Build Your Best Campfire

Now that the cold nights have arrived in the Ozark Mountains, good fire skills are not only important for your comfort, but can make you the most popular person at the campsite.

The success or failure of a campfire is found in two main components: combustible materials, and air flow. If you get the balance just right, you’ll be golden – too much or too little, and you’ll be eating cold hot dogs and un-melted Hershey bars.
Gather everything you need first (preferably before it gets dark). You’ll need three sizes of wood – larger pieces that will burn longer once you get some flames going, small twigs, and even smaller stuff, called “tinder” that will burn quickly to get it started. Don’t forget to have a container of water or a shovel on hand as well, to keep any errant flames in check.

Tree bark, dry leaf litter and pine needles make great tinder, and provide instant combustion. Avoid using paper to reduce the chance that large pieces of floating embers could float into forested areas and create a wildfire risk.

Put a small pile of tinder in an area that has been cleared of debris and surrounded by some good-size rocks to contain the fire. In most state parks there are already some fire rings created for camper use. Light the tinder, and add more until it is fully involved. Then, cover the flames with your twigs, blowing on the small flames to keep them burning if necessary. Add more tinder if you need to, allowing space for airflow, until the twigs are burning well. Now it’s time to pile on the larger pieces over the top, allowing for airflow. Don’t simply lay the logs on the pile of tinder and twigs, or you will probably put out the fire.

There are several ways to arrange your larger pieces of wood to create good airflow. You can pile them in a tipi shape; lay one piece down and rest two or three others on it, with the other ends on the ground; or put two down with a few across the top like a Lincoln Log fort. If, after you’ve added your logs, the tinder and twigs are dwindling, loosely push more into the structure and continue to add air by blowing on them. If your wood is all dry enough, it should catch fairly quickly and you can manage it from there.

Something we didn’t mention was making sure that the wood you gather is “downed”, which means it was already lying on the ground when you found it. It is illegal to cut any trees or branches in State Parks in Arkansas, so unless you’re on private property and have the permission of the landowner, play it safe. You can also pick up some bundles at the local grocery store before you leave town if you want to make sure you have enough.

With a little practice, you’ll be basking in the glow of your own fire, as well as the admiration of your friends.

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