The two questions that must be asked before you start a campfire

Photo by Christopher Beauchamp

Humans have been huddling around campfires for a long time. Most scientists believe that early campfires were started by accident but controlled on purpose. For example, a lightning strike could have ignited materials in a nearby field, and early humans would bring those materials to the mouth of their cave, where they were allowed to burn, but not spread.

Eventually, we learned how to start fires ourselves, and the rest is history.

“Socializing around a campfire might be an essential aspect of what makes us human,” University of Toronto archaeologist Michael Chazan told Science News magazine.

Campfires are great. Perhaps the Scouts BSA Handbook says it best:

A fire can warm you, dry your clothes, and provide a focal point for gathering with friends. Bright flames can lift your spirits on a rainy morning. At night, glowing embers can stir your imagination.

This is, of course, all true.

But still, having said all this, the first question that must be asked before you start a campfire is:

Do we really need a campfire?

That’s right. As great as fires are, they aren’t always appropriate, and in many cases, they definitely aren’t necessary.

Campfires are high maintenance. They require constant, responsible adult supervision until they’re completely out and the ground is cold, and they can only be built in certain places.

The Wolf Handbook advises young Cub Scouts to “cook on a camp stove or grill whenever possible. It’s easier and less messy than cooking over an open fire.”

It is hot and dry throughout much of the country right now. The question of needing a campfire might be answered by whether or not there’s a burn ban in your area. Check with local authorities to be sure.

Campfires can char the ground, blacken rocks and sterilize soil. Vegetation might have a hard time growing where a fire has been. If there’s no burn ban, you should still only build fires in designated or approved places, like an existing fire ring or raised platform.

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

If you decide to build a campfire, there’s still one important question to be asked:

Are we building this fire the proper way?

Like every activity you participate in during an official Scout outing, you should be able to point to a specific set of instructions in an official BSA publication or website to make sure you’re doing it correctly and safely.

If you’re attempting to build a fire in a way that isn’t specifically mentioned in an official BSA publication, then you’re doing it wrong.

For example, the Scouts BSA Handbook says you can use matches or a butane lighter to ignite your kindling.

You can use cotton balls rubbed with petroleum jelly to help get the fire going. (To make a cotton ball burn longer, put it in a cup cut from a cardboard egg carton, invert the cup, and light it with a match.)

You can use a magnifying glass, flint and steel or a fire-by-friction set to get that first spark.

The BSA Fieldbook advises using a candle stub, pine pitch or the inner bark of a downed birch to help get a fire going.

What not to do

You might notice that your favorite method of starting a fire isn’t listed here. If that’s the case, don’t use that method as part of the Scouting program. Improper lighting of fires, often due to improper use of accelerants, has had devastating effects on our Scouting family.

The use of a flammable liquid — such as Coleman fuel or white gas — to start a fire is not part of the Scouting program.

The use of pyrotechnics or accelerants for starting fires is not a part of the Scouting program.

Mixing chemicals to produce fire (or explosions — such as homemade fireworks) is not a part of the Scouting program.

Using liquid fuels for starting any type of fire — including lighting damp wood, charcoal and ceremonial campfires or displays — is not part of the Scouting program.

Just because it’s something that will burn — such as hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol — doesn’t mean it should be used to start a fire.

A good Scout knows how to build a fire, especially in an emergency. A good Scout leader also knows there are often reasons why a fire should not be lit.

Learn more in the BSA’s Campfire Safety moment, and the Guide to Safe Scouting’s Chemical Fuels and Equipment section.

Photo by Beth Wald
About Aaron Derr 148 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.