Building a fireplace is an important skill that varies slightly depending on your needs. I’ll focus on a makeshift fireplace that I’ll use to keep warm for the night in a survival situation.
Humans have probably been making fire for about 600,000 years! This is one of the abilities that defines us as a species. Creative problem solving is one of the most important skills for success in the outback, and building houses is no different.
Before we start discussing fireplace construction, I would like to mention some things about why we build fire in the first place and what fire should do for us. Intent precedes technique. Fire can be used for an almost infinite number of purposes in the outback, including cooking, drying clothes, cleaning drinking water, or making tools. The fire we’re going to talk about here is designed to keep us warm in the event of a survival emergency, without a tent or sleeping bag.
If the weather conditions are unfavorable, it is important to understand that we are going to a relatively large fire. Small fires are good for roasting hot dogs on a summer evening, but you won’t cut it to sleep next to it in the cold. This is a fairly common misconception, and many people in the survival community like to make very small fires. One reason for this is the belief that a large fire consumes unnecessary fuel. While it is obviously true that a larger fire requires more fuel, a smaller fire is harder to maintain. Large lights can burn for an hour or more without setting up alone, but small lights require constant attention for maintenance. This means you’ll probably spend the whole night saving it while you’re awake. Small fires also need better fuel. While a large fire can feed on wet or even green wood, small fires tend to burn down when they are fed low-quality fuel. Loose firewood is relatively easy to collect. There is plenty of firewood in the forest. You will probably spend the same time collecting a lot of lower quality and larger diameter firewood than you would selectively collect higher quality and smaller diameter wood.
Then we have to consider some considerations regarding site selection. Unless you are in a catastrophic situation, you should always be very aware of the local fire conditions. If the danger of a forest fire is high, you should consider your fire on the shore, stone surface, or not take it into account at all. Most wildfires in the United States and Canada are caused by negligence, and practicing skills is no excuse. Even in moderate fire conditions, you should be aware that keep your fire away from forest plums, peat, and roots, all of which can multiply for long periods of time before you find an opportunity to ignite and cause a forest fire. Also keep in mind what is above the fire. They don’t want the flames, for example, to run through the dead lower branches of a tree.
I usually look for an area that is already naturally protected, such as a dry place under a tree or a rocky canopy, where I can get out of the elements. If possible, I like to have some background behind me, whether it’s a makeshift shelter, a rock wall, or even just a tree or tree trunk. Remember that this fire is designed to keep us warm, so we want to help it do its job effectively. I usually give myself 3-5 feet between my bed and the fire, depending on the conditions.
Start by removing the fluff and root. You want to clear the forest soil to mineral soil, but you don’t need to dig a hole. Quite often, people want to dig a real hole, but a fire under the surface reduces radiant heat and makes the fire more suitable for fighting oxygen starvation.
For this fireplace, we will use stones. Rocks are popular, but not critical in the construction of fireplaces. The advantage is that they can be used to absorb, reflect, and redirect heat when consolidating a coal bed. Heat storage is the main reason why I would like to use the stones when they are available. Do not forget to pay attention to the wet rocks. Rocks that have been submerged can explode if they heat up quickly.
We will have two parallel rows of rocks about 1 ½ -2 feet apart, and ideally 4-6 feet long. The back row is made of the largest rocks we can collect and trade to preserve the coal bed and reflect a certain amount of heat.
The first row will consist of smaller rocks. Fist-sized rocks are perfect, but anything we can find will work. These rocks will also help to preserve the coal bed and prevent it from drifting to our sleeping place, but are small enough not to block the radiant heat of the fire. I also use these smaller rocks as a hot water bottle and hand warmer, turning them all night, so I always hid a few hot rocks around me.
I’d rather use a parallel fire and cut my fuel (dead branches) into 4-6-foot segments. If I’m not able to cut off the fuel, I just collect the longest pieces I can and feed them on each side. Storing firewood for a long time saves work, and a long fire warms your entire body. The extra fuel can be stored behind a larger back wall to create an even larger reflector, which also helps to dry the wood a little before it goes on fire.
This long fire placement method is one of my favorite fireplace construction methods, and I use it relatively often when I have time and rocks to spare. It would be even easier to just scratch duff and build a parallel fire with no rocks at all. This is what I usually do when I’m in a hurry.
Building a fireplace is a simple process by nature. There are many good ways to do this according to your needs, and over time, as you build and use a lot of fire, you will develop your own personal taste and style. Try out my recommendations here, use all the other resources you have, and always be open to experimentation and thinking!
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