“The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another. It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.” —Henry David Thoreau
In the cold of winter, any fire will do but, given a few extra moments, it’s not difficult to build the perfect fire—one that will simultaneously warm you through and cook your food, give only faint smoke, and linger late into the night.
It starts with dry wood. Whether you pack it in or pick it up, your logs need to have aged a while before burning. Hardwoods (oak, maple, etc.) need as much as a year while softwoods like pine and cedar need only a month or two.
Make sure you have at least a couple hours’ wood cut/collected before you light the fire. Keep a few full-round logs ready but split some mid-sized pieces too. Take one log and split out your kindling—a few pieces the size of your finger, a few the size of your thumb, and a couple as big as your wrist. That will get things going solidly enough to ignite your split logs and, in turn, your full-rounds.
I like to use softwoods for my kindling then switch to the hard stuff once the fire’s lit. Softwoods are easy to light but don’t give off much heat or burn for very long. Start with evergreens—twigs, needles, and cones—before stacking your fire with hardwoods.
If you have a dry pine cone or a handful of cedar bark, place it in the center of the fire pit and stack your kindling in tight around it, building in size as you move out from the center.
Once you have a stack the size of a hat, light the center, give the fire a few seconds to spread, then start adding in progressively bigger and harder pieces of wood.
As the flame grows and the coal bed develops, keep adding wood, making sure to allow adequate air flow by not adding too much at once. Building a log cabin style structure with your firewood on top of the coal bed will keep the fire burning and relatively contained as the stack will periodically collapse in on itself, making way for more wood in its place.
As the night wears on, let the fire burn down to coals for cooking or keep the wood stacked high for a cold night’s bonfire but remember to prepare an exit strategy. When the fire’s served its purpose, drown it with water or bury the coals to make sure your controlled flame doesn’t grow into a wildfire. Stir the ashes to make sure they’re out and wait for the smoke to die before hitting the trail.