Outdoor Afro Essentials: Build a Fire

By Chaya Harris
Prefer to watch a video? Check out fire making with Antoine Skinner!
You arrive back to your campsite in the evening after a long day’s hike, ready to build a fire to cook dinner and enjoy s’mores. Or maybe you have your loved ones over for some cozy, socially-distanced fun around your firepit in your backyard. You strike a match, drop it on a log, and….fizzle. Nothing.
Don’t let your fire plans go up in smoke!
This season especially, we encourage you to enjoy some time around a fire, whether indoors or out, reflecting on the good that endures. Many indigenous people honor the way fire can restore in nature, and perhaps it can stoke the wonders that we are.
Here are our sure fire tips – and yep, a few more puns – for a successful blaze every time.

Know Before You Go / Getting Started 

  • If you’re camping or backpacking in a national or state park, or a private campground, know the fire rules before you go. There are regulations about if and where you can build fires, seasonal considerations, and usually rules around outside wood.
  • Bringing in wood from another area commonly introduces invasive insects, like the emerald ash borer beetle, and tree diseases.
  • Build your fire on a stable surface; clear rocks, pinecones and other debris from the fire pit or ring.
  • Be mindful of your surroundings, including the space between your fire and tents, trees, tablecloths, etc… Flames and sparks spread easily and quickly. Different types of wood and weather conditions can cause embers to “jump” unpredictably.
Gather your supplies 

Bring more than one way to start a fire, including waterproof matches, a lighter and a ferro rod stored in a dry sack
Whenever you’re creating a fire, think of a triangle of heat, oxygen and fuel. If you remove any of those elements, then you will extinguish the fire. In gathering your materials, consider what the fire will burn (the fuel) and how you’re going to spark a flame (the heat). Of course, include safety precautions with gathering your supplies and be sure to have a small fire extinguisher which works on any type of fire, or a bucket of water for wood fires.

  • Use a small hatchet
  • Practice at least two ways to ignite the fire, such as waterproof matches, a lighter, and different types of firestarter kits (like a magnesium bar or ferro rod)
  • Gather wood in a variety of sizes. You will need small twigs and branches as well as larger logs if possible. Use wood from fallen trees and scattered branches.  Dry tree bark often lights easily.
  • Grab a stick or bring a fireproof tool for stoking the fire
  • If you’re buying wood, different types of wood will give you different scents and varying burn times.

Outdoor Afro Leaders love talking about firestarter! It’s one of our most frequently asked questions during events and will ignite some creativity when you start discussing options. While you can purchase firestarter at most outdoor and sporting goods retailers, there are some everyday household items to use, like dryer lint
Wax, dryer lint and egg cartons make for fantastic fire starters
Wax, dryer lint and egg cartons are fantastic fire starters

  • Dryer lint, stored in a baggie with petroleum jelly
  • Toss the dryer lint covered in petroleum jelly or soaked in oil in an egg carton
  • Place the lint in an egg carton and drizzle with old candle wax
  • Cotton balls, also covered in petroleum jelly, can be stored in a balloon to keep them dry or a mint tin (solid option for wet conditions)
  • Save the sawdust from your home projects, or ask for the leftovers at a home improvement store, and then add old wax for sawdust balls
Structure / Fire lay
Logs stacked in a cabin style will support a long burn

Coming back to the fire triangle, the structure is crucial for how the oxygen and fuel (the wood) will interact for the ongoing chemical reaction. Decide on your structure, then place your firestarter and tinder, then kindling and build up to larger sticks. These structures balance the oxygen and fuel for a long-lasting fire.

  • Teepee style: arrange your smaller pieces over wood over your firestarter and kindling like a teepee; add larger pieces around the outside.
  • Log cabin style: crisscross 4 pieces of wood like a tic-tac-toe board with your tinder in the middle. Add a few layers until you have a small cabin.
  • Lean-to: Best for wind protection and to use in light rain. Using a larger log, like a tree trunk, or a large, flattop boulder, place your tinder close to the log or boulder. Then lay your kindling and larger branches across the tinder so it’s slanted from the ground to the top of the log.

Always light your fire from the bottom of the firestarter and tinder so the flames move upward and burn the larger pieces of wood.

Extinguish the Fire

After you and your loved ones admire your fire building skills, be sure to put out the fire completely. This means it is cool to the touch. You can let it die out, or…

  • Douse it with water and break up remaining embers
  • Dig down a few inches, and use dirt from under the fire to cover the embers. Then douse to create mud.

Never leave a fire unattended, and if you’re using charcoal, many of the same fire starting techniques apply. However, do not dispose of charcoal outside of a fire pit or near a tree. For other details about charcoal, that’s a whole other post.

Wait – what about the hatchet?

In addition to boosting confidence and posing for outdoorsy photos, a hatchet is great for trimming wood for kindling, such as stripping off some tree bark or cutting small branches from a downed tree. If the wood is wet or iced over, use a hatchet to strip the wood down to the drier core and dry the outer layers around the fire you’ll have built in flash.
….and there we go – you’re ready for a blazing fire! What other essential skills would you like to see us demonstrate?

Fire Making with Antoine Skinner