Bushlore Topics > Fire!

Fire lays and builds, when to use each one.

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A few years ago I went searching for list or comparison of the different fire lays and builds to see which ones would be ideal for which situations. The consensus was that such a thing may not exist so I started digging around on the internet to make one myself. Needless to say I got distracted by other endeavors and it was never completed. I think I may have compiled a pretty comprehensive list now and wanted to share it with everyone. Here was the original post of my question:


Now let's see if I can answer it. First, I'll distinguish the difference, in my opinion, between a fire lay and a fire build since the terms are sometimes used ambiguously. A fire lay is how you arrange the tinder, kindling, squaw wood, and fuel for when it's time to put a spark, ember, or lighter to the setup to get flames. A fire build would be the configuration of logs, rocks, or earth to enhance or control the fire. The way I see it any fire lay can be used in any fire build but some are suited better for certain purposes. First let's tackle the lays.

The most basic of fire lays is what I will call a bonfire lay. That is when you throw sticks and tinder together in a random haphazard pile and light away. This works well with no wind, ideal wood, and an open flame, especially when an accelerant is involved.

The next is a Tipi (or Teepee) lay. A tinder bundle is placed on the ground, a rock, some bark etc... and progressively larger sticks are added around the bundle forming a tipi shape with an opening on the uphill or upwind side to allow access to the tinder bundle with a flame or coal. These fires start quickly once ignited due to the nature of the fire to move up through the sticks to the larger ones stacked on the outside. It can be done as small as needed or as large as desired with very large pieces of firewood stacked on the outside (given the initial form was strong enough). It is important to remember to leave gaps between the sticks to allow air into the structure. In larger forms they are capable of sustaining the fire in moderate rain with no cover as the outer wood is dried by the fire faster than the rain can dampen it. These fires will eventually collapse into themselves and often topple in the direction of the initial opening. They are also useful when the squaw wood and firewood are not completely dry because the rising flames will dry them as the fire climbs through the tinder and kindling.

A lean-to fire lay is built similar to a lean to shelter. A green stick is stuck into the ground at a 45 degree (or less) angle. The tinder bundle is placed underneath the stick and the kindling is then stacked on either side of the tinder leaned up against the green stick. This is followed by squaw wood and then fuel if desired. This type of lay is extremely useful in windy conditions. Under moderate, dry wind conditions the top of the green stick should be pointed into the wind to allow the wind to move through the structure, facilitating air movement. In high wind or wet conditions, the green stick points with the wind to protect the tinder and initial flame from the wind and rain.

A pyramid fire lay is constructed by building a base on the ground with four pieces of wood in a square, the sized of which is dependent upon how big the fire is intended to be. A platform of sticks or logs is then built upon that base leaving gaps between them for air flow. More platforms are built on top of each other with progressively smaller sticks until the structure is the desired size. Finally a tinder bundle is placed on top with some kindling piled onto the top of that. This fire differs from both the tipi fire and the lean-to in that it burns from the top down. These fires are useful when the ground is extremely wet as the initial base keeps the woods elevated and dry. They are also useful for when the fire is not intended to be lit immediately as is the case with a signal fire. They can be covered with a tarp or green vegetation to protect them from moisture and will remain ready to light due to the strength of the structure. They have a tendency to collapse into themselves instead of to one side or another and therefore built a hot, wide coal bed for cooking purposes.

A log cabin fire is a hybrid between the tipi and the pyramid. The initial base and first platform are built as in the pyramid lay. A tipi fire lay is then built upon the platform. Finally a series of logs or sticks is built around the tipi in four stick square (just like using Lincoln Logs when you were a kid). This fire combines the quick burn of the tipi fire with the contained coal bed of a pyramid fire.

While there are possibly an infinite number of fire lays, all seem to be a variation of one of these. Now let's move on to fire builds. The first that I am going to tackle is the classic star fire or indian fire. Five or six large logs are placed in a circle similar to the spokes on a wheel with the fire being built in the center or hub. This fire is ideal for heat and warmth and can serve as a good cooking fire. It is beneficial in that it is very low maintenance. As the logs are consumed by the fire in the middle they are pushed into the center or replaced when completely consumed. This makes them useful when a fire is needed all night but low maintenance is desired. When used for cooking the logs can be pulled away from the center to access the coal bed and then pushed back into the center when the fire is needed again. This fire is also nice because it is easily controlled and very predictable. It is also helpful when large wood is present and processing it is either undesirable or impossible due to a lack of necessary tools.

Next is the hunter's fire. These are sometimes referred to as log fires or long fires. Two large green logs are placed on either side of the fire lay. This allow pots, grates, skewers, or other cookware to be placed across the two logs, raising them off the coal bed or away from the flames. These fires are also helpful for cooking in mild wind conditions because the two logs act as a wind break for the fire.

Another useful cooking fire in windy conditions is the cross ditch fire. Two trenches are dug into the ground that are 12-15 inches across and 2-3 inches deep forming an "X." The fire is built in the center of the "X." Cooking can be done over an open flame or over the coal bed and the two trenches serve to funnel air into the fire. The air movement through the "X" pattern serves to push heat directly upward into the cooking area.

Trench fires are ideal for cooking in high wind conditions. A trench is dug sloping down about 6-8 inches (or larger if a larger fire is desired). The fire is then built against the wall that forms at the back of the trench. The opening of the trench should face the incoming wind. The sides and back of the trench can be lined with rocks or green logs to help act as a windbreak for the fire.

Note: Use extreme caution when building fires in pits that have been dug into the ground to ensure you do not catch any roots on fire. The fire can travel very far underground through the root systems of trees and start forest fires well away from your initial campfire.

A key hole fire can be the best of both worlds when it comes to camping. A round ring is made from rocks or dug into the ground with a channel coming off of one side. The overall shape looking from above is that of a key hole, hence the name. A fire is built and maintained in the round portion of the pit and coals can be pulled into the slot for cooking. The rocks forming the perimeter can also be replaced by green logs on the slot part. This gives the ability to have a grate, pot or skewer across the slot over the coals to cook with while maintaining the main fire for light, warmth, or pure ambiance.

A variation on the key hole fire that is smaller is known as the scout fire. The entire key hole is built so that it will fit inside of the legs of someone sitting on the ground. The person sits down with the slot closest to the body and wraps a tarp or blanket around their back to catch heat coming from it. This is a very effective way to warm the body's core in an emergency situation.

Dakota fire pits offer an excellent solution for cooking when a small fire is desired or when a concealed fire is needed. The flames are not visible above ground and the smoke from the fire is easily dissipated if it is built under a tree. The pit is also easily covered and concealed when finished to leave no evidence behind. To construct the Dakota Fire pit you dig two holes 6 - 12 inches wide, 8 - 10 inches deep, and 10 - 12 inches apart along the line of the prevailing wind. Using a stick, dig a small channel at the bottom of the holes connecting the two. Start the fire in the downwind hole. The air is drawn through the upwind hole and the channel causing a very hot fire in the second hole. The upwind side of upwind hole can be angled to allow even better air flow. This fire directs almost all of its heat directly upward into cooking area.

Note: Use extreme caution when building fires in pits that have been dug into the ground to ensure you do not catch any roots on fire. The fire can travel very far underground through the root systems of trees and start forest fires well away from your initial campfire.

A less common fire build that can be extremely useful for cooking is the snake hole fire. This is a hole dug into the side of an embankment facing into the wind with a chimney hole poked through the top. A fire then is built inside the hole. The fire can produce extreme amounts of heat inside the hole and therefore is excellent at burning trash in a contained environment. Another use of this build is to slow smoke meat. The smoke from this fire will be drawn up through the chimney hole poked into the top and meat can be smoked at a low temperature with a simple box built over the top to contain the smoke.

Note: Use extreme caution when building fires in pits that have been dug into the ground to ensure you do not catch any roots on fire. The fire can travel very far underground through the root systems of trees and start forest fires well away from your initial campfire.

An interesting fire that would be well suited for light, warmth and ambiance in a camp is the Swedish torch, which is sometimes referred to as the Viking torch or Canadian candle. This is a fire made from a large single log cut into wedges. Normally this is accomplished with a chainsaw or large handsaw but is capable of being replicated with an axe. If the torch is made with a saw the log is cut so that six wedges are formed by cuts that are about 3/4 the length of the log. If an axe is to be used the log is split into 6 wedges all the way through, the bottom is then tied with vines or buried a few inches into the ground to stabilize it. Tinder and kindling is then placed into the center of the log in the cavity created by the sawing or splitting. The tinder and kindling ignite the log and air flows between gaps in the wedges. In this manner the log burns from the inside out and down and requires no maintenance once lit. Depending on the size of the log and the size of the gaps the torch can burn from 1 - 6 hours. This makes it ideal for a campfire if for nothing other than the "cool factor." It can also be used to cook in deep snow where the body of the torch is buried in the snow and the wedges act like posts or legs to hold pots, grates, or other cookery.

Altar fires are ideal for long-term cooking and for signal fires in coastal areas or swamps. A platform of wood is built off the ground and covered with dirt and/or green vegetation. The platform can be built as high as desired or needed. The chosen fire lay is then placed on top of the platform and either protected from the elements if it is to be used as a signal fire. In this way a fire can be built either below the high tide mark for greater visibility or in areas of standing water such as swamps and bogs. Another benefit of the raised platform is in cooking in a long term camp. The raised fire and coal bed prevent to cook from having to squat, stoop, or bend to cook food.

The final fire build can be used by itself with a fire simply on the ground or with many of the other fire builds. A reflector fire is ideal for cold weather conditions where maximum heat generation is desired. A wall of green wood, rocks and earth, or dried wood and earth is constructed next to the fire. The fire is then built between the wall and the shelter or individual. In this way the heat is both reflected off the wall and radiated from it as it heats up so that maximum heat is directed towards the individual or shelter.

There are of course other builds and other lays but these should be sufficient for nearly any camping or survival situation. If I missed any, need to add more information, or change information, please let me know so that I can make the appropriate changes. Otherwise, enjoy the soft crackle, the dancing flames, and the awesome fellowship that campfires offer us.  :camp: :fire1:

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing.

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Fantastic. You should make it a kindle e-book and make some cash.

Nice job with the post man.  Good stuff.

Thank you for the great post, it really is book material, have passed it on to my step-son. Btw I learned recently that only 2.7% of all wildfires are caused by careless campfires. Most "man caused " wildfires are caused by downed power lines and things like that. I always thought that number would be higher. I guess we are more careful than I thought.


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