Somewhere between 400,000 and 1.5 million years ago, humans discovered how to manipulate fire. This revolutionary technology would have triggered a huge upgrade in our ancestors’ living standards. I have often wondered about how harsh life must have been without it. No comforting warmth on a cold night, no protection from dangerous animals, no light after sundown, and only raw food for dinner. Miserable!
It’s no surprise that an open fire evokes a primal emotion within us. In my opinion, a fire is essential when you’re spending a night in the bush, and it’s one of the main reasons to go camping in the first place. An open fire does more than ward off the dark and any inquisitive animals. It’s the heart of the campsite, a communal place where we gather to stay warm, cook food and share stories.
Up until the mid-twentieth century, lighting and maintaining a fire was a skill that almost everyone had, given that burning wood (or compressed wood as coal) was the main source of heating throughout the world. In modern times, most people no longer build a daily fire. Instead, warmth is magically pumped into their houses at the push of a button via a gas or electric heating system. Building a campfire is a basic and rewarding skill that anyone and everyone should be able to master. It starts with finding the right fuel.
‘He that cuts his own wood is twice warmed.’
Having lived in houses with fireplaces or wood heaters and houses without, I know which I prefer. There is a huge amount of satisfaction to be had from cutting and processing wood to a useful size (and it’s a good work-out!) and then stacking it neatly. Swinging an axe and splitting a log brings forth an almost primeval emotion. The advent of the axe must have been revolutionary!
On more than one occasion I’ve lived in a house where a wood fire has been the only source of heat, so learning how to chop wood was a skill that quickly developed through repetitive practise and necessity. But before we get carried away, the first part of processing wood is best done using a saw. Once you’ve collected your wood, you’ll need to cut it into smaller logs, or ‘rounds’, that will be easier to split with an axe or hatchet.
Before you start processing wood, consider wearing protective gloves and eyewear (glasses, sunglasses or goggles). Make sure you’re wearing sturdy footwear (preferably strong boots) and ensure that your footing is secure and stable at all times.
Sawing logs to size
In the absence of a sawhorse, use a long log or stump as a brace so that you can position your length of wood at a right angle elevated from the ground. Make sure you saw into the wood at a right angle (90 degrees) to the point of contact.
Before beginning, it’s a good idea to examine the log you’re about to process to see where the knots are. It’s harder to chop logs with knots or irregularities as the grain around these knots will be tougher to split. If you find a knot in the length of wood you’re processing, cut in close to either side to make sure that each section of wood doesn’t have a knot in the middle. This will come in handy later as you start to split and process the wood further.
Draw the saw back towards you a few times to make sure it bites into the wood and creates a straight guideline. Try not to force the saw by applying too much downward pressure, instead let the teeth do the work for you. Make sure your logs are cut to size to fit into your fire bed or wood stove. When in doubt, about 30–40cm (12– 16in) is a good size. You can mark the length out on your log before you cut it to size. This will mean that you have good uniformity with your smaller rounds. You’ll also want to make sure that the ends are cut evenly, resulting in a flat surface so that the log can stand vertical on a stump for splitting later.
Splitting wood with an axe or maul
The ideal tool for splitting log rounds into medium-sized logs is a splitting axe or a maul. The key difference between a splitting and a felling axe is that a splitting axe usually had a heavier and blunter head which is designed to split wood fibres along the grain, while a felling axe generally has a sharper blade designed to cut through the wood fibres. A maul is heavier and blunter tool, a bit like a sledgehammer with a wedge-shaped head.
You’ll need a raised flat surface or stump to safely work with if you’re to chop the wood in a standing position. In an ideal world, you would have a dry stump between 30cm (12in) and knee height. If this isn’t available, try to find a large downed tree lying in a horizontal position that has enough flat surface area to safely balance the log.
Place the log on top of the stump on the far side away from you, so that if you miss your axe head will definitely end up hitting the stump. Make sure the log is standing up straight and not about to fall over.
Take your time to get the right position – this is not a job that should be rushed. Before you begin swinging an axe, ensure that your axe swing will not be inhibited by other objects, such as branches (or people!). Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, squarely facing the stump. Make sure your stance is weighted evenly, with your legs and arms slightly bent and fairly relaxed.
With your axe in both hands, hold the axe horizontally at waist level, using your dominant hand to grip the handle near to axe head. The V of your hand should be facing away from you. Use your other (non-dominant) hand to grip the other end near to the handle, with your non-dominant hand facing towards you.
Check the striking distance to the log by lining up your axe with the target and tapping the log in the spot that you’re aiming for. Aim for existing cracks on the edge of the wood which will help direct your first strike and ensure that you’re less likely to get your axe stuck in the round.
As you swing the axe back and up, extend your arms high over your head, straighten your legs, then rise up slightly on the balls of your feet to maximise the swing. When your hands and axe are at arms-length, directly overhead and at the top of the arc, let the axe drop down towards the log with your eyes fixed steadily on the target. As you’re doing this let your dominant hand slide down the handle to meet your other hand and apply some force on the downward stroke.
Chopping wood isn’t about being aggressive. Accuracy and technique are far more important than brute force. Use the axe’s weight to your advantage and let the tool do the work for you.
If you’re using a small axe – anything less than a 1kg (2.2lb) head and a handle that is less than 70cm (27in) in length – or you don’t have a decent stump or log to work with, try splitting wood in a kneeling position. Kneeling is a far safer way to split wood as you keep your legs and torso out of harm’s way. Simply kneel two arm lengths away from your target and then adjust your position until the bit of the axe reaches the target with your arms fully extended. Then follow the same routine swinging your axe up and letting it fall on the vertical log.
Split, and split again
Depending on the size of your logs, you may need to split them in half or into quarters. After splitting in half, reposition one half of your log on the chopping block and split that in half. Repeat with the other half of the log. Processing your logs into smaller and smaller sections will create kindling.
Kindling is simply a small piece of dry wood that is either foraged or created with a tool. It’s used as fuel for the early stages of making a fire. The process of creating kindling from larger pieces of wood is an essential skill that will help you easily build a fire. As previously mentioned, ideally you will be using seasoned softwood as it requires less effort to process and will be much easier to ignite.
Look for logs with straight grains and no knots. Use a secure, hard, even surface as your chopping block and use the kneeling position, which is the safest way to process kindling. With some know-how, a hatchet or small axe is the best tool for the job. A heavy duty and very sharp cleaver or nata (Japanese tool) or large knife are also options for creating kindling.
If you’re using a small axe or hatchet, or are splitting long thin logs that are difficult to balance on a suitable surface, try splitting the wood horizontally. Find a limb of wood around the same length as your axe handle and about the thickness of an arm. Lay your log out horizontally with the far end resting on the stump or a hard surface. Tap your axe bit into the end of the log until it is embedded in the wood, then use the combined weight of the log and your attached axe to strike the hard surface. The axe will split into the log and then you can leverage and twist the split wood around the axe into two pieces. Continue this process until you have created enough small sections of split wood that can be used for kindling.
Making and using a baton (a crude club-like tool) to help process wood is something that bushcraft folk love to debate at length, but it’s a fairly basic concept. Batoning is simply using a suitable length of hardwood to drive a knife – ideally with a long or full tang (where the blade extends the full length of the handle) – through a small log, thus making the processing of kindling more efficient. An ideal baton would be a found limb from a green hardwood tree that is about the thickness of a wrist, and around the length of your forearm and hand.
The type of tinder required will depend on the situation you find yourself in. If it’s after dark on a stormy, wet night or you’re an emergency situation, you’ll want to get your fire going with whatever is at hand as quickly as possible. This is where some pre-prepared tinder – usually in the form of a fire lighter! – is incredibly useful.
Feather sticks are another favourite in the bushcraft world. They’re a light form of kindling that you’ll use for starting a fire. A feather stick is made by using a blade (knife or hatchet) to shave down the length of a kindling stick to produce multiple curls of thin
But if it’s a hot day and there’s plenty of dry material around, it will be of little consequence if you haven’t prepared tinder. As long as you have a way of igniting a fire, there’ll be plenty of opportunities around the camp to find suitable material. Simply gather a bundle of thin dead twigs, shredded dried bark and dried grasses and form it into a bird’s-nest shape to use at the heart of your fire wood. With the right wood and a good technique, you’ll end up with a piece of kindling that will have half of its bulk shaved into curls at one end.
Because you’re creating more surface area, this kindling ignites and spreads fire very quickly. This is not just a fun thing to do, it can really help get a fire going quickly if you don’t have much dry kindling around, particularly in wet weather.
What is tinder?
Dating apps aside, tinder is the foundation of any fire. If you’re not using fire starters and another ‘helping-hand’ fuel to start your fire, tinder is what you’ll need for the job.
Tinder is simply refined and easily combustible material that will be used as a basic ingredient for igniting a fire. It’s generally a fine, open, airy material that has a large surface area. Newspaper is perhaps the most commonly known form of tinder, but there are many options. They range from synthetics – like cotton wool and charcloth – to natural tinders – like finely processed bark, birds’ nest lint, dried lichen or moss, pine needles and fluffy seed heads of various weeds, like dandelion.
If you’re using a ferro rod or fire strike you’ll need material that will catch from a spark. It will need to be an extremely dry and fluffy natural material. Some natural forms of tinder that will take a spark and are highly prized by the bushcraft and survivalist community are:
- Chaga fungus – also known as tinder fungus or touchwood. It is a black bulbous fungus found on the birch tree in the Northern Hemisphere that is highly flammable once dried.
- Fatwood – found in the resinous heart of a pine tree stump. This is a brilliant natural fire accelerator and, if shaved thinly, it can take with a spark.
- Punk wood – dried or charred rotten wood that has been permeated by a mycelium fungus resulting in a light and spongy texture wood that will take a spark and burn easily.
- Tree bark – the scrapings and shavings from the inner bark of many trees. Birch is the most popular, but cedar, cottonwood or poplar will also work.
These are useful to keep in a tinder box (sealed container). Along with a ferro rod, they would be welcome in any kit as part of an emergency fire-starting solution.
There are a range of synthetic tinders available, like paraffin firelighters, but there are others you can make yourself:
- Cotton balls – dipped in petroleum jelly or wax.
- Charcloth – small squares of cotton cloth slowly heated to the point of pyrolysis (same process as charcoal) that can be stored in a sealed container for later use.
- Pine shavings – melted wax combined with pine shavings (tip: use a muffin tin as a mould).
- Clothes lint – wads of lint from a clothes dryer (tip: dip in wax or petroleum jelly for extra combustion!).