The Camp Fire
Before you build the fire, a fire pit is highly desirable. This keeps the fire from spreading to the grass and then to your tent or bedroll, and also keeps the wind from blowing it out when you're trying to light it. Don't dig the pit too deep: You don't want to have to reach down into a furnace to touch your frying pan handle. If there is a lot of dry grass around, circle your fire pit with the dug up earth, logs, or stones, and / or scrape the ground clear for a few inches. (There is one exception to the depth rule: If you intend to cook bean hole beans or similar Dutch Oven food, then you need a deeper pit, dug to the side of your regular fire pit so you can rake coals into it.)
Lighting the fire: You need tinder. Start with dry hay or straw, or in central Texas with mesquite twigs or a little dry dead cedar bough. Stacked over this put a pyramid of dry twigs or, even better, 2-3 sticks of pitch pine, or some rotten wood. This in turn will light good logs, especially if you fan the flames with your hat. Note that split wood burns better, if you light the raw wood side. Bark actually inhibits fire; it's the tree's natural protection.
Keeping your fire lit: Two logs lying side by side stay lit because they radiate heat at each other. This is ideal. A jumble of crossed logs is marginal, and separated logs go out. There are no one-log fires!
Remember the difference between "bull" fires and cooking fires. You cook on coals. You shoot the bull around leaping flames, but those flames only burn food.
You can tell the farbs who don't cook because they sit around a leaping bonfire at dinner time. It's bad camp manners to build up leaping flames just before meal time. You build up the fire an hour before cooking time, and let it burn down to coals. For breakfast, the early risers should throw sticks of fire wood on at about 4:30-5:00 AM, so after reveille at 6:00 a fine bed of coals is ready to fry the bacon and boil the grits. (Actual times will vary, depending on the wood you have. Big logs take longer to burn to coals. Cottonwood burns fast!)
Don't over-estimate the size of fire you need. If your wood is all in short pieces, a fire as big as a broad brimmed hat is sufficient to cook for four men. And remember that in the 1860s, two burning fence rails side by side provided sufficient cooking fire for a number of men.
You don't need a grate! Do you think our Civil War predecessors marched across the country with steel grills on the backs? Never! To cook, you rake coals out of the center of the fire. You can cook on flat spreads of coals at the side of the fire, and we usually do. But ideally, use a "keyhole" fire: Dig your pit with a narrow, shallow trench to one side. Rake coals into the trench and cook with your pans and boilers in a line right on top of the coals. It's easier to get to your pan without crowding, and you have a reservoir of new coals in the pit. This way you're free to add new wood without spoiling the cooking. Alternatively, if you completely burn a couple of long logs in a shallow pit or on cleared ground, you can rake coals out into a line on one side of the logs, and cook on that as on a range.
What looks like lumpy ashes in the daytime shows up at night as red hot coals. A fire pit a couple of days old in a static camp, built up many times into "bull" fires, gets full of coals and hot enough to melt glass. I've seen it: People threw bottles in on Saturday night, and Sunday when we drowned the fire steam rose like a small volcano, When we turned the pit over with a shovel we found bottles melted flat.
If you have to cook on flames due to lack of time or some yahoo building up a bull fire, you can put your pan on top of a log that's not burning, at least not burning on top. Or better yet, on two logs side by side, with flames below. Nevertheless this is second best and takes close watching and occasionally turning your pan to keep one side from burning.
I learned this from Color Sgt. Steve Monroe:
You can build an oven out of wood and bake on your campfire. After you have a good bed of coals, put thick logs around three sides of your fire, and then put other logs (either split, with the flat side down; or burning) across the top. Between the coals on the bottom, and the heat or reflected heat from the top, you have an oven which will brown your cornbread or biscuits. The one in the picture below must have been cooking at over 500 degrees. That cornbread baked fast! Much better than using a frying pan with no cover or with a tin plate on top.
What wood to save:
lSave a long poker stick to rake your coals and to correct how logs lie. Don't let some idle yahoo burn it during the night.
lAnd if you have split wood, save a clean piece to use as a cutting board.
lIf you have big and small pieces of wood, throw the biggest log on the fire before you go to sleep and you will still have coals in the morning. If you get up at 3AM throw another log or two on the fire if it is burned down to coals. This way you won't have to light a new fire for breakfast.
Reviving a fire: Put split logs raw side down on coals, and in a few minutes they will light. Fan with a hat if necessary. Fan a lot!
Finally, how to put out a fire: Bury it and drown it. Negligence can lead to a grass fire, burning your neighbors' tents or your host's trees.
Return to main cooking page