What is Bushcraft? #4 The Fire

Our most important knowledge from the last million years or so!

It’s almost like the campfire has become synonymous with bushcraft. Being able to start your own fire, whether it’s about making coffee or keeping warm during the night, the fire continues to be one of our most important tools in nature.

Our history with fire

Man has co-existed with fire for many hundreds of thousands of years at this point, and some claim even longer than that. Fire is also a central part of many cultures and religions. Here in Sweden, we still have holidays that revolve around fire and big bonfires, such as Valborg. Just like with almost all other holidays we celebrate in Sweden today, Valborg also has its origins back to pre-Christian times.

The fire

The fire has also been a way of honoring our deceased by burning the bodies on a pyre so that they can ascend to the afterlife in a safe and proper maner. That custom probably came from our sun worshiping Indo-European ancestors who came riding from the steppes through Europe and up to our corner of the world several thousand years ago.

In short, fire has been a natural part of our history from our first staggering steps as humans until today. Even though today we live in a high-tech society that normally does not value this type of knowledge, it is the one we still tend to fall back on when things don’t quite go as planned. Due to unrest in the world, Swedes all over the country are preparing to be able to warm themselves and their families with fire, i.e..

To light the fire

In order to get your fire going, whether it’s a smaller fire for the coffee break or a long fire for the night heat, you have to go through certain steps!

The Fire Triangle

In order to eventually be able to warm yourself by a cozy campfire, you first need to create the right conditions for it to burn! A fire needs three things to live and without a proper amount of each part it cannot burn.

The start of a fire

Fuel is the physical material to be ignited and burned. Different materials have different properties and burn in completely different ways. Some burn calmly and evenly, while others burn quickly and aggressively. Different materials are also different at different stages of the process of building a fire.

Heat is the next element that must be added in order for the fuel to start burning. Without heat, there is no fire and the lower the heat you can add to the fuel, the more flammable fuel you must have. This is important to keep in mind when choosing your kindling tool and kindling material because some combinations just don’t work.

Oxygen is the last part that must be added to the fire triangle in order to get your coffee! If you don’t add any oxygen to the fire, it suffocates, just like all other living organisms. In the same way, you can make the fire burn hotter and more intensely if you add more oxygen to the fire. It can be useful right at the beginning of the fire to get the larger pieces of fuel to catch fire.

Ignition material

The most common types of ignition material found in the forest are resin, dead wood and bark of various kinds.

Spruce (and also pine) is very common in Sweden and is very suitable for lighting the fire. Spruce burns quickly and intensely, leaving almost no coal behind. This makes it very suitable for small, short fires. From spruce and pine, you can also find the Swedish forest’s best kindling material: tar wood, fatwood or resin wood. It is simply a piece of wood that is saturated and impregnated with resin. A little scraping from a fat wood stick and you have a material you can easily light with a modern firesteel!

Birch is also one of our most common trees in Sweden. Birch as a fire starter is best known for its excellent outermost layer of the bark. The bark is easy to pull off in larger pieces which are then ignited with modern lighter steel. The sparks from the flint and steel are unfortunately too cold to ignite the birch bark. You can also use branches from birch. They are often dry inside because the bark is so dense and water resistant. From the sticks, you can then carve out spring sticks that you light with matches or lighters (or modern lighter steel under the right conditions!).

Dried grass, rolled down, etc. are also excellent for starting fires with. Actually, most materials that can be “fluffed up” properly work very well to light with simple means.

The fire is catching!

Once you have managed to get the embers or a small flame, the critical moment comes: getting the fire going! It is not as easy as it sounds, especially not in the current season. Here it is important to add heat and oxygen so that the fire can transition to the next size of fuel.

We’ve probably all experienced managing to get a piece of birch bark burning and watching the fire grow. Only to go out a few moments later when the birch bark burned up. Better luck next time!

Therefore, one must very carefully place small dry branches that burn hot, intensive and fast. While they burn, you add the next size, which burns slightly slower, but more stable. These in turn light the larger wood, which can keep going by itself.

Different types of fires

The coffee fire

When you’re going to make coffee out in the forest, you normally want to light a fire that burns relatively warm and quickly. Both to warm cold bodies and to make coffee over! When you then have to leave, you want to be able to put it out quickly and move on.

Then it is very suitable to use slightly more intensive types of wood such as spruce and pine, but also birch. When you then leave the place, there are none, or very few pieces of coal left that can keep burning. It can also be good to build a small plateau of stones or rough sticks to fire on. In this way, you make even less impact on the ground below and keep a better air flow underneath the fire.

The cooking fire

A flexible way to be able to cook while keeping warm is to make a two-part fireplace. In one part you have a fire that burns and creates coal. In the second part, you scrape over coal from the previous one and use this to cook over. There are any number of different ways to do this, but one of them is called the “keyhole fire”.

The fire burns in the round part, while the narrower part is perfect for cooking over. The stones around the fire become a stand for pans and pots and the taper means that the embers heat properly upwards. The best firewood for cooking is the type of wood that forms a lot of coals and burns quietly and evenly, i.e. beech and oak!

The night fire

The log fire is a fire consisting of several large, thick logs that burn for a long time, often overnight. The idea with this type of fire is that it should burn for a long time. It also warms a person lying straight across the body equally.

The log fire is an old way of e.g. Sámi to warm up when you are out tending the reindeer in the winters. The log fire is usually made of spruce or pine logs because these are the types of wood that are most common in those areas.

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