Chop, Chop : A tale of three fires.
There are few things in the back country as annoying, or enraging as hearing someone hack away at a live tree for hours in hopes of getting some firewood. Many of us have experienced this first hand, either by hearing it happening, with the axe chops ringing out across a lake, or by visiting a site where many of the surrounding trees look like they’ve got in a fight with Gimli the Dwarf.
It is astounding how many people don’t know some simple do’s and don’ts of collecting firewood for your backcountry campfires, so we here at Paddle In are going to tell you how we do it. We won’t focus so much on starting fires or building them, as that is enough info to fill another blog all together.
The first thing you will need to know are some tools that may come in handy along your wood hunting adventures. A small folding hand saw and a small hatchet are perfect for anything we get up to. You will next want to establish the type of fire you want to have, or rather the purpose that you are lighting a fire in the first place. You may be lighting a fire just to burn off any burnable garbage you have created, or be looking to do some cooking over and open fire, or even having a fire to sit around with your friends and laugh and tell stories well into the night.
We will start with the garbage fire. We normally refer to this as a stick or a twig fire, and mainly consists of small dead twigs that we have collected FROM THE GROUND. The drier the better, the goal here is to make a small hot quick fire to burn anything you have to. Sticks and twigs should be between the thickness of a pencil and one of your fingers, but nothing really bigger than an inch or so. These are the kinds of twigs that you can find everywhere and don’t take long to
collect, and can often be a by-product of collecting other deadfall to make bigger fires. You probably step on and over more than enough of these twigs on your way to the “thunder box”. Stick fires are the easiest to light, and are normally the way to start building towards any other kind of fire.
The next fire we will cover is more of a cooking fire. This fire starts much like the stick fire, but you are going to want to make sure you have collected enough wood to make a good bed of hot coals to cook over. We typically use wood that is as dry as possible, preferably hardwood, and not much thicker than 2 or 3 fingers, usually thinner than your wrist. This kind of wood can be found lying ON THE GROUND, and is often the result of much larger trees falling over or dying off. This wood will burn slower than the small twigs, but will be less likely to disintegrate, leaving you with coals to work with. This is where the hand saw, or your boot comes in handy. Wood of this thickness may be tougher to break with just your hands, so you can either saw off foot long pieces, or you can break it by stepping on it while one end is leaning against a rock or another log. You will want to have enough would to make a big hot flaming fire so that you can let it die down, and continue to feed it with more wood of similar size.
The final fire we will cover is the warm and cozy one. It is the quintessential fire that you see in all the outdoors and camping magazines, where people are gathered around and loving life. The big sparks flying up into the sky come from larger logs crackling away. This is probably where the majority of the annoying lumberjacks in the back country make their noise, in their feeble attempt to get this kind of wood. This is the hardest wood to find, as usually larger trees have already begun to rot, or are just too big to cut up with a hand saw, but if you manage to come across a fallen branch or a tree that has succumbed to the wind that is about the thickness of two wrists together and a decent length you can start working towards this kind of fire. You will probably have to go back a little further than normal from your site to find wood like this, so once you drag it back to your site you can set up your work station and go to work sawing the larger log into 1’ – 1 ½’ pieces. This process is much easier if you saw almost all the way through then using your foot to stomp and break the wood much like you did for the cooking fire. Once you have broken enough “logs” into more manageable pieces you will be able to make use of the other tools that we previously mentioned. You can now take your logs you have and find a firm, flat spot to split those logs. Split wood burns a lot more evenly and better than full logs. You now have 2 pieces for every piece you sawed. This wood will last much longer and you can have hours of enjoyment.
If you noticed, not once was chopping a tree down mentioned. In fact, you rarely even have use for your hatchet in the majority of fires you will have in the bush. It is a shame to waste so much time and energy only to either give up, damaging a living tree, or to be left with a log that is far too large to even burn completely. Remember, the forest tends to provide you with all the materials you will need to have an enjoyable trip, without the need to damage vegetation or leave an ugly scar around a campsite. We go into the back country to escape and appreciate the serenity and beauty of the landscape, let’s make sure we leave that for future generations to enjoy.