Image source: Tirza Van Dijk
Campfires act as a focal point when the night rolls in, hypnotising campers with dancing flames. Apart from creating a peaceful atmosphere, campfires are a useful and versatile tool providing warmth and heat for cooking. With a little bit of knowledge and an understanding of the basics, you'll be able to pull together a campfire in no time and safely enjoy an integral part of the authentic camping experience.
Where can I make a campfire in the UK?
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England, Wales and Northern Ireland
Unless you are the land owner or you have the land owner's permission, you can't light a campfire in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. National parks, forests and all the land in England and Wales is privately owned. One benefit from this restriction is that many campsites have recognised campers' desire to make campfires and there are now plenty that allow them.
Open campfires have been legal in Scotland since 2004 - as long as you work within certain guidelines. This set of the regulations outlines laws covering wild camping and making campfires (pg 49, 54 and 61).
Scottish Outdoor Access Code Summary
- No fires in forests, farmland, peaty ground, very dry conditions, cultural heritage sites, Areas of Special Scientific Interest, plantations, farmland or near buildings / roads
- Keep fires small, under control and supervised at all times
- You may be liable for major damage caused by a fire
- Remove all traces of an open fire
What about barbecues or raised fires?
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Protecting the ground from heat, barbecues and raised fires are a lot more environmentally-friendly than campfires. However the laws that govern campfires on the floor are also applicable to barbecues and raised fires. This helps to minimise the risk of wild fires and damage to the local area.
How do I make a campfire?
Image source: Dan Evans
Okay, so once you've got your permission to have a fire, you need three components to start a campfire - tinder, kindling and a spark (and a little bit of patience).
- Small pieces of tinder helps your initial flame - dry leaves, grass, newspaper or even tortilla chips make for good tinder.
- Craft the tinder into a few piles and place them a few inches apart from each other.
- Gather some small, dry twigs and position them over the tinder in a teepee shape. This lets oxygen reach the tinder and encourages the twigs to set alight.
- Light the piles of tinder - waterproof matches or a fire striker are reliable igniters.
- Wait for the twigs to be burning strongly before adding small sticks of kindling to the fire.
- Slowly but surely add bigger sticks to the fire until it is big enough to burn logs.
What's the best way to cook on a campfire?
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There are lots of different methods and techniques for cooking over a campfire. However there is no single 'best' method of cooking over a campfire as the specific circumstances of your camping trip, such as what food you're going to prepare and the surrounding terrain dictate which method you use.
So in a world of horses for courses what, if not the 'best' is the easiest? If weight and space are not a concern then the use of a grill grate (see the above photo) is probably the best. It is quick to set up, you can cook a variety of food on it and it easily balances pots or a kettle.
How do I extinguish a campfire?
Image source: Tim Middleton
The United States of America suffers from large wild fires every summer and invest a large amount of money and time educating the public about campfire safety.
To safely put out a fire they recommend you:
- Douse the fire with water.
- Add soil to the water and stir the embers/ash until it is no longer glowing.
- Ensure the all the embers are wet (use further water if needed), then wait five minutes for the embers to cool.
- Carefully touch the embers making sure they are cool.
- Finally check around the fire or campfire stones for any hidden embers.
"Remember: if it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave."
- United States Forestry service
How can I leave no trace of my campfire?
Image source: Kimson Doan
Since 1994 the Leave No Trace campaign has been encouraging responsible land use and nature protection in the US. Their campaign is built around seven core principles which help guide campers to leave no evidence of their camping trip. Number five on the principles list is 'minimise campfire impacts'.
They recommend that:
- Where possible, use existing fire pits or a camping stove. If there are no existing pits or a stove is not a viable option, a fire pan or a mound fire work well.
- Fire pan – A metal plate raised 3-5 inches off the floor which the fire rest on (you can place stones under each corner to raise it off the ground).
- Mound Fire - A mineral soil platform that the fire sits on, insulating the ground from the heat.
How to make a ‘Leave no trace’ mound fire
- Gather mineral soil (dry soil 2-3 inches below the surface), gravel or sand into a ground bag.
- Build a 3-5 inch thick platform with the soil, making sure the platform is larger than the intended fire, to catch embers.
- Construct your teepee-style campfire on top of the platform.
- Once the fire is safely out (see above for instructions) scatter the wood ashes over a large area and return the mineral soil to where you found it.
An important though less obvious aspect of leaving no trace is that, if you have permission, you should gather wood responsibly (dead wood, that you can break with your hands) or buy firewood from a local source. This all helps to protect the surrounding woodlands that play a large part the local ecosystem. Trying to burn freshly-cut wood is often a false economy due to its high moisture content, meaning it gives off little heat and doesn't burn well.
Campfires in the UK are restricted and regulated for your safety and that of the land. Despite this there are plenty of places to safely enjoy a campfire using existing fire pits or leave no trace techniques. Please exercise common sense, ask land owner permission and be careful when making campfires - we don't want you to get hurt.
By voluntarily choosing to use the above information you assume the risk of any resulting consequences thereafter.