Posts Tagged With: Fire lays and campfires

Campfires From Scratch: No Boy Scout Juice Required

by Todd WalkerCampfires From Scratch- No Boy Scout Juice Required -

Liar, liar, pants on fire!

I discover at a young age that pouring Boy Scout Juice on sticks for a “quick” campfire was not real smart. Boy Scout Juice is a vague term which includes all sorts of liquid accelerants. We had gasoline at the cabin that day. I can’t remember who to blame for this grand idea, Henry or Craig, but I vividly remember the low whoosh sound that transformed a flickering kitchen match into a flaming mushroom cloud billowing up my legs. Screaming and wild dancing, reminiscent of cartoon characters, commenced in a desperate attempt to extinguish my now flaming trousers.

When the scent of singed hair and screaming finally settled, a silver dollar size blister on my calf taught us all a lesson that day.

Accelerants are dangerous and unnecessary in traditional fire craft. Cheating, some might call it. I’ve often said that there is no such thing as cheating when you really need a fire. Use a road flare if you have one. Camping ain’t an emergency. In modern camps, building a sustainable fire, less the fancy accelerant-impregnated fire starters, seems to be a lost art these days. I find the process of preparing a wooden meal to feed my fires pleasurable, even meditative.

Our irresistible fascination with fire was passed down by early humans who, through observation and notions and necessity, came upon the crazy idea of harnessing the flame. They weren’t content to live out their days cold and wet. This simple, powerful tool warmed hearths, made pottery, fashioned other tools, cooked meals, made potions, dispelled darkness, forged bronze, just as we use it today. The only difference for us moderns is that we route fire through insulated wires. But we’ve lost the aroma of wood smoke in our modern processes. Ah, that wonderful smell!

Many moderns never learned how to build a campfire, not from scratch. We hope this whets your appetite. Gather around our fire ring as we burn a few sticks and embrace the warming gift of fire.

Fire from Scratch

To transition from modern to a traditional fire-starter, you need things. Things like wood and air. These two are the easiest to procure. The third thing, which can be the most difficult to come by, is a heat source hot enough to complete the fire triangle, and, as intended, set stuff alight.

The heat source, modern or traditional, won’t produce a sustainable fire without properly prepared wood. I’ve witnessed, on occasion, fire-starting fails by people using a plumber’s blow torch. Lightening is another option… but you must wait patiently near the chosen tree.

For this exercise in fire-starting, our heat will come in the form of sparks from rocks and metal. Those of the traditional camping style call these materials flint and steel (not to be confused with ferrocerium rods). Sharp rocks are used to scrape micro particles from the steel which oxidizes rapidly into sparks. If you’d like to know the Secret of Flint and Steel, our previous article may help.

Campfires From Scratch- No Boy Scout Juice Required -

Flint and steel

Moderns may scoff at flint and steel as a fire maker. Why not use a Bic? It’s your fire. Use whatever ignition method you like. In my experience of teaching and learning fire craft, an open flame offers no distinct advantage until you understand how a fire eats. Practicing traditional methods makes the learner more attentive to the finer details of planning a fire’s menu.

One test for beginner and experienced campers is to start a campfire using a single match. This experiment gives immediate feedback as to how carefully the fire-chef prepared the menu. If the match ignites and consumes your meal, you’ll be ready to practice more traditional methods.

A true primitive Fire from Scratch method requires rubbing sticks together. If you’re interested in twirling up fire, read and practice these articles: Bow drill and hand drill.

Wood Size Matters

The most common failure in feeding a fire is wood size. I’ve used the analogy before of creating a fire meal plan – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s worth repeating… with a bit of a twist.


Don’t cheat on preparing the appetizer for flint and steel ignition. If you’ve ever placed a delicate fire egg (ember) in a tinder bundle (via friction methods), you understand the importance of this starter meal. The same holds true for charred material aglow from flint and steel sparks. A baby ember’s appetite is delicate. If it likes the first offering, it will be stimulated to eat more of your carefully prepared fare.

Campfires From Scratch- No Boy Scout Juice Required -

Top to bottom: fat lighter’d shavings and curls, pencil lead to pencil size twigs, and larger fuel.

In many flint and steel demonstrations viewed on computer screens, char cloth is laid on the rock in such a way as to catch a spark flying from the scraped steel. I’ve found that having a larger landing strip for sparks increases the chance of glowifing the charred material. Try sending your sparks into the target-rich char tin. Once you see points of light in the tinder box, place your appetizer on top of the glowified stuff and blow it to flame. Remember to close the lid of your tinder box to starve the glowified embers of oxygen for your next fire.

Campfires From Scratch- No Boy Scout Juice Required -

Aiming sparks into a char tin

You can also make your own South African tonteldoos (tinder box) for more flint and steel options.

Appetizer aflame, your fire is ready to ravage the kindling salad above it. Surface-area-to-volume ratio (SAV) plays an important role in the combustion of cellulose. This is a fancy way of describing a particles fineness. The more fineness (higher SAV), the more readily wood will burn. Fine twigs/sticks have low ignition times and burn quickly.


Ever watch a cooking show? Chefs know the importance of plating a meal to be visually appealing. Presentation can cause the guest to be attracted or reject the meal based solely on appearance and arrangement. We eat with our eyes.

Here’s a little good news…

Your arrangement of wood (fire lay) doesn’t have to be pretty to be palatable. Fire eats ugly. More information on four down-n-dirty fire lays can be found here.

Campfires From Scratch- No Boy Scout Juice Required -

Appetizer below the salad (twigs) with fuel ready to eat.

When plating your fire’s meal, keep in mind that different arrangements affect how a fire eats.

  • Loose fire lays allow more oxygen to flow through the fuel to burn hotter and quickly dry sticks to the point of combustion. Give your fire plenty of elbow-room to eat.
  • Arrange too tightly and the fire will be choked to death from lack of oxygen. However, once a coal bed is established, a tight arrangement of larger fuel will provide longer burn times.

Boy Scout Juice Substitute

This stuff doesn’t come in liquid form, but it’s the closest thing in my Georgia woods to an accelerant. Fat Lighter’d, fatwood, lighter wood, lighter knot, etc. is the resin-rich heartwood of many dead pine trees.

Fat Lighter’d Facts

  • All natural with no petroleum products
  • Won’t catch your pants on fire at ignition like accelerants
  • Smoke from fat lighter’d makes a great mosquito repellant in a smudge pot
  • The long leaf pine, which was clear-cut to almost extinction, is the best pitch producing pine tree
  • The term ‘fatwood’ came about from the wood in pine stumps being “fat” with resin that was highly flammable
  • There are between 105 and 125 species classified as resinous pine trees around the world

Not every pine is created equal. In my experience, one tree in the pine family, White Pine (Pinus strobus), makes poor fat lighter’d. I discovered its lackluster lighter’d on a winter trip with my buddy Bill Reese. We set up camp on the scenic Raven Cliff Falls Trail near a fallen White Pine. I figured all pines would offer up that beautiful, flammable fat lighter’d for our initial fire needs. Not so. With much labor, I finally nursed life into our traditional fire.

Know the wood in your woods.

Once you develop a taste for traditional fire-making, you’ll realize Boy Scout Juice is not required for a comforting campfire menu.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +YouTubeInstagram, and Facebook… and over at our Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there…

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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, Doing the Stuff, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

How to Build 4 Down-N-Dirty Campfires

by Todd Walker

Fire don’t care about pretty. It eats ugly. In fact, fire loves chaos.

How to Build 4 Down-N-Dirty Campfires -

Imagine the first pre-history people to harness fire. They didn’t have a Boy Scout manual open on a rock referencing a proper fire lay or ignition sources. My guess is they watched in fear and awe, time after time, generation after generation, as wildfires destroyed all forest litter, tangles, and animals in its path. Fire’s appetite for chaos was observed, and, in return, unveiled its secret to changing useless stuff into useful stuff.

The need to shiver in the cold and huddle in darkness passed with one spark, dry wood, and a windy day. The idea of fire was now alight in the mind of primal man. An idea so powerful it would change the course of mankind and modern civilization.

Going back to our wild roots in the woods, none of us would opt to leave the warmth of a campfire for a wet, cold, dark existence. No. Fire is our companion. Our comfort. Our tool.

The usefulness of this tool in outdoor self-reliance and living should be more than a hobby in the preparedness community. Fire is life out there! So is the fire that mysteriously flows through copper wire to power your home. This technology of fire was fueled by observations, ideas, questions, and notions from the first harnessed spark many years ago.

Fire craft continues to be a top priority for survival and thriving in both short and long-term situations. The building blocks are the same. Fire needs fuel, oxygen, and heat to live… and a bit of chaos.

How to Extinguish Your Child's Fear of Fire with a Single Match |

Every fire is built with these three sides

A breakdown of the science of combustion is in order…

Fire Triangle

We modern mortals think we’ve “evolved” past our simple ancestral fire-makers. Gas grills ignite with the push of a button. Convenience leads to forgetting fundamentals though.

Fire craft fundamentals, however, never change.

Heat (Ignition Sources)

  • Open Flame Ignition – Bic lighter and matches
  • Spark Ignition – Ferrocerium rod, flint and steel, rock on rock
  • Solar Ignition – Magnifying lens and fresnel lens
  • Friction – bow drill, hand drill, etc.

There is always air and sticks available in the woods I roam. But heat is the most difficult to come by, especially with primitive methods.

Here’s the science stuff – less the chemical equations…

To burn sticks, enough heat must be applied to drive moisture from the wood in the form of steam. Even ‘dry’ wood contains some moisture. Once the gas escapes, the white cellulose chars and turns to black charcoal. It’s the charcoal mixing with oxygen that produces the radiant, hypnotic flames. This heating process chars more cellulose on surrounding sticks to create a sustainable fire.

Here’s the practical stuff…

When teaching my grandson to build his first fire with one match, he asked why we had to collect all the tiny, pencil-lead size sticks for our fire. A quick demonstration trying to ignite a one inch diameter stick with the open flame from a match answered his question. The match stick, his heat source, was consumed before the large stick reached ignition temperature. Fuel size matters!

Once we had an established campfire, he watched that same fuel stick burn easily. Larger sticks take more heat to burn. Surface area was the key for him to start his one-match fire.

Surface area becomes even more important with spark ignition or coals from friction methods. Only the driest, finest tinder material should be used. Inner barks, leaves, grasses, seed heads, and other fluffy stuff should be used to build a tinder bundle with the coarser material on the perimeter and progressively finer (hair-thin) in the middle. This is where your sparks or coal will land to ignite the bundle.


As mentioned earlier, air is the easiest to come by. Burning sticks requires air. Take this side of the triangle away and you create charred material and lots of smoke. Which is good to know in making charred material for your next fire. But we want flames.


The analogy of a fire’s meal plan can be found in the first post of our Bombproof Fire Craft series. We won’t rehash it here. But we need to cover how to arrange these three meals so flames can eat and grow into a sustainable fire.

My Top 4 Campfires

There are more ways to build a campfire than ways to use one. In colder, northern climates, you may need a long-fire the length of your shelter to sleep warm through the night. In my temperate Georgia climate, the following campfires work just fine.

No matter what style you build, do it safely. Clear a 4 to 5 foot area of all combustible material where you plan to build your campfire. Look up to make sure low hanging limbs aren’t directly over your spot. A fire pit, rock ring, or trench are handy for containing campfires. A container and nearby water is an added safety measure.

A fire’s meal plan consist of these three ingredients:

  1. Tinder: stuff that produces the initial flame – fine, dry, fluffy stuff
  2. Kindling: the next meal is smalls – tiny twigs to pinky finger size sticks
  3. Fuel: by now a coal bed of smalls will ignite thumb-size to larger sticks as a meal to satisfy your fire’s appetite

Ground conditions may require that you build a platform or bed to prevent your tinder from absorbing moisture and sucking heat from your initial flame. Use bark or a row of dry thumb-size sticks large enough for your tinder bundle to rest.

#1) Twig Fire Lay

When I need a fire that’s hot and fast, this is my favorite down n dirty fire lay. It’s ugly but remember… Fire don’t care about pretty!

Down n Dirty Twig fire

Down n Dirty Twig fire will boil 32 ounces of water in under 5 minutes easily

Collect a double armful of dead-hanging smalls (pencil lead to pencil size). Bunch them together in a two foot bundle the diameter of a soccer ball. Break them over your knee in the middle forming an A-frame. Balance the bundle with the tip of the A-frame pointing up over your tinder source.

Light the tinder and let it eat. As it burns through the smalls, toss more kindling on top like Pick-Up Sticks. Fire loves chaos!

#2) Split Rail Fire Lay

This fire lay is basically half of a Log Cabin fire lay.

Split rail fence with a platform to keep the tinder off the ground

Split rail fence with a cedar platform to keep the tinder off the ground

Stack thumb to wrist size fuel alternately to form a corner about 5 to 6 inches tall. The gaps between the fuel should look like a stacked wood fence. This allows plenty of air flow. Lay a large bundle of pencil led size twigs on top of the stacked corner. Ignite your tinder material inside the corner and roll the twig bundle over the top of the flames and let it eat.

Once the tinder is lit, roll the kindling over the top of the flames

Ready for ignition

As the flames lick through the top of the twig bundle, lean progressively larger fuel in the corner split rail fence. You’ll end up with a Lean-To fire lay as you add the larger fuel.

#3) Tipi Fire Lay

Tipis are ingenuous in design. The conical shape allows intense heat to rise up through a progression of kindling to ignite larger fuel. Tipi fires can burn even in rainy conditions. Tight placement of log-size fuel shelters the coal bed while allowing enough air flow for a long burning fire. This style is also useful for drying wet firewood.

Lean smaller kindling against the square platform above the tinder in tipi fashion

Lean smaller kindling against the square platform above the tinder in tipi fashion

Four small Y sticks can be used as supports to build a raised pyre (pronounced like fire) to keep tinder off the ground and support the preceding pencil size kindling poles of your tipi. In the above photo, the tinder is under the pyre. Either way will work.

Now you’re ready to lean small kindling poles around the tinder material and pyre at the center of the tipi. Leave an opening in the tipi to light the tinder. Continue building on top of the first layer with progressively larger kindling to fuel-size material interlocking at the peak. As it burns, the inner layers will collapse to create the coal bed needed to ignite the fuel poles. Keep adding fuel poles to maintain the structure.

To fuel logs, one with a Y on top offers a sturdy frame for the tipi

Two fuel logs, one with a Y at one end, offers a sturdy frame for the tipi

#4) Lean-To Fire Lay

Like a lean-to style shelter, you’ll need a large log to brace the kindling and smaller fuel material on to create a pocket for your tinder.


The brace log is heated and charred as the kindling burns and lasts a long time before being consumed. The brace log can be turned to shield or funnel wind depending on the need.

A front view of the Lean-To with larger fuel

A front view of the Lean-To with larger fuel

Once the fire burns down, add another larger fuel log parallel to the brace log and you have a ready-made platform for cooking over the coals.

Practice Makes Permanent

Notice I didn’t use the word perfect. There are too many methods and variables involved in fire craft to ever perfect the skill. But like all good fire-makers, you have to spend time Doing the Stuff to make the skill permanent.

A recent text gave me the pleasure of some much-needed dirt time with my buddy, Kevin Bowen, who wrote a recent article on Horace Kephart and Classic Camping for our blog. He helped me process cedar and tulip magnolia bark for tinder material, collect smalls, build the fire lays, and used his magnifying lens (solar ignition) to bring the tinder to flame.

Kevin using solar ignition

Solar ignition saves other fire resources

Now to blow the tinder bundle into flames

Kevin blowing the tinder bundle into flames and placing it under our Twig Fire Lay


Chaotic success!

I purposely didn’t include other worthy fire lays in this article. Now it’s your turn…

If you have a favorite fire lay not mentioned here, share it in the comments. We’re always learning together!

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


P.S. – You can also keep up with the Stuff we’re Doing on TwitterPinterestGoogle +, YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook… and over at the Doing the Stuff Network.

P.P.S – If you find value in our blog, Dirt Road Girl and I would appreciate your vote on Top Prepper Sites! You can vote daily by clicking here or on the image below. Check out all the other value-adding sites while you’re there… 

Thanks for Sharing the Stuff!

Copyright: Content on this site (unless the work of a third-party) may be shared freely in digital form, in part or whole, for non-commercial use with a link back to this site crediting the author. All links in articles must remain intact as originally posted in order to be republished. If you are interested a third-party article, please contact the author directly for republishing information.

Categories: Bushcraft, Doing the Stuff, Self-reliance, Survival Skills | Tags: , , , , , , , | 17 Comments

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