Building a Fire

Discussion in 'Camping, Hiking, Cooking' started by Trapper Badovinac, Jan 16, 2013.

  1. It's winter here in Montana. Right now outside my house it minus 5 and snowing. The cost of heating our homes here in Montana is often the topic of conversation during cold spells. Because I spend a great deal of my time outdoors, I get asked about burning wood for heat and cooking. I put these photos together last year for another site. I thought some here might be interested.

    Note: This thread on another site had over 4,000 views and lots of comments. One comment was, why not use newspaper, diesel soaked sawdust, fire starter logs, etc. My answer was a simple one - what I'm showing here is basic no frills. No outfitter I know would pack a stack of newspapers on a mule for 20+ miles so that I'd have it available. Also, newspaper tends to float up the chimney before it's fully burnt which can cause fire danger in dry conditions. If you put a screen on your chimney the paper plugs it up. The other starter stuff will work but requires some planning and often a trip to the store.

    I’m 62 years old. I grew up making wood, and for a while, coal, fires. I started my grandmothers wood cooking stove for her, and when we camped or hunted I was taught to make fires outdoors.

    Today, while I have a furnace in my house, I heat my house with wood. When I’m cooking in hunting camp, the first thing I do every morning after putting water on for coffee, is to put a fire in the wood stoves in the cook and mess tents. I end up starting fires nearly every morning from September 1st to June 1st.

    While making a fire is anything but new, it seems to me that many guys my age grew up doing it, and many of the younger generations, unless they grew up rurally, controlled the heat in the house with a thermostat.

    So my apologies to those of you who are very good at this task.

    My apologies also to you guys who live outside the Rocky Mountain region because I’m not going to talk about using hardwoods like maple and hickory, because I have never lived outside the Rockies and don’t have that sort of wood to burn.

    Wood Selection


    Not all wood is equal. See this chart -
    and if you’re in the backcountry, you’ll have few choices of what to use.

    Douglas Fir is going to burn longer and hotter than ponderosa, aspen, or lodgepole. Doug fir, aspen, and lodgepole normally have fewer knots and spirals than ponderosa which means it splits a lot easier.


    On the left is Douglas Fir, on the right is Ponderosa. (Discolored from MPBs)

    Mountain Pine Beetle has killed millions of acres of trees. These standing dead trees create potential tent, stock, or people crushers in a wind storm but make good firewood. I look for the trees that have lost all their needles instead of those who have dead needles still on them because they’ve been dead longer and are more seasoned (drier).

    Wood on the ground may be easier to get but if it’s wet or green, it’s not a good choice.

    I’m not going to get into the techniques or hazards of felling trees, but it’s a good idea to know some of the sawyer basics.

    Wood Stack


    Wood dries better after bucking and splitting and that will make starting your woodstove fires much easier. If at all possible I like to stack my wood where it will get the most sun during the day and where the snow or ice will melt faster.

    Whenever I’m splitting wood I’m looking for certain pieces that will make good kindling and fizz sticks. A nice piece of uniform Doug Fir like the one in the photo, is what I look for. If it had a seam of pitch running through it, it would be perfect. I also take some of this and put it in a zip lock bag and it goes in my hunting coat in case I need a fire away from camp. I bring it inside and cache it next to the wood stove to dry it even more.

    Wet wood cannot burn. It cannot. You can put it in the wood stove but before it will burn the water has to cook out of it.

    So if you slam a splitting maul into a round and it squirts water up around your maul, it’s not ready to burn. Put it somewhere it can season. You can always use it next year.


    I use a hammer and an old axe blade to split this Doug Fir into kindling.


    Then I stack the kindling vertically (dries faster than horizontal) next to my wood stove so it dries even more and is handy.


    When I’m ready to start my fire I make a fizz stick.


    I put two semi-small pieces of dry firewood in the stove and and lean the broken up fizz stick on one of the pieces. Then I light the fizz stick.


    After the kindling/fizz stick takes off, I put a few pieces of squawwood on to get it going. (I hope that term isn’t offensive because I mean no disrespect to any one. But that’s what I was taught it was called and I know of no other term. Squawwood isn’t kindling and it’s not full sized woodstove firewood. It’s that inbetween size. My grandpa used to tell me no bigger than a man’s wrist.)
    Freestone likes this.
  2. [​IMG]
    This squawwood, even from live trees, is dead and the tree protects it mostly from moisture. You can make this size of wood by splitting firewood rounds into smaller pieces.

    Once your fire gets going, you can put larger pieces on top. I like to keep a stash of my “starter wood” near the wood stove, so if it rains or snows I’ve always got something dry and ready to go. You don’t want any wood within about 6 inches from the stove as it can combust just from the heat of the stove and cause a fire.

    Starting a fire outside of a wood stove is nearly the same. If I’m starting a campfire, I’ll stash my starter wood and kindling inside my wall tent. If I’m away from camp I’m going to collect a much bigger pile of squawwood to get it going really well.

    If you do the prep work, starting a fire is easier than if you try to hurry it.
  3. great post. I have been heating home with wood the past 7 years and learned something.

    thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience.
  4. Trapper, great post and pictures. A lot of good tips.

    I heated with wood for many years. Nothing better than a good campfire on a chilly morning or evening.

  5. I'm happy to share what I've learned over the years.

    There is something almost magical about heat from wood. For a couple of months every fall when I'm cooking for hunting camps in The Bob Marshall wilderness, I see the reaction to guys coming into my cook tent on cold mornings. While they eventually say "Wow, the coffee/breakfast/etc sure smells good." they almost always first say "Damn, it feels good in here with that wood stove going."

    It's a huge mood changer. I've seen guys ride into camp soaked to the skin in a snow storm and grumpy as hell. A change of clothes and into my warm cook tent for some hot homemade soup, and fresh homemade bread, they are transformed.
    Jerry Daschofsky likes this.
  6. I agree on that one. I grew up with only wood heat until I was 18. So of course we had to have a few chords of wood cut, stacked, and seasoned each year. There's just something about wood heat that simply can't be duplicated. I have a wood stove insert in my fireplace. It's a close second, but still not the same as having a free standing airtight radiating heat out (and if I could swap it out, I would). This is a great article, glad I could help getting it posted up for everyone to read. Tons of good info in it!
  7. Jerry - Many thanks again for solving the tech problems so we could get this posted. I was about to give up, but you saved the day.

  8. Great thread. I too heated my home with wood for years. Nothing quite like it. Wood heat is more penetrating than furnace heat. I installed a Fireplace Extraordinaire in my new house to use as a heat source alternative to the electric heat pump. The house feels a lot warmer at 68* with the fireplace going than it does at 68* from the heat pump. A wood shed is on my list of next projects. I hate keeping my firewood under plastic tarps; the rain always gets in somewhere, making pieces that have to be re-dried for next year's stack.

  9. Good post. Unfortunately, there are people who have heated with wood for years and still don't know how to do it properly. There's a bit of science to it and it takes time to learn your stove.
    I heat my house with a Lopi insert.
    Firewood makes for a good bond with neighbors too. It's always a topic for discussion and an opportunity to help out.
  10. These pictures and instructions were great. It's funny, all of the advice you provided seemed like common sense to me, but cuponoodle has a good point, many people do these things for years incorrectly.

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