A cheery fire warms both body and heart; for many, it defines the camping spirit. If you can make a one-match campfire in any weather, you’ll be revered as an expert. Anyone can make fire on a sun-scorched day, but add wind and rain, and where there is smoke, there might not be fire!
The Fieldbook notes that Scouts and leaders should be prepared to not make a fire when camping, so they can make a wise choice when a fire is appropriate. Check with land managers for campfire regulations in the area where you plan to camp. Every fire should follow Leave No Trace guidelines, provided in the sidebar. More details below!
If packing light, a sturdy knife and matches are enough. When weight is of less concern, add a folding saw and hatchet. With these, you can saw and split small logs to get at the dry heartwood inside, which is essential if the wood is wet from rain. Leather gloves or pliers are useful for moving grills and stirring burning wood.
- Tinder: Thin, dry material that ignites instantly with a match. It’s the basis of every fire. Examples include dead, dry grasses; the shredded inner bark of cedar trees; thin shavings cut from a stick; or birch bark (collected from the ground, not the living trees). Tinder that is available in one region might be unavailable in another. But all will work if you follow this rule: Tinder must be bone-dry and no thicker than a wooden match. Gather a handful of tinder for each fire you make.
- Kindling: Burns fast and creates a bright, smoke-free flame. These bone-dry sticks should range from pencil-thin to no larger than your thumb. Bark (with some exceptions) does not burn well. Split kindling burns best. You’ll need an armload of kindling for each fire you build.
- Fuel: Wood needed to keep your fire going. Split logs burn best. Some wood burns better than others, but few campers can tell species apart. Gather dead, dry wood from a wide area of land away from camp.
- Fire starters: Handy but not essential. You can buy them or make your own. Examples: cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly, cigar-sized logs rolled from newspaper and dipped in melted paraffin, or clothes-dryer lint. (You should never use gasoline to start a fire!) Review the Guide to Safe Scouting’s policies on chemical fuels before creating your own fire starters.
BEFORE YOU TRY
Consider these rules:
- The thinner the wood, the faster and more smoke-free it will burn. Piling on wood that’s too thick too soon is one of the major reasons fires fail.
- Smoke tells you that the fire needs more oxygen. You should see “light” between every stick/log you place on the fire. If you see smoke between two sticks, move them farther apart.
- Wood burns better when organized in roughly parallel layers. This creates a “chimney effect,” which produces a better draw and hotter flame.
- Don’t overload the fire base with kindling or fuel. Instead, insert a few sticks at a time into the developing flame. Every stick/log you add draws heat from the young blaze. Add too much wood at the start, and your fire might cool and go out.
There are dozens of fire lays. The teepee, lean-to and log-cabin are most popular. Each has its advantages.
- Teepee: Ball up a handful of tinder and set it on the ground. Arrange pencil-thin kindling sticks around the tinder, teepee style. Do not add fuel until the fire is burning brightly. The teepee and the lean-to work well in areas where thin, dry branches are readily available.
- Lean-to: On soft ground, poke a dry stick into the soil at a 45-degree angle. Set a handful of tinder beneath the stick. On hard ground, lean the master stick against a rock or log, with tinder below. Set dry kindling sticks teepee-fashion (roughly parallel) on each side of the master stick. Point the high end toward the wind.
- Log-cabin: Set two wrist-thick sticks parallel on the ground, about 3 inches apart. Place a few pencil-thin kindling sticks across the wrist-thick sticks. Stack long, thin shavings or other tinder on top. Keep the tinderbox small — about the size of a tin-can lid. Bridge the kindling over tinder in a log-cabin style. Build up several layers of kindling. Light from below. The raised platform that supports the tinder will produce a smoke-free, bright flame — ideal if the wood is damp or the ground is wet.
Every fire should abide by these Leave No Trace practices:
- Build a fire only in areas where wood is abundant. The fire should cause no further negative impact on land.
- The best place to build a fire is within an existing fire ring. The use of a fire pan is also a good alternative.
- Keep the fire small and burning only for the amount of time you are using it.
- The fire should not degrade the surrounding area as a result of the concentrated trampling of people who are cooking and socializing.
- After fully extinguishing a campfire with water (not dirt), grind small coals to ash between your gloved hands. Thoroughly soak the ashes with water and scatter the cold ashes over a wide area of plant-covered ground away from camp. Leave the fire site in the same condition in which you found it.
You can read more about minimizing campfire impacts on land at LNT.org/learn/principle-5.
Because Scouting is all about SAFETY FIRST, scouts must earn the Firem’n Chit which grants a Scout the right to carry matches and build campfires. Scouts must show their Scout leader, or someone designated by their leader, that they understand their responsibility to do the eight requirements.
Firem’n Chit Requirements
This certification grants a Scout the right to carry fire-lighting devices (matches, lighters, etc.) to build campfires. The Scout must show their Scout leader, or someone designated by their leader, an understanding of the responsibility to do the following:
- I have read and understand use and safety rules from the Scouts BSA Handbook.
- I will build a campfire only when necessary and when I have the necessary permits (regulations vary by locality).
- I will minimize campfire impacts or use existing fire lays consistent with the principles of Leave No Trace. I will check to see that all flammable material is cleared at least 5 feet in all directions from fire (total 10 feet).
- I will safely use and store fire-starting materials.
- I will see that fire is attended to at all times.
- I will make sure that water and/or a shovel is readily available. I will promptly report any wildfire to the proper authorities.
- I will use the cold-out test to make sure the fire is cold out and will make sure the fire lay is cleaned before I leave it.
- I follow the Outdoor Code, the Guide to Safe Scouting, and the principles of Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly!
The Scout’s “Firem’n Rights” can be taken away if they fail in their responsibility.
10 fire safety tips that could save your life (or at least your eyebrows)
Only you — and your Scouts and — can prevent Scouting fires. Follow the 10 tips to minimize fire risk and be prepared for that rare moment when a fire does break out on your Scouting adventures.
1. Assign a fire warden and deputy
For Boy Scout or Venturing camps, these should be youth leaders under adult supervision. You could have the same fire warden and deputy throughout the weekend or week of camping, or this role could be alternated with others.
2. Give the fire warden and deputy their duties
These jobs are more than cool titles. The fire warden and his/her deputy should:
- Train all unit members in the fireguard plan
- Know where all fire equipment is located
- Complete the unit fireguard chart
- Verify that all cooking, heating and campfires are completely out when not attended
- Conduct a fire drill once a week at the direction of the camp fire warden
- Report any fire hazards to the camp fire warden, immediately
- Be ready to evacuate and account for everyone in the event of an emergency
- Check fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide detectors if the unit sleeps in cabins
3. Know what to do if a fire breaks out
Campers, adult or youth, should never be involved in firefighting.
But if you see a small fire, take immediate action. Time is of the essence. Here’s some examples of fire-control techniques:
- Yell “Fire!” and notify an adult.
- Send someone to seek assistance, send a runner for help, and/or dial the camp office or 911.
- Douse fire with water or sand.
- Smother fire with a lid.
- In the event of a canvas tent fire, simply kick out the end tent poles if it can be done safely.
4. Keep flames out of tents
It’s a no-brainer to camping veterans, but remember some of your Scouts may never have been camping before. No tent material is fireproof, so enforce the no flames in tents rule at all times. Only allow battery-powered sources of light such as flashlights, headlamps and battery-powered lanterns inside tents.
5. Keep tents away from flames
Just like you shouldn’t bring flames to tents, you also should keep your tent away from flames. That means being smart about where you set up your tents and keeping them away from cooking areas, fire rings and other areas where flames might appear.
6. Extinguish campfires properly
Make sure fires are cold out. That means you feel the fire area with your fingers. If it’s still hot, the flames could reignite and cause a catastrophic fire. Oh, and Smokey Bear thanks you in advance.
7. Keep flammable chemicals away from tents and flames
Don’t use flammable chemicals near tents or fires. That includes hand sanitizer, bug repellent, spray cans of paint, aerosol deodorant, hair spray and more. When in doubt, check the product’s packaging for a warning. Store these items in a safe place, and make sure they’re returned there when no longer in use.
8. Know which chemical fuels are OK and which aren’t
There’s nothing better than cooking up dinner over an open campfire. But that’s not always possible on Scouting outings. Enter the chemically fueled stoves, grills and burners. Some, such as alcohol-burning “can” stoves, are so dangerous they’re prohibited in Scouting. Other fuels are safe but should be handled with care. Be prepared for your next campout by reviewing the relevant section of the Guide to Safe Scouting.
9. Store, handle and use chemical fuels properly
An adult knowledgeable about chemical fuels and equipment should always supervise youth involved in the storage, handling and use of chemical fuels and equipment. Operate and maintain chemical-fueled equipment according to the manufacturer’s instructions and in facilities or areas only where and when permitted. Using liquid fuels for starting any type of fire — including lighting damp wood, charcoal and ceremonial campfires or displays — is prohibited. During transport and storage, properly secure chemical fuel containers in an upright, vertical position.
10. Bring the Unit Fireguard Plan Chart on every campout
The Unit Fireguard Plan Chart contains everything listed above and more. Make sure you bring one along on every trip, especially those involving campfires