The Bushcraft Field Guide to Trapping, Gathering, and Cooking in the Wild - Dave Canterbury (2016)

Part II. Bushcraft Cooking Methods

Chapter 6. Building a Fire

“The glories of a mountain campfire are far greater than may be guessed . . . One can make a day of any size, and regulate the rising and setting of his own sun and the brightness of its shining.”

—John Muir

Fire is the key element to a successful outdoor adventure. Without fire we are at the mercy of the sun to do our cooking unless we happen to be camped on a lava field, so the first priority is learning to make a proper fire.

Cook fires are different from campfires, signal fires, or warming fires, and they must be built and handled in accordance with the way we will cook our food.

A fire requires three elements: heat, oxygen, and fuel. If any of these elements is missing or is not in the proper amount, the fire will dwindle or die out.

Picking the Right Wood

The first consideration in building a fire is to choose what type of wood to collect. Which you choose depends on what kind of fire you’re making:

·        Softwoods (such as cedar) are for starting fires.

·        Hardwoods (such as oak) are for sustaining fires and cooking fires.

·        Resinous woods (such as pine and spruce) make great campfires and signal fires but they make horrible cook fires and can impart a bad flavor to anything the smoke comes into contact with.

So to that end we must first understand a bit about wood in general. There are really two types of trees:

1.    Deciduous: those that lose their leaves every year

2.    Coniferous: those with needles; for the most part these trees lose needles all year long and replace them with new ones

A deciduous tree is not always a hardwood, and a conifer is not always a softwood. To add to the confusion both types of trees can have resins, or oils, that impart bad taste to food, especially meat being cooked directly over flame or coals. So how do you tell the difference if you are not a tree guru? The answer can be a fairly simple deduction in most cases.

First, stay away from any coniferous tree except for lighting the initial fire. Feed no coniferous fuels. For deciduous trees (non-birch species), split the piece you plan to use and try to impress a fingernail into the wood. If you leave a mark, then don’t use the wood, unless it is for quick fire starting. Softer woods will ignite much faster, but hardwoods will create much better cooking coals and fires. See the following table for more information on the various BTUs put out by different types of wood.

BTUs for Wood Burning

Species

Heat per Cord (Million BTUs)

% of Green Ash

Ease of Splitting

Smoke

Sparks

Coals

Fragrance

Overall Quality

Black locust

27.9

140

Difficult

Low

Few

Excellent

Slight

Excellent

Black walnut

22.2

111

Easy

Low

Few

Good

Good

Excellent

Bur oak

26.2

131

Easy

Low

Few

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Eastern red cedar

18.2

91

Medium

Medium

Many

Poor

Excellent

Fair

Honey locust

26.7

133

Easy

Low

Few

Excellent

Slight

Excellent

Larch (tamarack)

21.8

 

Easy-med

 

Many

Fair

Slight

Fair

Lodgepole pine

21.1

 

Easy

 

Many

Fair

Good

Fair

Maple (other)

25.5

128

Easy

Low

Few

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Mulberry

25.8

129

Easy

Medium

Many

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Osage orange

32.9

165

Easy

Low

Many

Excellent

Excellent

Excellent

Ponderosa pine

16.2

81

Easy

Medium

Many

Fair

Good

Fair

Red oak

24.6

123

Medium

Low

Few

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Rocky Mountain juniper

21.8

109

Medium

Medium

Many

Poor

Excellent

Fair

Silver maple

19.0

95

Medium

Low

Few

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Spruce

15.5

78

Easy

Medium

Many

Poor

Slight

Fair

Sycamore

19.5

98

Difficult

Medium

Few

Good

Slight

Good

White oak

29.1

146

Medium

Low

Few

Excellent

Good

Excellent

Willow

17.6

88

Easy

Low

Few

Poor

Slight

Poor

Starting the Fire

Once you know what type of wood to use, your next step is to understand the basics of building a fire. The key to starting a fire is simple: gather lots of tinder, lots of kindling, and lots of fuel.

·        Tinder is highly combustible materials. This could be inner bark, dead weeds, or fine shavings from larger material. Often the best tinder for starting a fire is a heavily resin-laden wood, like pine, or bark from trees containing oils, such as birch. Again these are for starting the fire, not maintaining it.

·        Kindling is small dry sticks from pencil lead to pencil size. Quickly establishing a fire requires lots of surface area of combustible material, so using lots of smaller pieces of kindling will help you establish your fire.

·        Fuel is hardwood that is thumb-sized to 2" in diameter.

Make sure your selected area for the fire affords protection from high wind and allows for ease of maintenance. Make sure that the area you plan to build the fire is dry. If the ground is damp, place a layer of dry sticks on the ground to keep the base of the fire dry, lest it suffer from conductive heat loss and evaporative moisture, making it much harder to keep the fire going.

Next, process your tinder materials as fine as possible. This is a critical element that makes many folks fail in the earliest stage of fire building. Again you want the maximum surface area to give you the best chance of ignition.

Place a tinder bundle on the ground if it is dry or on the tinder base you created if it is wet. See Figure 6.1 for an example of a tinder bundle.

9781440598524 Tinder Bundl

Figure 6.1 Tinder bundle

Now take another good handful of kindling and gently place it over the pile of tinder. Don’t overcomplicate this by building a Lincoln Logs–style home. Just ensure the sticks have plenty of air space between them. Crisscross as much as you can, building up not out. Fire loves chaos! See Figure 6.2 for an example of a fire lay.

9781440598524 Teepee Fire La

Figure 6.2 Fire lay

1.    Once you have set your fire lay, you are ready for ignition. Make sure you have at least as much or more tinder set aside as you have used to build the initial lay and 2 times that much fuel before proceeding to lighting the fire.

2.    Once ready, you can ignite the base of the tinder material. A good space should be left open for this operation to allow good flow of oxygen from the bottom to create updraft from heat rising and pulling air into the fire from the bottom.

3.    Once the fire begins to burn do not rush to add more material. A simple rule is: only add kindling when the flames have risen above the current level of fuel. This will prevent you from suffocating the fire through lack of oxygen.

4.    Once the fire is established and kindling is burned, you may begin to add fuel to maintain the fire. It is a complicated-sounding process but gets easier each time you do it. Remember that wet or damp wood will starve the fire of oxygen through evaporation and also reduce heat. If your fuel is marginal, add more slowly and use more kindling as needed to increase heat. Place damp fuels near the fire to begin drying and remember to split any damp wood at least once to expedite the drying process and possibly expose dry wood inside.

After building a fire as outlined, you can immediately place a kettle or pot of water on to boil. Once the kindling becomes coals, you are ready for the pan and frying. This fire will last about 20 minutes or so and is perfect for a quick lunch stop and hot meal.

Testing the Heat of the Coals

You will want to have a good guess as to the heat of the fire especially for baking and roasting, so here is a simple way to make a good guess. Place your hand above the coal bed at cooking level and count the seconds you can comfortably hold it there with your palm down toward the fire:

·        5 seconds = low

·        4 seconds = medium

·        3 seconds = medium-high

·        2 seconds = high

If you have the means, the surest way to tell if your meat is fully cooked is to use a thermometer placed in the thickest part of the meat to verify it has reached safe temperatures. If you do not have a meat thermometer, it’s better to cook in a way that ensures thorough cooking, like boiling or stewing. At a minimum cook the meat until it is an even color down to the bone and there is no sign of pink or blood.

Minimum Safe Temperature for Meat and Fish

Meat

Minimum

Pork

160°F

Beef

145°F

Lamb

160°F

Chicken

165°F

Duck

165°F

Fish

145°F

Most game (deer, elk)

145°F

Rabbit and other small game

160°F

Advanced Fire Craft

Fire is the tool that many consider only second in importance to a good cutting tool. Fire is a main tool for combating cold-weather injury as well as general comfort around camp in cold environments. It will disinfect water, cook and preserve food, make medicines, keep bugs at bay . . . and the list goes on.

Sources of Ignition

Plenty of items on the market today—from actual lighters to road flares—will almost always ensure a flame to ignite even marginal tinder sources. You should have three methods to effect ignition at all times: lighter, ferrocerium rod, and sun glass or magnifying lens. I have not included matches on this list as it is my belief that matches really can do nothing we cannot accomplish with these three methods. Matches are not a value-added item, especially for the inherent issues one may face when using them, like moisture, wind, and gross motor dexterity when you’re cold. However, matches should be practiced along with any method of fire starting in case you have those and nothing else.

The other two most important methods of fire starting to understand are the bow-and-drill and flint-and-steel methods. Both of these methods can be effected from material in the landscape provided you have not lost your high-carbon blade from the sheath on your hip. (You should always have some type of retention for your blade so that this is not a possibility.)

The Bow-and-Drill Fire Method

The bow-and-drill kit can be made using only stone or glass tools but a knife makes the job much more convenient. There are those that would tell you that to truly practice a primitive skill you must always use primitive tools, and there is something to be said for improvising tools from the landscape, but these days it is not hard to find materials like metal and glass to work with.

Bow-and-Drill Kit

The bow-and-drill method is basically the idea of rubbing two sticks together to create a friction spark. However, it is slightly more complex than that and requires a number of elements to work.

You will need four things in your kit:

1.    Bow and bowstring

2.    Spindle (also called the drill)

3.    Hearth board

4.    Bearing block (also called the handhold)

Except for the rope (ideally made of nylon), all of the items in this kit can be made from the landscape but it’s easier to make the kit ahead of time to carry with you. See Figure 6.3 for what this kit looks like.

9781440598524 Bow and Dril

Figure 6.3 Bow-and-drill fire kit

The basic technique is to wind the spindle into the bowstring in the bow, then rotate the spindle against the hearth board, using a handhold to keep the hearth in place. Doing this, you create an ember, a smoldering coal that will need to be added to a bird’s nest of combustible materials.

Remember, we need heat, oxygen, and fuel to effect ignition or make the smoldering coal. So our set must be made to take maximum advantage of all three of these inputs. Survival is like a manufacturing process: All inputs will affect the output, in this case the burning coal. Any variation must be avoided to control the correct output. Understanding this, we need to ensure many things at the same time; without certain inputs, in the correct order, we will not get the desired output.

Creating the Bow-and-Drill Kit

When these components are used correctly they will make a simple machine that causes dust to accumulate. That dust is then heated by the drill’s friction on the board. Choosing the correct components, using the right form, and understanding when and how much pressure and speed to apply are the key inputs to the process. The only variation should be the materials you select, which can be controlled for the most part.

The hearth and spindle can be made from the same wood. It should be a softer wood, one that you can leave a fingernail impression in by pushing down. Examples of good woods to select are poplar, cedar, willow, and pine. The wood for these two components must be as dry as you can manage to find but should not be in a state of decay. My preference for this material would be tulip poplar, as the lower branches will often be hanging dead from the tree and be off the ground and dry, barring a few days of hard rain.

Generally speaking you want your hearth board about as long as your forearm and as thick as your thumb when finished, so select a limb or piece of wood larger than this so it can be split down to make a flat board of these dimensions. The spindle of the same material can be made from a branch as well and need only be about thumb diameter and the length of the span from your outstretched thumb to your pinky; a bit longer will not hurt as you will be carving both ends.

See Figures 6.4 and 6.5 for examples of what the spindle and hearth board look like.

9781440598524 Spindl

Figure 6.4 Spindle

9781440598524 Hearth Boar

Figure 6.5 Hearth board

The bearing block should be made from the hardest wood available. Hickory and beech are good selections. Choose a green sapling if one is available, about 3" diameter. Cut a chunk 4–5" in length, then split 1⁄3 off of one side with your knife.

See Figure 6.6 for an example of a bearing block.

9781440598524 Bearing Bloc

Figure 6.6 Bearing block

As to the bow, this can be made from any branch and does not have to even be bent like a bow. It just needs to be fairly stiff so as not to bend or break under strain and should be about 1⁄2" diameter by 3' long. The longer the bow is, the fewer strokes it takes to make revolutions of the spindle. A mistake I see a lot is using a bow well under 3'. To create the bow is as simple as tying a string to a branch. I have found a fork on one end of the stick and a loopworks best with a simple stake notch on the other end to tie it off with a straight lashing and a clove hitch. The string need not be so tight that the bow must bend to load the spindle but cannot be so loose that the drill slips under downward pressure either. See Figure 6.7 for an example of the bow.

9781440598524 Bo

Figure 6.7 Bow

The bird’s nest must be made up of coarse, medium, and fine materials. The true beauty of this is that most of the materials good for making the hearth and spindle will also provide the materials for a bird’s nest. The inner bark of the poplar, bark from the cedar, or inner bark of the willow are all great candidates for this. There are lots of other items that can be used within the bird’s nest, such as shredded birch barks, small dead pine needles, and other things with a natural accelerant or highly combustible oils, which will aid after the flame is created.

Do not use too much dry grass or leaves, as these items burn quickly and the bird’s nest must have longevity when burning to ignite the rest of the fire lay materials. Processing is the name of the game when constructing the bird’s nest. Shred barks to obtain lots of the finest materials you can. Always put out something to catch the droppings as you process the material, as many times the finest material will drop to the ground. The back of your knife can do much of the work if the material is still attached to the branch or the tree when you are collecting it. If these materials are wet when being collected, process them immediately, as the more surface area you create the faster it will dry. See Figure 6.8 for an example of a bird’s nest.

9781440598524 Bird Nes

Figure 6.8: Bird’s nest

If the sun is shining, place the materials in the sun, spread out as much as possible on a dark surface such as a tarp. Once these materials are dry they can be fashioned to look like a bird’s nest—and that is exactly how it should look. You should take a look at old bird’s nests when possible to see how they are constructed. They will have finer material in the middle or center and progressively coarser materials to the outside.

To prep the spindle for use, make it as straight and round as possible. The back of your knife can finely shave small materials to achieve this if an area of the spindle is slightly bent or crooked. Once it is straight and round, prepare the ends for use. One end of the drill should look like a worn eraser on a pencil, slightly rounded but still flat. This end will be on the hearth board to create maximum surface area and friction. This is where you want all the friction to be between the spindle and the hearth. The top of the spindle or drill needs to be shaped like the lead side of a pencil that needs sharpening: slightly dull yet still somewhat pointed. You want as little friction as possible on the top of the spindle, as this will make it easier to push and pull the bow; keep the friction on the bottom, where it belongs.

The bearing block is a key part of the set and probably the least understood, as it causes the most problems for many people. Using a hardwood for this is critical if you are making a set completely from the landscape. Softwood will immediately begin to wear away, causing the spindle to rub the wrong way. This is called “shouldering out,” and it is the biggest failure point for beginners who do not realize why they are getting worn out from operating the set and why they cannot get the set to run smoothly or get enough pressure down on the spindle.

Putting the Kit Together

Using your knife, create a small divot in the middle of the bearing block on the flat side. It only needs to be large enough to accept the point of the spindle. A free-spinning drill will be smooth and easy to operate. If you are having problems, this is the first place to look.

Then load the spindle onto the bowstring. When the spindle is loaded it should be on the outside of the string so that no friction occurs within the bow itself.

Create a small divot just off center of the hearth to accept the spindle. Do not make this divot very deep, as you don’t want to waste material you will need to form a coal. It only needs to guide the spindle during the burn-in process.

After loading the spindle to the bow, burn an area of the hearth board to guide you in notch construction. A proper notch should be a V cut in which the bottom of the V goes approximately 1⁄8" into the burned area. The angles of the V should be between 30° and 45°, approximately. This notch is very important in forming the coal. It gives the dust an area to accumulate from the drilling process and keeps it confined, which helps the material gather heat and lets in just enough oxygen to make it smolder as an ember if the rest of the process is performed correctly.

Place the spindle on the divot. If possible you always want the notch to the front of the board facing away from you. This will allow you to easily view the process when operating the drill. Begin to apply enough downward pressure to hold the drill in the divot as you slowly rotate the spindle. This is important as it will marry the drill to the divot for when you begin to create the coal. You don’t need speed at this point; downward pressure will create enough friction to begin burning the wood if you use the entire bow with steady strokes.

Once the wood has burned around the spindle and things are running smooth you need to stop, as again any waste of material now reduces what you have to make a coal later. When making the notch or the area that the coal will form, take care. You do not want it too narrow, as this will clog up as well as limit oxygen to the ember. Yet it cannot be too big, as the oxygen must be properly controlled and the dust somewhat compact.

Inspect all components now before beginning to attempt a coal. Check the bowstring for stretch and retighten if necessary. Check your bearing block to make sure the divot is not getting deep and the spindle has not begun to shoulder out. Deal with these issues now, or they will only get worse.

After this you are ready to begin making fire with sticks! Okay, you need one little extra item that makes things much easier in the end and may save a good coal from going out due to ground moisture. You need to make a welcome mat that your coal is going to flow onto from the notch. This can be a small sliver of bark or a thin piece of wood, but it should be two times as wide as the notch and goes under the hearth board to catch the coal.

Creating the Coal

Assume the proper position: bent over on one knee, with the front foot on the hearth board close to the spindle but not touching and causing friction. The other leg should have the knee resting comfortably on the ground parallel to your body but tucked inside enough not to interfere with the bow moving forward and back during the drilling process.

Make sure the crook of your wrist is locked into your shin so that the spindle will not move side to side. Make sure there are no obstructions that will interfere with the full movement of the bow. Lean forward to put steady downward pressure on the spindle with the bearing block. You should have your chest over your knee at this point and easily be able to observe the activity in the notch. Begin to operate the bow again slowly at first to maintain a rhythm. You don’t need speed yet; you want steady, long strokes and downward pressure using the entire length of the bow.

The goal at this point is to remove material from the board and the drill and fill the notch with a dark brown fluffy material. Many folks make the mistake of trying to go too fast, assuming speed will make an ember, but if there is no dust in the notch you have no fuel to create the ember.

After several strokes you will see some smoke and the notch should begin to fill with material. Once that material begins to spill forward in front of the notch you can increase the cadence of your bow strokes, going 2–3 times faster. It should only take about 10–12 full strokes of the bow at this point to create a burning coal.

When you stop, don’t do it suddenly and with a jerk as this may disturb the coal you created. Instead, slow down during the last couple of strokes and stop in the same position you started. Slowly remove the spindle and bow and observe the coal. If it seems to be smoking outside the board where the dust has gathered, you are probably home free. Don’t get excited, as you have a lot of time to turn the ember into a fire—about 5 minutes or more in reality. You can slowly lift the board at an angle and tap it gently with the spindle to dislodge any material that may be clogged in the notch. If the coal is still smoking at this point, you can sit back and relax for a minute, catch a few breaths, and smile!

Turning the Coal Into Fire

Now comes the most important part of the operation. Bring the bird’s nest to the coal (never the other way around). Tilt the nest toward the welcome mat and pick up the welcome mat, moving it to the nest. Slowly tap the welcome mat to dump the coal into the nest. This should be a tiny drop—about a 1⁄4" at most.

Slightly fold the nest and begin to add some oxygen by breathing into it slightly—not hard blows, just light breaths. If the coal is still burning strong you can raise the nest, slightly tilted, so that you are blowing up into it and the heat rises into the bulk of the nest. As the ember grows, smoke will begin to roll from the back side of the nest. This is the cue for you to blow a bit harder. As the smoke thickens you can increase the oxygen until it begins to burn.

Once the nest flames, turn it over so the flames are on the bottom and heat rises to the non-burning material. Place it into your fire lay and make fire!

Flint-and-Steel Method

Why is this an important method for us to understand? For the same reason the bow-and-drill method is important, in case we would lose the majority of our gear. We do not want to make two bow-and-drill fires if we can help it, so we make charred material as soon as we have the first fire. Then a flint-and-steel fire can be made the next time round.

Charred material will only require a simple spark to ignite into an ember. It can be ignited from many possible sources, but the flint-and-steel method is the number one best way if open flame devices are unavailable. As long as we do not lose our primary cutting tool, we should be able to find a rock to serve as the flint.

To effect this method you will need to drive small shards of iron material from the back of your knife with a rock. These particles will combust with friction and oxygen at 800ºF. It may take some searching for a rock that will do this but any flint, chert, or quartz rock will work if you can break or find a sharp edge. See Figure 6.9 for an example of a flint-and-steel kit.

9781440598524 Flint and Steel Ki

Figure 6.9 Flint-and-steel kit

Material for Flint-and-Steel Ignition

Some fungi like chaga (true tinder fungus) will take the spark from this method without charring first. You can also get the dust from some types of shelf fungus (Fomes fomentarius) to take a spark. To accomplish this you’ll need to create a small pile of dust with a saw cut or by scraping with the back of a knife. Once the dust has ignited it must be left to grow into a coal, whereas the true tinder fungus can be ignited within a larger piece and the dust is not necessary. With either of these materials you want the softer inner materials, not the outer hard surface.

You can also elect to char material, which is a much better guarantee that a spark will give you ignition. This material can be made from many things from the landscape, including punky decaying wood and the inner pith from some plants like mullein. You can also use materials that are 100 percent cotton, such as from clothing or kit.

Making Char

To make charred material of any kind means you will need to severely limit the oxygen to a material that is contained and superheated. The easiest way to do this is to use some type of metal chamber with a way for gases to escape as it heats up the material inside.

A stainless steel bottle and nesting cup will work for this, as will an old can with a flat rock as a lid. Place the material to be charred inside the chamber and place the chamber into the fire. Coals are better for this than direct flame, but either will work.

As the material is heated in the chamber, gas that looks like smoke will begin to escape from any place that is not completely sealed. This is okay as long as oxygen cannot enter. Once the smoke stops the charring should be complete. It is very important to wait until the chamber is completely cool before opening the container, as the addition of oxygen to hot material will make it burn.

Once the container is cool, inspect the contents. If it is black and frail looking, it is most likely correct. If it is brown, it can be put back into the fire the same way without harm. It is easy enough to test a small amount of the material to make sure it is correct. Many woodsmen will carry a specific tin for fire material and charring called a char tin. Altoids breath mint–type tins or old shoe polish cans work well for this.

If you are using this type of system, sparks can be struck from the metal tool directly into the tin, so that the surface area to catch an ember is increased. Once an ember is created it will need to be placed into a bird’s nest as described in the previous section on the bow-and-drill method.

Advantages of Char

There are many advantages to charring material. Making a highly combustible material that can be added to marginal materials within a bird’s nest allows extended heat sources for effecting ignition. Charred material can be ignited with almost any spark, from old lighters to ferrocerium rods to a sun glass. This variety of ignition methods makes char a perfect material to keep in good supply within your kit.

Solar Fire

There is a huge advantage to using a sun glass to create an ember: The sun is a renewable resource, and you are expending no resource from your kit to make this ember. All materials for ember-making can be collected from the wild and are not difficult to use. Remember the discussion on adding a burning ember to a bird’s nest? This will not change, nor will the construction of the nest itself. Any charred material can be ignited by the sun glass, as can both of the fungus species we have discussed. Horse hoof fungus may work better as a dust but it will make a nice coal in a short amount of time. You can also create an ember by compressing natural materials like cattail down or poplar bark into a tight small ball about 1⁄4" in diameter, then using the glass to burn into the material, creating a smoldering ember.

Tips and Tricks

·        You should always be thinking of the next fire. If you use up your emergency fuel source, what will you do for the next fire? That’s why I suggest making char as a priority from the first fire.

·        Remember, campfire cooking is done over coals, not flame. Cooking over a flame will char the outside of your food while leaving the inside cold. Cook over the coals for better results for most meals.

·        While you’re eating, put a pot of water on the fire so that water will be hot for cleanup.

·        Cover pots when cooking. This helps meals cook faster and keeps insects from getting too curious.

·        Be patient. Since you’ll do most of your cooking over coals, not open flame, you have to wait for the fire to die down. It will also take longer to cook a meal over a fire than in an oven or on a stove.

·        Keep an eye out. Most foods cooked over a fire will need your attention from time to time. You’ll need to stir it often and move it to different parts of the fire (or move hotter coals underneath your pot) in order to cook evenly and thoroughly. A fire is not like an oven or a stove; the heat will not be evenly distributed.