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To Build a Fire

Words by David Winward Photographs by Leo Patrone Syling by Nathan Williams

The study of a skill requisite of winter warmth, entertaining and true manhood. 

1. Tepee Method
When you are driving through the mountains and you see a tepee, it is impossible not to say, “Look! A tepee!” There is something ingrained in our psyche that makes us love them. It is no wonder, then, that the tepee method is by far the most efficient fire-building method.

To make this type of fire, arrange kindling in a mound underneath larger logs to form a tepee over said kindling. Once the desired tepee configuration has been attained, light the kindling. If you are lazy, use a match and crumpled pages from a copy of your latest artisan quarterly magazine. If you are a purist, use flint and steel. If you are even purer than a purist, use the bow drill method. The fire will burn hottest at the top point of the tepee.

As the fire burns, the logs will fall in upon the fire. Since this formation creates the most heat, it is best to use if your wood is green or wet-ish. The only drawback is that your fire will consume a lot of wood. However, if you are a firebug or a pyromaniac (see: Impulse Control Disorders in the DSM-IV), this is not a drawback but a wonderful blessing.

2. Log-Cabin Method
If you are a fan of the western novels of Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey (see: Riders of the Purple Sage), or Cormac McCarthy (see: Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses), then the log cabin is the best method for you.

Stack layers of wood in alternating directions to form a cabin, using the wood like the Lincoln Logs you played with as a child. (Interesting side note: The inventor of Lincoln Logs was none other than Frank Lloyd Wright’s son, John. Not Abraham Lincoln, as everyone supposes—but I hope that doesn’t make you think less of Lincoln. He still accomplished quite a lot.) Even though this is called the log-cabin method, you still need to make a tepee inside of it to get it going. This, of course, is symbolic of the eternal cowboys-and-Indians struggle.

The log cabin creates a chimney effect, sucking in air from the bottom and releasing it through the top. If your fire doesn’t seem to be getting enough oxygen, dig small holes under the walls or blow on the fire—but be careful not to singe your beard. The log-cabin method creates an ideal cooking environment of uniform heat. You can cook your tinfoil dinners, made from ingredients purchased from your local farmers’ market, with confidence, knowing that the labors of the farmers and artisans won’t be burned to a crisp.

3. Pyramid Method
If you like contemplating how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids, or if you are a fan of the Tom Robbins book Still Life With Woodpecker, the pyramid method is for you. (If you are a redhead and haven’t read this book yet, you should.)

Construction of the pyramid is similar to that of the log cabin. The layers just get smaller as you go toward the top—like a pyramid! Alas, you will not use a tepee in this method, although some tepee-method fanatics may argue that a pyramid is technically the shape of a tepee. Your smallest sticks and kindling will be at the pyramid’s point. This is where you will light the fire, and it will burn down through all the layers upon itself.

4. Lean-To Method
Its very name makes you think that it is a temporary method, or one that you would need to use only in adverse weather conditions. When I got my Wilderness Survival merit badge in Scouting, I had to build a lean-to and sleep in it. That night it rained, and my lean-to didn’t keep the rain out; I didn’t sleep; I was eaten alive by mosquitos; and some Tenderfoot scared a skunk just outside the camp, and the smell lingered all night long. The lean-to method is a lot like that night—don’t use it unless, of course, you really, really need to.

To build a lean-to fire, push a green stick into the ground at a 30-degree angle. It should be pointing in the direction of the wind. Put tinder underneath. “Lean” sticks along the main stick. Light, and add more kindling as needed. If it doesn’t work, I’m not surprised, because it’s a terrible method. And if you are in a life-or-death situation, I don’t have much sympathy because you probably did something foolish to get yourself where you are. And please don’t tell me your sob story because I read Jack London’s To Build a Fire and I shed enough tears over that man and his dog. I’m sure he was using the lean-to method.

5. Cross-Ditch Method
If you are like me, you have never used this method. If you have used this method, you are a fire-building superstar. You are like the Survivorman of your neighborhood. You don’t even need to read any further.

For the rest of us, to build a cross-ditch fire, you need a shovel or similar caveman contrivance. Dig a three-inch-deep cross in the ground. Place your kindling in the center and build a pyramid over the top of it. The ditch will let air in to feed the fire.

I’m not sure what scenario calls for this type of fire. But if you are the type of person that knows everything and brings a fold-up, ten-pound shovel with you on a backpacking trip, then this fire is for you. You can lecture everyone on the benefits of proper airflow for fires. When you have exhausted the “airflow vectors” dissertation, you can tell everyone how many miles your pedometer said you hiked that day, or lecture them on the benefits of moisture-wicking socks.

6. Star Method
The star method is particularly helpful when you are trying to conserve fuel, especially if you are sick and tired of tromping through the forest night after night in search of firewood. You curse yourself as you search because you had to pack an air mattress in the back of your car instead of firewood. Now your entire camping trip has turned into searching for firewood—wood that doesn’t need chopping, because you left your brand-new axe sitting at home.

To build this type of fire, first arrange logs in a star shape around a center point, which is where you will place the kindling. Once the fire has started, you can move logs in and out of the fire to increase or decrease the heat as you see fit, which conserves your wood.

7. Inept Method
If you are extremely lazy and/or incapable of building a fire, you may just want to bring one of those easy-start logs. Lighter fluid also works wonders, as does gasoline. Hairspray and a lighter is also a fun diversion, but probably not very safe, effective or good for the ozone.

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