For many of us, fall means family time, whether it’s a Friday night spent watching football under the lights, an afternoon trip to the pumpkin patch or a neighborhood Halloween bash.
The reality is, autumn activities may look a little different this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions on large gatherings. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun this season with your family. With its crisp air and early sunsets, fall is the perfect time to build a backyard bonfire or enjoy one another’s company playing games or doing crafts.
Propane fire pits are a convenient option if you have one, but there’s nothing like sitting around a real, wood-burning fire. The crackling sounds, natural scent and warmth can’t be beat. That said, not everyone knows how to build a “real” fire sans lighter fluid, which can be dangerous. If you’re one of those folks, start here. As a former Girl Scout and a current Girl Scout leader, I have some tips for you.
Start by collecting your supplies, including matches, a stick or poker for tending the fire, a water bucket and a rake or shovel. Always build a fire in a designated fire pit or fire ring. And remember that everyone should wear closed-toed shoes, tie back long hair and remove or tuck in loose clothing like hoodie strings.
Next, gather the three sizes of dry wood you’ll need for a fire: tinder, kindling and fuel.
Tinder is any small piece of natural material that starts the fire and lights the smaller pieces of wood. Tinder may be dry leaves, dry pine needles or cones or dry tree bark.
Kindling is larger than tinder, but it’s still small — generally no thicker than an adult’s thumb and 6- to 12-inches long. It should be thin enough to catch fire quickly before the tinder burns out, but big enough to ignite the larger pieces of wood. Dry twigs or sticks make good kindling.
Fuel is larger wood, typically the diameter of an adult’s wrist, that keeps the fire going. If you don’t have a yard or access to woods where you can find dry, seasoned wood on the ground, you may need to purchase it.
Before you strike your match or light a fire starter, be sure you have a bucket of water and a rake or shovel on hand. Then follow the steps in the sidebar to make a simple, A-frame fire.
To get your fire going quickly, it’s helpful to have fire starters on hand. Place these under your tinder and light them with a match, rather than directly lighting your tinder. You can make your own fire starters out of everyday materials. Try one of these simple ideas:
- Dip a cotton ball or cotton pad in petroleum jelly.
- Cut old candles into 1-inch pieces and wrap each one in a 3-inch square of wax paper. Seal them shut by twisting the ends like a piece of candy.
- Fill cardboard egg cartons halfway with sawdust or wood shavings. Pour melted wax into each compartment until full. When cool and hardened, break apart into 12 separate fire starters.
To extinguish your fire, carefully sprinkle small amounts of water over the fire and stir the coals with the shovel, rake or poker. Once the fire has died down, sprinkle water on hot spots and continue to stir the ashes until your fire is out.
A-Frame, A-Plus: How to Light Your Fire
Take three pieces of kindling and form the letter A, leaving an air space under the crossbar. Lay a handful of tinder on the crossbar on the top of the A.
Strike a match close to the tinder and away from your body and hold the match under the tinder and crossbar, so the flames burn upward. Or, light a fire starter underneath the tinder.
Then, place kindling so it leans against the crossbar, above the flaming tinder. You may need to blow softly at the base of the fire to add oxygen. Once the kindling is burning, slowly place the larger pieces of wood over the A-frame. (Source: “Introduction to Fire Building” video from Girl Scouts of the USA on Vimeo.)
What’s a campfire without great snacks? Roasting marshmallows is the go-to choice — and we won’t stop you from keeping it simple. But if you want to up your campfire treat game, try these concoctions.
Pie iron fruit pies
Supplies: Cast iron pie iron
Ingredients: Sandwich bread; softened butter and/or cooking spray; canned fruit pie filling, such as apple or cherry
Instructions: Generously spray cast iron pie iron with cooking spray. Butter two pieces of sandwich bread and place one, butter side down, in the iron. Top with several tablespoons of filling and cover with second piece of bread, butter side out. Close the pie iron and place it in hot coals, grilling on both sides until golden brown.
Supplies: Roasting sticks
Ingredients:Marshmallows, graham crackers, variety of candy bars, such as Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, York Peppermint Patties, etc.
Instructions:Roast a marshmallow over the fire. When it’s done, make a sandwich out of two graham cracker halves, adding the marshmallow and a candy bar of your choice.
Supplies: Heavy-duty tin foil, paring knife, tongs or fireproof gloves
Ingredients: Bananas, chocolate chips, mini marshmallows and any other toppings you’d like, such as diced berries, peanut butter, etc.
Instructions: Leaving the peel on, slice through banana lengthwise on the top curve to just above the bottom of the peel. Remove some banana to make room for toppings. Add chocolate chips, mini marshmallows and other toppings. Wrap in foil and place on coals until chocolate and marshmallows melt. Allow to cool slightly before opening foil to eat with a spoon.
Campfires are fun, but accidents send thousands to emergency rooms with burn injuries every year, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Before you build one, review these safety tips.
- Before setting up a campfire, be sure it is permitted. (Check with your local fire department.)
- Campfires need to be at least 25 feet away from structures and anything flammable.
- Clear away dry leaves and sticks, overhanging low branches and shrubs and avoid windy, dry days.
- Watch children while the fire is burning. Never let children or pets play or stand too close.
- Tend to the campfire at all times. A campfire left alone for only a few minutes can be a damaging fire.
- Keep a campfire small, so it’s easier to control.
- Never use gasoline or other flammable liquids.
- Always have a hose, bucket of water, shovel or rake and dirt or sand nearby to put out the fire.
- Make sure to put it completely out before leaving the site.
- If your clothes catch fire, stop, drop and roll.
- Treat a burn right away. Cool the burn with cool water for three to five minutes. Cover with a clean, dry cloth.