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Dakota fire hole

Updated on April 30, 2012

Use an old, traditional method to increase backcountry cooking efficiency and minimize smoke signature

What can you do if you want to not only increase your fire's efficiency and cut down on firewood gathering needs, but at the same time reduce your visibility by nearly eliminating your smoke signature and concealing much of the fire's glow?

One good way to achieve all these ends is by digging and using a Dakota fire hole, a method which has been in use for hundreds of years.

You will see many variations on this style of fire pit, including one in which a covered trench or trenches are used instead of a tunnel to draw in air, but in this lens I'm going to demonstrate my favorite way of digging and using the pit.

Constructing a Dakota fire hole

In order to construct a Dakota fire hole, you will need to dig a hole that is just over a foot deep, and no wider than that in diameter. The pit can be widened at the bottom to allow for longer pieces of wood. Then dig a small tunnel beginning a foot or so from the main pit and angling down to the bottom of it. This will allow additional air to be drawn through and help the fire to burn hotter and more efficiently, producing less smoke.

If you can, put the air tunnel on the side of the pit from which the prevailing winds in the area come, as this will help to fan the fire. Even this is not possible because of terrain limitations (as it was not for this demonstration) the setup should work quite well.

Be careful in choosing a location for your fire hole. You want to avoid areas where evergreen roots criss-cross through the ground and could be set to smoldering by your fire

For your fire, start with very dry wood, preferably long-dead branches, still attached to the tree, which have been protected from moisture by the boughs above them. Remove all bark, as most barks do not burn completely and tend to smoke, and split your kindling very finely. I put three rocks down in the pit to build the fire on top of, so they can heat for later use (cooking or keeping in pockets, etc, for warmth) after fire is out.

Building the fire...

All set up and ready to strike. This is split aspen wood from a standing dead tree, along with a small amount of juniper. I added a bit of milkweed down, surrounded by a wad of shredded juniper bark, to catch the spark. It is difficult to see in this photo, but there is a shallow trench in the bottom of the firepit (that the rocks are in) which lines up with the air tunnel. This both helps to draw air through, and allows you to place wood flat on the bottom of the pit, while still allowing air under it.

The hole is approximately twelve inches in diameter, widened out around the bottom to accept larger pieces of wood. By keeping it small at the top, you maximize efficiency and also make it easier to quickly cover the hole with a flat rock, if you have a sudden need to eliminate the fire and reduce your heat signature...

Fire took on the first strike, using a firesteel and length of old dulled hacksaw blade. This is the most smoke it ever produced, and that only for a moment, until it began drawing air through the tunnel.

Looking in through air tunnel:

Cooking over a Dakota fire hole

Firehole and tunnel. I dug the hole with that deer shoulder bone and a sharpened juniper stick, for the tunnel.

Starting the water heating. The firehole is a very efficient and quick way to bring water to a boil for purification, and makes a great cooking "stove," also! By angling firewood so part of it ends up in the tunnel, you can use longer pieces than you would otherwise be able, in this small 12 inch diameter hole.

Slide the rock partway over the pit to help keep the heat in and boil your water more quickly. Also provides a cooking/heating surface, if you need it. Just after this, I added some spring beauty and waterleaf roots that I had recently dug in a nearby alpine meadow.

Boiling away! I boiled my little "potatoes" for about ten minutes.

Improvised juniper-bark pot lifter...

All done, and still no smoke!

Fire is intentionally kept very small at all times. This should help minimize the amount of light that escapes, at night.

Ready to eat! Just after this I slid the large rock over the hole, and a smaller one over the tunnel opening, to cut off the air and let the fire die out with minimal smoke. If you get a tight seal between the ground/rock, no smoke escapes. If you have not been able to find a rock of just the right size, keep a little pile of dirt and small rocks handy to quickly toss over and close the gaps, sealing in the smoke of the dying fire.

Spring beauty corms--just like mashed potatoes, in both taste and texture. I eat skins and all. Very good! The waterleaf roots are not bad, either--nearly tasteless, but starchy and filling.

You can of course keep the fire going while you eat if it's cold weather, but if the idea is to quickly cook up a hot meal or purify some water with minimal smoke and heat signature, you'll want to put it out as soon as possible. In that case, keeping your pot on the rock while you eat helps keep your food warm, and you can always sit on the rock afterwards (check to make sure it's not too hot!) for warmth.

And don't forget those three rocks that are down in the bottom under the ashes, very hot by now. They can be fished out and used to help keep you warm, or even used for additional cooking (dropped into water to heat it,) maximizing the use you get out of this one small, quick fire.

Wilderness Skills on Amazon - Books are a great place to start, but there's no substitute for getting out there in the dirt and practicing your skills!

Photo credits

All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted

What are your favorite fire making methods while in the backcountry?

Have you ever used a Dakota fire hole?

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    • Johnny0 profile image

      Johnny0 5 years ago

      I have not tried one but I will. I like slow cooking.

    • SquidooPower profile image

      SquidooPower 5 years ago

      This is an excellent lens!

    • Cari Kay 11 profile image

      Kay 5 years ago

      This is great! We've built many fires while camping but have never tried this. Blessed!

    • belinda342 profile image

      belinda342 5 years ago

      Wonderful information. This type of low-light fire would be great for people camping out to watch the stars or a meteor shower. Or any other time when too much light can be a bad thing! Thank you so much for sharing.

    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 5 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      No, I've only ever built open fires with matches. I'm glad I learned something new!

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Awesome guide! Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • xriotdotbiz lm profile image

      xriotdotbiz lm 5 years ago

      I learned about this in Boy Scouts but they taught a trench (as mentioned) instead of a tunnel. I think the tunnel would be preferable because it 1). would help cut down on light or heat being lost, 2). make it easier/quicker to extinguish the fire. Actually, I forgot about this since my scouting days, now I am anxious to try it out.

    • CNelson01 profile image

      Chuck Nelson 5 years ago from California

      Very interesting concept. Might help with getting a safe fire going on a windy day

    • FantasticVoyages profile image

      Fantastic Voyages 5 years ago from Texas

      I had heard of this previously, but never tried it. I like the photos.. it really shows how to accomplish each step. Thanks!

    • JJNW profile image

      JJNW 5 years ago from USA

      Wow - this is new to me and I have been making fires all my life. Thanks for the great info! Blessed by a SquidAngel.

    • Linda Pogue profile image

      Linda Pogue 5 years ago from Missouri

      I have not. Wish I had known about this when I took Girl Scouts camping years ago. Thank you for the information!

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      I love learning new things such as this! Very good article. As always, you have done a fantastic job of walking us through the steps. :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      That's really good to know! I'm gonna use it in my next camping trip. Thank you!

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 5 years ago

      I must say that I'm practically genius at burning a quantity of brush (diseased apple prunings that must be incinerated for the orchard's health, for example) in a very very small footprint of space - but the Dakota fire hole is completely new to me. What a perfect solution for cutting down the amount of fuel and risk of sparks in campfires! *blessed*

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 5 years ago from USA

      No I haven't ever done this, but what a good idea. It makes so much sense. You did a good job walking us through the steps. I can't say I have any backbacking methods except this one :)

    • laughingapple profile image

      laughingapple 5 years ago

      This was a really good step by step guide. I had read about smoke holes but not seen an illustrated guide. Thanks.

    • Einar A profile image

      Einar A 5 years ago

      @davenjilli lm: Wow, what an honor! Thank you. :)

    • davenjilli lm profile image

      davenjilli lm 5 years ago

      This lens has so impressed me that it is the first one that I am sprinkling angel blessings on as a new squid angel

    • LouisaDembul profile image

      LouisaDembul 5 years ago

      I've never tried to make a fire in a hole, we always make it on top. great idea!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 5 years ago from Colorado

      This is my introduction to the Dakota fire hole. Ingenius. I will definitely try it out in the near future. Thanks!

    • deckdesign profile image

      deckdesign 5 years ago

      I've built a lot of fires while I have been camping, but I've never heard of a Dakota hole fire. This is very cool and I can't wait to get out camping and try it.

    • DanielGlynn profile image

      DanielGlynn 5 years ago

      Neat article about how to build a fire. Thanks for the useful info!

    • profile image

      DebMartin 5 years ago

      Wow. I love this stuff! Blessed.

    • davenjilli lm profile image

      davenjilli lm 5 years ago

      This is fascinating! as soon as the ice that has become our back yard melts, we will have to give this a try. We love to backpack this is very useful information.

    • mymusic1234 lm profile image

      Mark Spivey 5 years ago from Australia

      I haven't used this method before but the principle looks great. Thanks for showing us clearly.

    • profile image

      cr00059n 6 years ago

      This technique of creating a fire is quite useful considering that there are many people who don't have modern resources. Thanks for sharing this nifty technique.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      @flicker lm: This is very good about the Dakota Fire Pit. Love your articles and photos, and thank you for sharing. People need to know survival skill and this would be good for everyone to read. Never know when your going to need some know how like this. ~ Blessed.

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 6 years ago

      I've never used a Dakota fire hole, but it looks like a very interesting technique.