Saturday, November 3, 2012

How to safely build a campfire when day hiking with children

A fire is central to keeping warm, cooking meals and feeling safe. Only build a fire if necessary, however. They can pose a great danger to children and the surrounding environment.

You’ll first need to select a spot to build the fire. Begin by look for an existing fire ring. If there isn’t one (and even if there is), select a spot protected from the wind as the breeze can carry sparks from the fire. Given this, be sure that the campfire is built several feet away and down-wind from your shelter. Also, don’t build underneath a tree, as you don’t want limbs or the roots to catch fire.

Children of all ages can help you collect the tinder, twigs and branches as they are small enough for them to carry. They’ll have the best luck finding dry wood inside hollow stumps or near a tree trunks’ base. Wet bark can be shaved away from dry wood and then further cut into tinder. As gathering your wood, separate it into piles by size. Keep the branches and dry brush away from the fire ring. You also may need to collect rocks for the fire pit.

Starting a campfire
Presuming there isn’t a prebuilt fire ring, clear a circle of ground and place rocks at its edges. Rocks larger than your fists are best, but avoid using wet stones, especially those from a riverbed, as they can explode when heated. If you can’t find any rocks, dig a trench.

Once a fire ring is made, place tinder in a small pile at its center. Tinder is the building block of your fire and can be anything that quickly ignites, such as dry grass, pine needles, paper, bark and twigs. Build a small teepee of pencil-length twigs around and over the tinder. Leave a space on one side of the teepee so you can reach the tinder with your hand. Now make another teepee, using longer and thicker sticks, but of no more than an inch thick, over the first teepee, again leaving a space in the side so you can reach your hand in. Stack a small ring of at least fist-sized stones around the teepee; this later will keep the fire from spreading to the surrounding ground and can be used as a place to stick a pot to boil water.

Remember those waterproof matches in a waterproof container and the small candle we discussed earlier? Take them out. Light the candle and place the candle beneath the tinder. This is the easiest wait to light a fire – there’s no rubbing sticks together or holding magnifying glasses as shown on cable television survival shows. When the top teepee collapses in flame, you’ve got a good fire started and can add gradually larger branches to keep it going. As you don’t want to get too large of a fire going – they can be difficult to control – keep the branches smaller than your firearm.

While kids can help build the fire ring and teepees, only an adult should start the fire. In addition, never leave a fire unattended.

Keep water nearby
Keep a bucket of water nearby, too. As you’re lost, you probably don’t have a bucket, so designate one of the canteens you’ve carried as the douse bucket. Don’t use good drinking water you’ve carried in or water you’ve purified with tablets to douse the fire. Instead, carefully empty into another canteen water from the canteen that’ll serve as a douse bucket. Then fill your douse canteen with local water from a stream, pond or puddle.

Don’t dry anything around the fire. You’ll find nylon melting, leather cracking, and wool burning. Instead, dry boots in the shade (and never over a campfire) by putting them upside down on a stick that you’ve pushed into the ground. Dry other equipment in the sun and wind.

When you hike out of the area the following morning or are rescued, extinguish the fire completely, dousing it in water, spreading out the coals, and smothering the burning branches and ashes with sand or dirt free of twigs and leaves. Pour on more water until each cinder is extinguished. Don’t drench hot rocks with cold water, though, as the temperature change can cause an explosion. Before leaving, check the fire again to make sure nothing is burning. The pit should be cold to the touch. All of this may take a half-hour or more.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.