How to Build a Never-Fail Campfire

Where campfires are allowed, it's important to know how to build–and put out–flames properly.
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Where campfires are allowed, it's important to know how to build–and put out–flames properly.

Backcountry bonfires are as yesterday as neon tracksuits. Even small campfires, where they aren't banned outright--as in popular sections of the Sierra high country--are strongly discouraged elsewhere. Still, there are special circumstances in which knowing how to perform one of humankind's first true skills can save your butt. Like when you're soaked to the bone after a day of sea kayaking in Glacier Bay's 70-mile Muir Inlet, and the cold rain just won't let up.

Find fuel: Use driftwood or deadfall; an armload of twigs and sticks (thumb-width or skinnier) will get the fire going, and a couple of armloads of wrist-thick wood will last the evening. Search for dry wood under rock overhangs and at the bottom of driftwood piles. If necessary, shave off wet bark with your pocketknife to get to the dry stuff underneath.

Make a pit: Scoop out gravel or sand below the high-tide mark to create an LNT-approved fireplace.

Rig a tarp: This shelter will shield you, your woodpile, and your fire.

Build: Place a handful of firestarter on a bed of sticks. Leave gaps for air to fuel the flames. Good firestarters include dryer lint and Coghlan's Fire Sticks, which light even after they've been dunked.

Ignite: Place a fist-sized stack of tinder (wood shavings, twigs, paper) over your firestarter, then flick your Bic. (Matches are fine as a backup, but waterproof them by dipping the heads in melted paraffin.)

Add Fuel: Carefully supply more tinder and larger sticks without smothering your nascent fire. Protect it from the wind, and blow on it gently to fan the flames.

Burn: the wood to ashes, leaving them for the incoming tide to scatter.

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