Category Archives: fire

giving birth to fire


Every time a fire is created it is like a birth of a new child. It is a time of excitment, uncertainty and it needs your undivided attention.

Although fire is the simple, but heady mix of heat, fuel and air there are so many different factors within these that make it unpredicatable and infinitely variable each time one is lit. I have made fire hundreds of times but each time I feel like its my first (child) and I am filled with trepidation.

Growing a fire is like growing a person or at least loving them. You coax it, feed it, encourage it to grow, you adjust, add, subtract, shield, protect…nuture it from spark to ember, ember to flame, flame to heart(h). Too much attention and you can smother it, making it too big too quickly can  give it a weak heart. Adding different fuels at different times can grow the ember-base for a durable and long-lasting bed of coals that can be re-kindled, like a friendship even when much time has passed  – the embers lie quietly glowing in the ash ready for your gentle breath.

Building a big fire can give it a huge appetite. You can become a slave to feeding its overweening needs – too hot to be comfortable, too hungry to share its flame. Make it too small and the wind, rain or cold can extinguish it like a neglected love.

But the time will inevitably come when you no longer feed it and watch it die down,  becoming cold at the end of its life. It is with great sadness when I extinguish a fire or throw the last log on.

You bring life to fire. You care for it. In return it gives you light, heat and hope. It can help guard you, feed you and shelter you. You are its creator and custodian but in return it gives back as much as you give it. Fires are like people, like relationships, like parenthood, like life.

long log fire

For another perspective on fire then please click here

the burtonsville cooking rig

The Burtonsville Cooking Rig is a quick, simple and very effective method of hanging a pot over a fire.

the burtonsville cooking rig in action

the burtonsville cooking rig in action

It uses four sections of wood and with careful selection can be made out of one branch. The beauty of it, aside from its gravity-defying appearance, is that the pot can be varied in height over the fire so it enables you to fine tune your cooking temperatures, because the hanger is on a ‘pivot’ it keeps the pot level on sloping or uneven ground, and it only needs a knife to make too. Ideal!

Making it requires one long length of branch as the main suspension. The working end is cut to a wedge and has a pot-hanger ‘seating’ hole made in the upper side of the wedge. This helps the pothanger to balance and stay in place.

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The main suspension limb is secured in the ground at the other end either by a forked branch (y-section) or two small straight pieces crossed over to do the same job. The middle of the main suspension limb, to give its height and angle, passes over another, taller y-section. This similarly could be made out of two straight branches that are hammered into the ground and crossed over.

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The adjustable pothanger is made from carving a series of x-notches (click here or on the video below to see a demo of how to cut this x-notch). These notches are carved along its length – and are to adjust the height of the pothanger over the fire. The notches fit into the ‘seating’ hole in the wedge at the end of the main suspension bar. Once seated and with a pot on the end it is surprisingly stable.

At the end of the pothanger another notch is carved – but ensure that it is carved the OPPOSITE way up to the other notches otherwise it will not hold the bail-arm of the pot! Also carve it on the same side as the other notches or it might have a tendency to shift its centre of gravity and make the pothanger twist in its seat when fully loaded. Make sure you carve this notch about two finger widths from the end of the stick to it give it a bit of strength but it not too long so that it interferes with the contents of the pot or the lid.

Bon appetit!






escape festive excess in the woods

It might be cold, wet and ‘miserable’ beyond the speckled panes of your kitchen window but its worth putting down the 10th mince pie and the 8th glass of sherry (or in my case Hudson Bay Spruce Beer) and grab a friend or family, brace the inclemency and blow those cobwebs away with a walk deep into the woods. But take your time, pack some cake and tea, maybe stop by for a campfire and a five -minute brew before you return to the sterility of your ‘living’ room.

click on the video below to watch Eddie and Mark starting fire-by handrill, a five minute fire and a cup of tea (then leave no trace)

Below is a diary entry from a time, around Christmas, when I grabbed my son Eddie and went out for breakfast in the woods. It does not have to be an expedition. It can just be a morning or an afternoon. Don’t let having ‘no time’ put you off from grasping the opportunity. These moments are priceless.

“The weather was cold, damp and miserable. Fine drizzle peppered the windscreen as we gunned up the wide track, across the deep ruts and over the ridge to where the trailhead began. The deeper forest beckoned.

My back seat driver was Eddie,  four-year old navigator and camp-chef for the day. Unusually we parked up on the crest of the valley and grabbed our kit from the trunk. Eddie looked the part, dressed in mini camo trousers and a ‘kerchief scarf. He even tried to whistle a ditty.

The first thing you have to recognise when having a young-gun in tow is that you ain’t going anywhere quietly. We were not fifty yards from the car when a dozen fallow deer broke cover, bolting across the high pasture. Shame. Eddie called out, in his little musical voice, for them to remember to bring Santa. Bless ‘im.

We wound our way along the old green lane: part stream-bed part old, rutted highway, past the ruined crofters cottage and down to the valley bottom where the broad oaks and tapered ash yielded to a birch-ranked clearing matted with whisper dead fern. Just off stage the brook gushed in winter spate. A dead fallow lurked in the shallows, reminding me of where not to fetch our water.

The drizzle intensified into marching curtains. The tarp was up in no time. The kit out the way but still down in the mulch. Eddie and I traversed the brook at the ford and climbed briefly into a stand of dormant larch to collect tinder. The tiny snaps sounded like gun-fire in the sombre, dank silence. Once back in camp we busied ourselves grading the firewood. Eddie will make a fine quartermaster one day. Eddie scavenged some birch bark from around the clearing and soon we had a crackling fire. It even promised to give a cherry glow to the camp: striking against the monochrome sky.

We discovered a small spring oozing from the side of the valley. Eddie pushed an angled stick into the muddy strata to coax the trickle away from the mud n’slate bank. It worked, and soon we had a canteen of clear spring water.

Back in camp Eddie fed the fire, gingerly at first then with growing enthusiasm nearly smothering it with attention. He joined in the blowing as we gently nursed it back to health. But maybe it was my fault for letting such a young fire go for so long whilst we went in search of water. Breakfast soon followed – eggs, bacon, sausages all cooked in a pan on a trivet. Eddie turned the bangers, I flipped the eggs. Piping hot water, boiled at the end of the pothanger, made some thick, unctuous hot chocolate for Eddie and a ‘raise-the-dead’ coffee to help give me some zest. I looked at my watch, three hours had passed and Eddie was sitting with his little knife whittling a stick….not a bored hair on his damp little head, absorbed absolutely with his task. He even helped pack up and ‘leave no trace’; scattering cold ash to the four corners and raking leaves over where the fire once stood.

We hummed to each other all the way home. Him pointing out tree roots and burrows, I stumbling over them with the kit. Even the rain did not dampen our spirits. We hardly noticed. Before we knew it we were back. Muddy clothes in a heap and Eddie telling his mum all about ‘his great cook out’. He asks me all the time when are we going again. And can we track deer next time aswell.

I’ve captured his imagination. The hard work is done.”

a fire reflector

Winter has come. A good friend of mine, Jane is sleeping out in the winter lean-to that has just been built in this previous post. To make these shelters more useable in cold weather a long log-fire is used along with a fire reflector. The beauty of this set-up is that a fire that is positioned one pace from your sleeping body, is as long as you are lying down (so it will kick out heat sideways down its full length), and has a reflector on the other side of the fire to reflect back what would be wasted heat  – all radiates this heat back into the shelter and down on you and even behind you to keep you warm and toasty. I have slept out in around -17 celsius without a sleeping bag. Although you need to keep a strong fire going all night for this.

So here is a very short step-by-step for the fire reflector and the principle behind it.

long log fire

long log fire

radiated heat bouncing back into the shelter

radiated heat bouncing back into the shelter

cut and drag 'body' length logs

cut and drag ‘body’ length logs

cut stake-poles to help stack the log reflector

cut stake-poles to help stack the log reflector

sharpen stakes to hammer into ground

sharpen stakes to hammer into ground

chamfer stakes so they don't split when pounded in

chamfer stakes so they don’t split when pounded in

stack them at least waist high or higher

stack them at least waist high or higher

with normal cooking fire

with normal cooking fire

shelter, tripod, fire and tea

A short journey through the forest today ended at one of my favourite oak groves (the place I took my oak ring from).

There was a fine drizzle, everywhere was damp. So Eddie and I set about to rig my poncho, which I had been using as my waterproof, as a diamond-wedge shelter with room enough for two.

We lashed some hazel wands together for a cooking tripod and with a bit of effort with the bow drill got ourselves a fire for a cup of nettle tea.

A lovely way to spend 20 minutes before we ‘left no trace’ and continued our journey through the forest. The two minute video is below.

Please click on the image for video.

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Although this looks like a simple, short set of tasks – behind them are a handful of key skills that we might take for granted.

  • Siting the shelter in a way that the wind and rain does not enter it but does not create a vortex for the smoke from the fire to suck it into the shelter.
  • Two useful knots: adjustable loop for the two guylines on the shelter and a tripod lashing for the cooking rig. If you want to see a close up of the tripod lashing used then please look here (for a larger version for cooking with many pots then click here)
  • It is tempting to bring a steel tripod – they look good and are durable. But they are heavy. Carry the knowledge to make one from your surroundings  – in this case green hazel – and it weighs nothing and takes up no space in your backpack.
  • A sit-mat: important insulation from the ground. A fact often neglected and a contributor to hypothermia – or very cold back-side!
  • Preparation of the site for the fire – clearing it of leaves to minimise spread of fire, not siting it to close to the roots of the tree which may damage them, creating a platform of wood for the fire off the wet ground and of course extinguishing the fire and leaving no trace (as at the end of this video clip).
  • Tinder and kindling selection – even more important on a damp day as this – mainly dry molinia grass for the tinder and larch twigs for the kindling – both very reliable and locally foraged. Careful grading of the size of the wood is important.
  • Safe axe use: hatchets are notoriously dangerous – the shorter the handle, the nearer the cutting edge can get to you! Note that I kneel on the ground so if I missed the wood I would hit the ground and not my shin. I also use a small log to cut on that lies between the axe and my body to halt the swing of the axe.
  • Fire by friction: in this case the bow-drill, and something that is harder to achieve on a cold, damp day.
  • Bringing water to the boil  –  a rolling boil for at least one minute – to make it safe to drink.

Kit used:

tea-break: hand drill, fire, tea and no trace

Making a fire for a quick, warming cup of tea does not have to be a chore or something that needs to take much longer than getting out a camping stove. Below is a link to a short (2 minute) video of the start to finish in starting a fire using a hand-drill, boiling the water, making the tea, making it safe and leaving no trace. All in all it took around 13-15 minutes including collecting the kindling.

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Below is a video of a close-up of a hand-drill in action

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wildcraft perspectives: fire

Copied directly from the Embercombe blog

For more details on the Wildcraft programme then click here

Fire is one of our most important elements in nature. It is our paradox: it is a destroyer and creator of life. But in its hearth modern humankind was forged.

We can date back the controlled use of fire over 1.5 million years through our capture and preservation of fire from natural sources (lightning, volcanic activity, forest fires etc). Its use enabled us to unlock the calorific potential of certain foods, thereby reducing the need for the evolution of large stomachs and putting our evolutionary energy into the creation of bigger brains instead. It also meant that we could make safe our water, preserve foods, ward off insects and animals, light our way, extend the productive day into night, make better tools and to inhabit colder climes.

Fire was at the centre of our societies – where people took embers from the centre-fire to their dwellings a short distance away. It was in part the use of this heat that fused communities together. Communal ovens were still in evidence in very rural France as late as the middle of the 20th Century. Fire has marked our journey from the tree to the ground and has marked just about every important part of our evolution and technology in the past 10,000 years when we learned to make fire ourselves. Our love affair with fire has in turn stripped our land, sooted our atmosphere, powered our technologies and propelled our population to a tipping point.

We teach about fire in Wildcraft because on a practical level we need to be able to make and use fire safely and efficiently. We need to understand its fragility and respect its power. Mastering it enables us to recreate the interdepenence with nature and a link with our ancestors. It helps us survive. It also teaches us about preparation, patience and overcoming failure when your ember gets extinguished and you have to start over. We aim to show Wildcraft particpants that fire is not just about destruction but it is about preservation and creation. Whilst many would point to rubbing sticks together as the pinnacle of achievement, carrying an ember for a long journey and keeping it alive enough to light your fire at the end of the day is just as fundamental and was used for hundreds of thousands of years before we discovered how to make it ourselves.

For us on Wildcraft it is the fire that is a constant life at the heart of our woodland community for the week. It welcomes you in the morning and lulls you to sleep at night. It is around the fire we exchange stories, experiences and revelations. It is the fire that will be a beacon for us when we return after a long day in the wilderness – a place of gathering and joining as a single tribe.