Cold snaps as we have had this past winter bring about thoughts of getting warm. For most of us, that means turning up the thermostat. However, for the camper, staying warm means having a quality fire, one that delivers heat efficiently.
Fire has three main purposes: aesthetic appeal, that is simply watching the beauty of the flames while flickering against the dark night; for cooking, having the coals, flames and heat at appropriate levels to grill meat, bake a potato, or make pancakes; and for heat, to warm your body on a frigid night.
Each of the three purposes of the fire is achieved by different means. For example, if you had a group of six people you would want a large bonfire with high flames to deliver maximum visual appeal, but if you were sautéing onions in a skillet, you want a nearly smokeless and flameless fire rich with coals. Lastly, if you were camped at 4,000 feet on the Appalachian Trail in March you would want a large fire with deep coals and twirling flames to keep your toes and your nose toasty.
In the backcountry, before making a fire, you must gather wood. Back at home, you can reach over to the hearthside oak stack or head out to the woodpile in the backyard.
If it were only that simple to have a stack of wood waiting for you after a long day’s hike or an extended paddle. Instead, after setting up camp the first thing I must do is look for wood.
There are different tactics in gathering wood, depending upon where you are. Say you are camped at a heavily used site in the Smoky Mountains. The area is so devoid of sticks and limbs it seems a yardman came through and cleaned it up.
The first thing to do is look for the most difficult terrain, such as a steep hill or ultra-dense forest and head straight that way to retrieve firewood. Simply stated, the easiest places to access will have been combed over already, so go to the more difficult places first. Then you will not waste time traipsing around gathering twigs when you need limbs.
Secondly, expect to go a fair distance from the campsite, say 80 to 100 yards. No matter where you are, there seems to be a perimeter where people quit looking for wood. This means more effort carrying the wood back but at least you do not waste time looking where something is not.
Along river or beach campsites, campers can head to the woods away from the water, or look along the water’s edge for driftwood. At heavily used boat accessible campsites I will simply unload my canoe then paddle to an un-camped shoreline, gather wood, load it into the boat and paddle back to the campsite.
The easiest time to gather wood is when you are overnighting at a campsite that you create. Because no one has camped there before there is ample wood lying around. In that instance, my sometimes-lazy friend John Cox always says, “There is so much firewood around we don’t even have to gather it.”
That statement reminds me of the old adage about wood warming you three times: while gathering it, while breaking it up and while burning it. Keep those coals burning.