Monday, January 18, 2016

L is for Lighting a Fire

One of the most useful and important outdoor skills you can learn is how to start a fire.  Fires are everywhere -- from bonfires and fire pits with friends to emergency fires in the backcountry to keep warm; from cooking fires to lighting a charcoal grill.  And who doesn't love a good fire in the fireplace in wintertime?  This post covers two different types of fires:  Lighting charcoal and backcountry fires.

Lighting Charcoal
Four years ago, after burning out yet another burner on a gas grill, I was frustrated that I was replacing it about every 2-3 years.  Shortly before then, Brennan's Scout troop had introduced us to a miracle invention:  The charcoal chimney.  I had long ago written off charcoal grills because they never seemed to want to light, and using an entire bottle of lighter fluid to get one set of coals lit somehow didn't seem like the best idea.  After discovering the charcoal chimney, however, I have moved back to the old-fashioned Weber charcoal grill and have never looked back.  It was also shortly after that purchase that I got my dutch oven, which also requires charcoal.  Now I'm happier than a bear in a salmon stream because these charcoal chimneys work every time -- well, almost every time.  Here's how:

The chimney has a raised platform about 2-3 inches off the ground with holes all the way around the bottom.  Roll up about 3 single newspaper sheets and stuff them into the holes at the bottom of the chimney, getting most of the paper underneath (you don't want or need very much sticking out through the holes).  Then fill up the top of your chimney with charcoal and light each of the rolled-up sheets.  As the fire burns the paper underneath, it also licks the briquettes at the bottom of the chimney stack.  The paper should burn long enough to catch those coals on fire, which will in turn light the coals above, and so on until you can see the flames licking out the top of the chimney.  You can tell how well it's working by the amount of smoke coming out the top of the chimney.  If you light the paper on the outside of the chimney, and the fire goes out before the coals get fully lit (your best indication would be the tiny amount of smoke emanating from the chimney), then try sticking your lighter in through the holes at the bottom and lighting the paper underneath the chimney.  While I never had to do that before moving to Colorado, that technique seems to work better here.  Once you get a good fire underneath, the whole process takes about 15 minutes for the flames to reach the top of the chimney.  Allow longer for coals going on a dutch oven, however, to ensure they're fully lit.

Backcountry Fires
Being able to light a fire at a frontcountry campground is a good way to stay warm at night while you're having fun with friends or making s'mores, but in the backcountry it could save your life if you find yourself in a cold situation unexpectedly or without the proper gear.  Of course it starts with standard fire-building techniques -- for example, the tepee method of placing your highly flammable yet short-lasting tinder (like dry grass or leaves) in first in the middle, followed by small twigs, leaned against each other in a circle like a tepee, followed by larger sticks in a tepee around the twigs.  Obviously, the concept is that the fire is easily lit and then gradually spreads to the twigs that take a little longer to light and on to the larger sticks that take considerable time to light.

Sometimes, however, it's not as easy as the charcoal chimney.  For instance, if the tender is damp or doesn't want to light for another reason, a firestarter can help.  Of course, you can buy firestarter sticks just about anywhere from Wal-Mart to Sierra Trading Post, but for much cheaper you can make your own out of cotton balls and vaseline.  Simply take a cotton ball and a daub of vaseline about the size of your pinky nail and work it into the cotton ball.  It usually ends up fairly flat.  I usually make several at a time and store them in a small ziplock bag to take with me on a backpacking trip.

Vaseline-soaked Cotton Balls -- Instant Tinder!
When you get ready to use it, spread it out to provide as much surface area as possible and place it on top of your tinder.  That should jumpstart both your tinder and your twigs.  If rubbing vaseline into cotton balls isn't your thing, or you don't have the ingredients laying around the house, something I guarantee you have that's very light and works just as well, is dryer lint.  (Incidentally, dryer lint also works very well as additional tinder under the charcoal chimney on particularly cold, windy, or otherwise stubborn nights.)  Finally, the coolest (and perhaps most reliable) way to start a fire is with a 9-volt battery and steel wool (no match or lighter required!).  Simply put the steel wool on top of your tinder and touch the terminals of the 9-volt to the steel wool, and presto!  Instant fire!  It's like voodoo magic!

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  1. Cool! We used to make fire starters out of dryer lint, broken crayons and paper egg cartons.

  2. This is great to know. And I liked the Vaseline soaked cotton ball idea.