Fire Styles for Winter Campers

The purpose of a fire – reflected heat, quick or long cooking or merely aesthetics – dictates the appropriate style.  Four common styles are tepee, reflector, log cabin and top down.

Tepee Fire

For a no-hassle fire, use the classic tepee method: In the middle of your foundation, sandwich a handful of loose tinder between two layers of kindling. Prop small and medium sticks, no bigger than your wrist, upright around the kindling, their tops meeting like the poles of a tepee. Leave a larger opening on the windward side to ensure enough air for the fire, and light the tinder. A teepee fire is suitable for quick cooking or as an entertainment fire.

 Reflector Fire

A reflector fire has a flat surface behind it to direct the heat back out past the fire. This surface is erected behind the fire and pointed, for example, at the face of a tent, lean-to or other shelter. This back reflector can be made out of a few large slabs of bark, several logs laid against supports and stacked upon each other to form the surface.

Lay a few logs on top of one another against the sloping back. Form a platform at the base of the slope. By lighting a fire in the middle most of the heat will be reflected back to the front of the fire, making cooking easy. Be sure that you build it so the ‘grate’ or fireplace faces the wind.

A good reflector close to the fire will help reflect the heat back towards you. In addition it helps to draw the smoke upwards instead of getting in your eyes. You can use this to your advantage by also reflecting heat into your shelter.

Don’t make a fire up against a large boulder or tree stump. Build the fire away from the rock/stump and place a reflector on the opposite side. As this object reflects the heat onto your back, the reflector warms you to the front.

If there are no ‘natural reflectors’ simply build several reflectors of your own and place one behind you, then one on the other side of the fire.

Log Cabin Fire

A log cabin fire is made by stacking layers in alternating directions; be sure not to stack the wood too close to prohibit air movement. A log cabin fire is suitable for cooking food as it provides uniform heat.

Top Down Fire

The conventional approach is to light your tinder, put some fine kindling on that and some heavier kindling on top of that. Hopefully, it catches enough that you can begin to add bigger pieces until you have a respectable fire. Frequently you watch as the whole affair collapses into a smoldering mess.

The top down technique can be counter-intuitive. The secret to a successful top-down fire is making the pieces for each layer a little smaller than the one below. The fire grows progressively, gaining intensity, down through the layers to the biggest logs on the bottom. It’s a wonderful thing to watch.

  • First, put down three or four full sized pieces of firewood on the bottom as the fire platform. These will be the large, dry, split firewood.
  • Second is a layer of smaller, split pieces across the main logs.
  • Place third layer of still smaller pieces across the second layer.
  • Cover this with a layer of coarse kindling that are only about an inch across.
  • Then top off the pile with tinder mixed with the fine dry kindling.

The top-down technique takes a little longer in preparation, but the reward is less of a chance that the fire will collapse and smother itself; less smoke, less fussing with the fire after it is lit and a long burn time without having to reload.

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