Worldbuilding Basics #1: Campfires

Ah, the staple of a good fantasy novel; the campfire. Who hasn’t heard stories of heroes huddled around a campfire on a dark, cold night? Or the villain who hatches an evil plan whilst the flickering flames reflect in his eyes?

But how many have wondered if the fire had been built safely, or if the correct materials had been used?

There are a number of things that should happen before our heroes can relax into a night of warmth and safety.

Things to consider when choosing to build a fire

* On the run. A campfire can give provide a great source of both heat and light but if your heroes are hiding, or trying to be discrete, then maybe all that heat (and rising smoke) is burning a large hole in your plot instead. There’s a reason fires were used as signals hundreds of years ago – they can be seen for miles on a dark night.

* A rainy night. Much of the success in getting a campfire going will depend on how dry your materials are. It’s not to say that a campfire can’t be started following a heavy downpour, it just means your heroes may need to spend more time not only finding the dry materials to start the fire, but they’ll also have a harder job keeping it burning.


Where to build your fire

* Location, location, location. The location for a good fire can be driven by where your heroes are planning to spend the night; no point in building a fire in the open if it’s raining and there is a cave nearby. Similarly, if the cave is known to harbour wild animals, or a mythical beast, then it may be best for our heroes to keep walking. Protection from strong winds should also be a thought, especially if our heroes are camping in an exposed area.

* Safety first. Ideally, campfires should be built in a pit where the grass sods have been removed and stones have been placed inside. There should be no loose roots or vegetation that could possibly be ignited. Obviously, our heroes don’t want to bore the reader with this detail, but there should be some time allotted to the preparation of the fire.


What to collect for your fire

Apart from oxygen and a flame, the only other ingredient for our heroes’ fire is fuel;

* Tinder. Small shavings of wood, or twigs.

* Kindling. These are larger sticks around the thickness of our heroes’ fingers

* Fuel. Any kind of wood ranging in size from kindling to small logs. Remember that carrying logs can be heavy work so perhaps the burly warrior should manage this rather than the frail cleric.


What kind of fire to build

Three of the most commonly used fires are covered below;

* Teepee. Possibly the most common type of fire used for bonfires, this design requires the tinder and kindling to be placed in the centre of the fire pit and the fuel to be built up around it in a teepee, or pyramid, shape. As the fire burns, more fuel is added around the sides. This type of fire generates tall flames and is good in winds.

* A-Frame. This type of fire is the one most people use for cooking, the design requires the kindling to be built in the shape of an ‘A’ with the tinder collected in the centre. To keep this fire burning, the fuel is added directly onto the A-frame. This type of fire is the quickest to establish.

* Log cabin. This type is possibly the longest lasting and easiest to maintain. The design of the log cabin fire ensures that the pile of tinder in the centre is surrounded with stacks of kindling and fuel at right angles forming a box. The stacking will also enable more oxygen to reach the flames.


Lighting the fire

Again, your novel can dictate this. If matches exist in your world, then viola! Similarly if magic is prevalent and there is a (responsible) mage amongst your heroes then problem solved. For most other situations, a flint and steel would be most commonly used;

* Fierce, but fragile. The first few breaths of fire can rage quickly and are easily extinguished. Due to this, our heroes should try to block as much wind as they can (wide dwarves are helpful here). Once the flint and steel are used to create a spark, the tinder will burn quickly. Ideally the tinder should be lit in a number of places to ensure the fire grows rather than burns out.

* As the fire grows. Our heroes should ensure that more tinder is added as quickly as the fire can devour it. Don’t risk overpowering the flames with too much too soon, only add more when the previous fuel is burning.

* Now we’re cooking. Not quite yet, but our heroes should continue to add bigger and bigger pieces to the fire, ideally in a kind of overlapping pattern. Save your biggest logs for when fire is fully established and the cooking pots are ready, although remember that food should be cooked over slow burning embers, not raging flames.


Maintaining the fire

* Brrr. If the fire begins to die or becomes a pile of slow burning embers, it is possible to re-ignite the flames by gently blowing on a particular spot. This should obviously only be done from the side of the fire (and definitely NOT by the bearded dwarf).

* Tossing the caber. It’s perfectly natural to want to add more fuel to the fire to keep it burning. But this should be done in a controlled manner, not by simply throwing logs into the flames. This only risks damaging the structure of the fire and could potentially cause sparks to fly.

Anyone remember this famous poem?

There once was a maiden called Claire

Who spent a night in the woods for a dare,

She threw logs on the fire,

Settled down to retire,

And woke in the morn with no hair!

* First watch. It is not considered safe to sleep next to a lit fire. However, all good fantasy novels require at least one person to keep watch. This person has a responsibility to keep the group safe from wild animals, enemies and to keep the campfire going.


Putting the fire out

When the time comes to put the fire out, there is a safe method to follow. Again, the plot of the novel may allow the time for this, or it may require a quick kick of dirt to kill the flames.

* One night or two. Any small embers can be put out with a sprinkling of water. Any more than that and you risk soaking the area and giving yourself problems for the next night. The embers should be turned over with a stick or branch to ensure all is wet and extinguished.

* The Travellers Code. Some travellers live to a code where they prepare a fire pit for the next person to come along (most commonly used in wooded huts). Others, such as rangers or druids, prefer to pass through without impacting nature too much. If this is the case, then the fire pit should be filled back in but only once the fire is completely cold. This is a decision for your heroes to make.

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