Campfires form the heart of most good camps. They’re where we go to dry off, warm up, cook, sit together, eat, drink and tell stories. A good campfire—sometimes referred to as the original TV—can be more mesmerizing than a 60” widescreen. A campfire can literally save a life or set the stage for some of the best stories ever told, from big ones that got away to hair-raising tales passed from one generation of campers to another.
Whether a campfire’s purpose is to warm your hands, fry freshly caught fish or share some great stories, knowing how to build a good campfire is a must for any outdoorsman or outdoorswoman. And learning to build a good fire is a great activity for a group of friends and family. It doesn’t matter whether you’re five or 75, an athlete or a couch potato, if you can gather wood, strike a match and work with your fellow campers, you’re good to go.
For years, Boy Scouts and woodcrafters have used a fire building contest that’s both fun and informative. It’s a great way to teach campfire building to youth and newcomers, while getting people of all ages involved in an outdoor activity that doesn’t cost a dime and can serve them for a lifetime. The contest can be made as easy or as difficult as you’d like. I suggest starting out easy and notching it up a rung or two after participants achieve initial success.
The goal of the contest is to see which team can build the first fire to burn through a string suspended above it. The rules and string height can vary. I suggest you start out simple by using matches rather than flint and steel or two sticks rubbed together. Use newspaper for your starting tinder and gathered wood as the additional fuel. It’s probably best to hold off on using knives, axes, saws and Daniel Boone skills for later competitions.
Teams can be made up of two to four people—fathers and daughters, mothers and sons or any mixture of grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends will work. Mix up the ages or pit the young against the old or the boys against the girls. Each group should be given three pieces of newspaper and six strikes-anywhere stick matches. Teams that fail to start a fire before using up the matches are out of the running.
On level, cleared ground, prepare a site for each group of contestants by suspending a tightly drawn string 14 to 16 inches off the ground and placed two feet apart between two sticks or rebar. You can suspend two strings at various heights to add suspense and help decide a close contest.
If you hold the campfire contest in or near a wooded area, gathering fire materials can be fun and part of the contest. If not, you’ll need to supply the main ingredients. Load up a pick-up truck with dried brush cuttings and branches and even waste wood from a construction site. Scatter it around a pre-selected area where contestants can descend in Easter-egg-hunting fashion to gather up the wood they need for their fires.
Most contestants will choose to build a teepee style fire, which lends itself to a quickly rising flame, but I suggest that both teepee and box style fire building techniques be demonstrated beforehand, if all the contestants are beginners.
Gather contestants and assign them their fire building stations. After handing out the newspaper and matches, give them the following instructions:
1. You have three pieces of newspaper and six matches
2. When I shout go, gather up your firewood and build your fires
3. The team whose fire burns through the string(s) first wins.
After a successful outcome, you can notch the contest up a bit by eliminating the newspaper, cutting the number of matches to two or three and dampening some of the wood.
Celebrate campfire building success with marshmallows or hotdogs, and always remember to put those fires completely out. That’s part of being a good camper as well.
There are examples of campfire building contests on YouTube, which you can use to familiarize yourself with a contest before staging one.
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