Building a Campfire

You’d be surprised the number of outdoor skills I learned in Boy Scouts I still use frequently. I still tie square knots when joining two ropes and a clove hitch when tying my boat to the pier. I have a triangular bandage in my first aid kit. (The sterile version of the Boy Scout neckerchief.)

None of the skills I learned are potentially as useful as the campfire lessons drilled into us by the scoutmaster. In the spirit of “safety first” I still remember to clear a safe area around where the campfire is to be constructed. Then there’s the back stop, wind break or fire ring issue. It seems every time I need to build a fire, it’s windy. Success or failure of getting the fire lit, keeping it lit and having a useful fire once it’s burning often hinges on a pile of rocks, sod or carefully stacked logs to shield the wind.

After all, when Scouts are taking their fire building test, they are issued only two matches. Fear strikes quickly in the heart and mind of a Tenderfoot when the wind blows out the first match before the flame can be transferred to the tinder. With only one chance left, the faulty windbreak must be rethought and rebuilt.

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Other fire making skills were taught as I advanced through the ranks. I learned how to find dry wood on a rainy day, what sort of wood ignites easier than others, which burns longer or better burns down to cooking coals.

We learned what to do if the wind blew out the second match or they got wet. Dip wooden, “strike anywhere” matches in paraffin or melted candle wax to make them waterproof or at least water resistant.

We learned how to feed a fire. “A fledgling fire needs to be fed like a baby,” my scoutmaster explained. Just put the fire to the tiniest toothpicks of twigs, then add larger twigs and dry leaves to expand the flame, proceeding on to ever bigger sticks and limbs. “A burning fire can be fed like a hungry Boy Scout!”

We were taught to tend the fire. The best campfire was one that never burned out. As long as it was going, there was no need to worry about paraffin coated matches or tenderly feeding a baby fire. A blazing fire will dry out all but the most waterlogged wood so it will burn.

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Some of my favorite boy scout skills involved making a fire without matches. The easiest way was using flint and steel. We were handed a golf ball sized rock and a five inch chunk of thin, flat steel and told to whack the flint rock with the steel. The trick was to give it a glancing blow and when you hit it just right, a spark would fly. That was the easy part. Trickier was to direct the spark into the tinder which was allegedly, cattail fuzz, powdered wood, inner bark of a birch tree or some other substance that would easily catch the spark and ignite.

The only tinder that worked consistently for me was fine, steel wool. All I thought of was if I knew I was going to need a fire and remembered to bring along a chunk of flint, a chunk of steel and a wad of steel wool, why did I forget the paraffin-coated matches?

It was more fun starting a fire with a fire drill. Needed materials are a long, perfectly straight stick, a stout length of rawhide cord and a flat piece of wood. If those are handy, the rest is easy. Watch a YouTube video.

On a Canadian fishing trip, we were tasked with catching enough fish for lunch during the morning fish quest. The guide had a box filled with skillets, knives, cooking oil, potatoes and all the rest needed to make our shore lunch, except a camp stove. The fish were to fry and beans to be baked with a campfire.

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I set back watching the preparations and waiting to see a master build the cooking fire. First he dragged four or five logs out of the bushes, seemingly any old logs. He didn’t look far and wide. Then he piled them on the rocky beach in no apparent pattern. It wasn’t a teepee looking thing, or laid crosswise like building a log cabin – just a pile.

Then he walked over to the boat, grabbed the spare outboard gas tank and sloshed some 87 octane on the logs. Setting the fuel tank off to the side, he balled up a paper towel, lit it with a Bic lighter and tossed it on the gas-soaked firewood.

That worked too.

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Mike Schoonveld
Mike Schoonveld grew up hunting and fishing in rural Northwest Indiana. In 1986 he piggy-backed a career as an outdoor writer onto his already long tenure as a wildlife biologist with the Indiana DNR. Now retired from his DNR position, Schoonveld is a U.S. Coast Guard licensed boat captain, operates Brother Nature Charters on Lake Michigan and spends much of his time trailering his boat to fishing hotspots around Indiana and the Midwest. Mike can be reached through his website or visit Mike's Outdoor World Blog at


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