires. Sure, in my younger days that was a goal, but now I ask, “who cares?” I just want the fire lit, so I use my wooden matches to light the paper all around. Soon the paper will catch the fire starter, and off you go! Most of the time this works, but I have to admit that I keep a small can of charcoal lighter fluid for those times when the wood is wet or the winds are howling (be extra careful about spreading fires then).
Dousing the Fire: I rarely go to bed before my campfire has burned down to coals. On a windless night or if I am cooking in the Dutch oven, I simply leave the coals. Any other time, I douse the fire with water. Always stir up a fire and douse completely before leaving an areas. I keep a special water container for this purpose .
- Be careful about where you situate a tent or camper. The campfire ring is usually in a fixed location and of you set up the tent too close, you could catch things on fire and/or saturate all your gear in smoke. I had my camper too close to a campfire a few weeks ago and it set off the inside smoke alarm. No problem, the wind just drifted the smoke right to the detector.
- Try using fudge graham cookies for your s’mores instead of graham crackers and chocolate.
- Finally, please do not leave your aluminum cans, used baby diapers and plastic silver ware in the campfire ring.