Scouts today know there are plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors without kindling a campfire.
Modern sleeping bags and layered clothing can eliminate the need of fire for warmth. Lightweight stoves bring instant heat for cooking meals. And one can discover appreciation for nature at night without a dominating firelight.
Still, there’s nothing quite like a campfire. Knowing when, where and how to build one is an essential Scouting skill and a useful skill for life. From a council camp closing event to home fireplaces and backyard barbecues, there will be plenty of times when it will be helpful to know how to build and manage a fire.
To build or not to build - The Outdoor Code and Leave No Trace principles teach Scouts to be careful with fire and considerate in the outdoors. Sometimes that means not building a campfire at all.
Consider the impact on the environment and the potential damage of building a fire. Where wood is scarce, opt not to start a fire and consume what little wood is available. Wood is a valuable resource not only for other campers, but also wildlife.
Where fires are allowed, the best places to build them are in existing fire rings. Making a fire on a mound of mineral soil or in a metal fire pan can shield the ground below from being scorched.
Three basics - Fire is arguably the oldest of all STEM subjects; our early ancestors had to figure out the science, technology, engineering and math of fire before civilization could advance. Here’s what they discovered.
Three elements are required to make a fire — fuel, heat and air — combined in the right way to achieve a sustainable reaction. How you put them together makes all the difference.
You’ll want at least a handful of tinder, material that will ignite easily when touched with a match. Use a pocketknife to carve thin shavings from a piece of dry wood. Fluff from cottonwood trees and milkweed plants works well, too. Consider collecting the inner bark of cedars and other downed trees and dry needles from many conifers.
Next comes kindling, dry sticks with diameters up to that of a pencil. Dead wood found on the ground works as perfect kindling. It should be easy to break by hand. Gather enough to fill two hats.
Finally, look for fuel, pieces of wood larger than kindling that will sustain your fire once it has gained a life of its own. To avoid environmental harm, collect wood from dead or downed trees. The amount of fuel you need depends on how large your fire will be and how long you plan for it to burn. Obviously, a quick fire for cooking breakfast requires less wood than a winter campfire meant to warm an evening and dry everyone’s socks.
Light your fire - Place a heaping pile of tinder in the middle of a fire ring and then organize plenty of kindling over the tinder. You can arrange your fuel wood around and above your kindling in dozens of different ways. Remember to leave space between the logs so oxygen can feed the flames. Smoke can be an indicator your fire needs more air.
Light the base of the tinder, which should ignite and carry heat upward into the kindling. You could also use a homemade fire starter, like cotton balls rubbed in petroleum jelly. To safely start fires, don’t use liquid fuels. As the kindling catches fire, the flames will gain strength, producing enough heat for the fuel wood above it to combust.
You can nurse a fading fire back to life by adding kindling and blowing on embers to supply more oxygen.
Don’t throw trash into the blaze. Not everything turns to ash, and litter could remain after the fire is out. Pack out all trash. Never leave your fire unattended. A wayward spark could spell disaster if it spreads beyond the fire lay and is not stamped out.
Extinguish a fire by eliminating the fuel, the heat or the air vital to its existence. Pour plenty of water on the campfire, and then stir the ashes with soil. Keep at it until the fire is out and you can touch the cold ashes with your hand.
Burning opportunities - Campfire etiquette includes following any local regulations and burn bans before, during and after a fire. If you don’t, not only could you face fines and imprisonment, but you could risk igniting a dangerous conflagration in a dry area.
Many Scouts are fascinated with campfires. Helping them understand when to light one is as important as teaching them how to build one. By instructing them on both, they’ll have the skill they need to be efficient fire-builders, and the wisdom to do it responsibly and well.
The fiery string - An old Scout fire-building contest to test fire-building skills features two wooden stakes, each about 2 feet high, placed on either side of a fire lay. Tie a string between them 12 inches above the ground and another string 6 inches above that one. Keeping it beneath the 12-inch string, each Scout or team arranges the tinder, kindling and fuel wood for a fire. All the fires are ignited at the same time. The first fire to burn through both strings is the winner.
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Being involved in Scouting is very draining sometimes, isn’t it? When you feel exhausted, do you start to wonder what you’re doing wrong? Maybe you just make too many commitments? Maybe your lifestyle is draining your energy?
Our modern world is very occupied right now with how we can prevent ourselves from becoming burnt out. Becoming over-extended seems to be an epidemic in industrialized societies with the fast pace and high-pressure environments. I see articles on the internet all the time about how to be less stressed, how to slow down and practice mindfulness, how to conserve the limited stores of energy you have, and etc…
But what if we’re going in the wrong direction with all of this? Maybe exhaustion isn’t a bad thing? What if it’s not something to be avoided? Maybe instead of trying to avoid having our energy stores depleted, we should instead focus on being drained for things that are truly worthwhile instead.
A simple, obvious truth has been impressed on me lately: when you truly serve someone else, it takes hard sacrifice. You are giving away a part of you that you will never get back. You are investing your time and energy into someone else’s portfolio.
Scouting volunteers are keenly aware of the cost of serving others. Weary Scoutmasters are the target of voices that say if you’re exhausted and worn out then there must be something wrong. I say this is a lie. This is not the warning of wisdom. If you are sacrificially serving others, you should expect nothing less than exhaustion! You can, if you’d like, arrange your life like a boat out on tranquil waters – insulated from drama and stress. But that isn’t what I choose, and I don’t think that’s what you will choose either if you’re reading this far. Whatever the reasons we became involved in Scouting, the reason we are still here is that we care intensely about the young men under our watch. We want to see them grow and mature into leaders – the next generation of men willing to stand for what’s right.
If you’re tired and exhausted… that is exactly how you’re supposed to feel when you are giving your all! Just be careful that this exhaustion is not for the wrong things. This is what the true warning of wisdom should be. Many things walk into our day with urgent voices, dressed in urgent clothes, that demand our immediate attention. We have to keep the big picture in mind and understand what’s truly important.
Speaking of the big picture, we have to make sure we live to fight another day. Don’t lose the war for the sake of the battle; there is a type of burnout that does damage to what you are striving for. So when you are truly giving yourself to a worthwhile cause, rest is not a luxury – it’s a necessity! Manage your resources well and know your limitations.
This is where self-improvement comes in. Much of the contemporary self-help literature is popular because it promises that acquiring certain skills and characteristics will make life easier and more carefree. There is certainly some truth to this claim. However, instead of trying to serve ourselves, what if we used those skills and characteristics to multiply our capabilities to help those we care about? There are two different kinds of self-improvement. Egocentric self-improvement which asks the question: How can I improve myself to make my life easier? Altruistic self-improvement challenges you with the question: “How can I improve myself in such a way that I am better equipped to help others?”
Improvement in this way will minimize unnecessary burnout and help you bounce back quicker. When you live life with the big picture in mind, the perspective you have will encourage you and give you strength. You’re not exhausted because you’re doing something wrong. You’re beaten down because you’re doing exactly the right thing!
Let me remind you that this is exactly what we signed up for. And I’m writing this to myself more than I am to you because this is the message that I need to hear when I’m feeling worn out and discouraged. “Cheer up, because it’s going to get harder!” And that’s okay. Because we are doing this for the right cause. We are focused. We are determined.
If you are in it for the long haul like I am, then pace yourself. We’ve got a lot of work to do. All across the world, there is an urgent need for strong, determined leaders to rise up from the next generation – perhaps more so now than ever before.
The leaders of tomorrow aren’t made by a good school or a system or a program or a government. They are made by people like you and me who care enough to mentor, teach, and to train them. We give ourselves – our time, our energy, our resources – to invest in the next generation.
So don’t pay attention to the chatterboxes who want to give you “five simple ways to solve your stress problem”. On the other hand, don’t listen to the talking heads who want you to run yourself into the ground trying to achieve certain superficial models of success. Instead, be spent doing what you know is worthwhile and let’s make a difference together for the next generation.