Camping: Teach Kids to Build Campfires Safely at Home
A Nice, Comforting Campfire
The Basic Parts of a Campfire
In order to burn properly, a campfire must have the three elements we all learned about in school: air, fuel and heat. The fuel is obviously the wood; the air is all around, and the initial heat to start the fire is provided by a match or propane lighter.
The fuel must be of assorted sizes, in order for the fire to catch and begin to burn efficiently. You can't just hold your lighter against a big log. It probably won't ignite because there is insufficient heat relative to the size and density of the wood.
Therefore, you must begin with small bits, and work up to larger bits. All of these things are placed in the fire pit in order, with the smallest on the bottom, so that as the flame (heat) rises, it will begin to ignite the pieces above.
Gather Your Materials
These, then, are the parts you need, in order of size:
Remember, "tinder is tiny." for this, you want small things such as pine needles, small broken bits of bark, or other such things. Paper can be used, but is not the best idea.
Next, the kindling. This will be small to medium-sized twigs and larger pieces of bark.
Finally, you will add your main fuel, the logs, beginning with smaller ones, and the larger ones on top.
All of this can be scaled, of course, from a tiny cooking fire in a small pit, to a rip-roaring bonfire on the beach. Indeed, a beach is the only safe place to build a "rip-roaring" fire, free as it is from surrounding trees and flammable ground cover. The entire environment is filled with fire-extinguishing materials, from the sand on which it is laid to the nearby water. (Just be sure it is legal on the particular beach where you plan your bonfire!)
Remember, here in the USA, if you are in a state or national park, you are not allowed to pick up downed wood, or even pine needles from the forest floor to use in your campfire. You must either bring these supplies from home, or purchase them at the camp's store (if they have one), or in a nearby town. It is probably cheaper to bring from home.
In the Sierra National forest, you are allowed to collect downed wood, but you must get a permit to do so. You may not chop down trees or cut limbs from live trees.
Check with the management of any campgrounds that are privately run on private property for their regulations.
Pay attention to area regulations. If signs say, "No open fires," then that means, sorry, no campfires; you may only use your camp stove.
When teaching campfire-building skills, it is also important to teach fire safety. There are certain things that go along with responsible use of fire, and they include:
- Never build a fire, no matter how small, when it is windy
- Always have fire-extinguishing materials next to the fire (rake, shovel, bucket of water)
- Never build a fire under the overhang of tree limbs; select an open area
- If a pre-built campfire ring is provided, use only that
- Pay attention to seasonal regulations and high-fire danger signs
- Never, never use gasoline or other flammable liquids to start your fire
On one camping trip, we saw some adults, who should have known better, try to squirt charcoal starter on the fire, after there was already some flame. It flashed, followed the stream back to the can, and set the side of their tent on fire. They had made 3 critical errors:
- Pitching the tent too near the fire ring
- Building too large a fire foundation
- Using a flammable liquid on an already-burning fire (even if you don't see flame yet, if there is smoke, it's burning)
Needless to say, the rangers asked them to pack up and leave.
Fire Safety Can be Taught to the Very Young
What I am going to show you here is a method we used in Girl Scouts to teach youngsters how to build fires for camp-outs. When you begin at Brownie age (1st to 3rd grade), and reinforce the lessons into Juniors (4th to 6th grades), by the time they are 6th graders, you will have competent, careful campers able to build a safe campfire.
Even if the adults still handle the ignition source, the kids will have a solid foundation.
Then, at Cadette and Senior Scouting* ages (junior high/middle school and high school), they will be more than capable of actually directing and helping younger kids with their fire building and safety lessons.
That is the Girl Scout way: Learn one; Do one; Teach one.
*(These are the age divisions that existed within Scouting when my kids and I were involved, back in the mid 1980s. They may have changed since then.)
An Edible Fire
And now, on to the fun! .For this safe, indoor lesson, you'll need a few snack supplies:
- Raisins or miniature marshmallows
- Shredded coconut
- Small pretzel sticks
- Licorice twists (in whatever flavor is preferred by the group), or Tootsie Rolls
Main Fuel (Log) Placement
You can teach either a 'log cabin' style fire, (shown just above), or a teepee style fire, (shown below).
The teepee is quite tricky with these materials, and is better suited for older kids, especially those who may have already mastered the log cabin style, and are bored with that lesson; give them a challenge.
Note that a teepee fire is, by its very nature, a larger blaze, which may not be suitable for all locations.
This "Fire" is Ready to Eat!
The Treat at the End
The kicker is, each kid builds their own fire, but they are not allowed to have any of the goodies until it has been inspected as correctly done, by the instructor.
Once it passes muster, they can eat their fires!
Oh, what fun they'll have, going home bragging to be fire-eating dragons!
© 2013 Liz Elias