Introduction: How to Build a Beach Fire

About: Building design/consulting in Vancouver, WA. Resource based problem solver... in other words, I always take a minute to look in construction dumpsters :) ---the way some have to workout everyday... i have to …

An efficient beach fire is gorgeous, simple machine. Building one takes just a few handfuls of wood and typically about 2 minutes.

On a Memorial Day trip to Lake Superior (North Shore, MN) I built a few fires to enjoy some time at the beach. In this instructable I simplify the process so that you know how to start a fire in just two minutes.

In the final steps I'll add a few notes on wet wood, fire pits and gathering wood.

Step 1: Building Materials + Combustion

Fire building wood is classified in three categories. For this simple beach fire we only use the first two.

  • Tinder (smaller than your little finger) - used to start a fire (typically substituted for paper or lighter fluid)
  • Kindling (little finger to wrist size) - used to help grow the fire to develop coals and burn fuel
  • Fuel (bigger than your wrist) - used to sustain a fire and replenish coals (picture a bundle of split wood)

For this fire we don't want coals for a big fire... to give off heat and light typically desired for large fires. We want a small fire that is easy to put out. Note that this fire is easily big enough to boil water in 3-5min if you rest a pot on the rocks.

Combustion - fire needs three ingredients

  • Heat - in this case we generate initial heat from a lighter
  • Oxygen - in the atmosphere or provided from fanning/breath
  • Fuel - the wood we burn

Step 2: Starting the Fire

Many people follow the believe that an elaborate 'pyramid' or 'log cabin' in required to start a fire. This is not the case. In fact... it's what makes people less likely to start a fire to simply accent a break or boil water for a hot drink.

I've never understood the need for fire starter products... the internet has a range of survivalist inspired flint starters, starter sticks, and wax teepee starters... all fun toys but not worth their weight. (more on wet wood in the final step)

Here is the easiest way to get a fire started:

  1. Hold the dry tinder in your hand. Keep in light an airy.
  2. Light the tinder while you're holding it... add more tinder as necessary so that you can place it under a few pieces of larger tinder.
  3. Add one more handful of tinder. Start also adding a few pieces of kindling... blow as needed to maintain air circulation.

Note that this is when a fire is most vulnerable. It isn't yet hot enough to draw in it's own supply of oxygen. As the heat builds it will draw in oxygen as the heat/smoke rises from the center.

Step 3: Add Kindling

At 30-60 sec into building a fire you have a base to add kindling.

Here are a few options

  • Teepee method... pile like a pyramid. This is best to boil a quick pot of water or give off heat
  • Log cabin method... for a series of interlocking squares. This is what we learned as kids. It's a good method for building up coals for extended cooking. Not practical for a short beach fire.
  • Simple pile... really anything goes. As long as you add material and have it overlap at the flame your fire will keep building.

Once a fire is going you can't really mess it up. It's really a mater of shaping it to meet your needs. I'm showing a mix between the teepee method and a simple pile.

---that's me... just noticing it now but that's my last picture of me with my much loved pair of chacos... the sandles lasted for 8+ years. From kayak guiding in alaska to building sites with the earthships 'hippie' construction crew in west texas and on so many trails.

Step 4: Happy Fire!!

In just a few minutes you have a perfect little fire to enjoy. It's fun to build and a great way to share a moment with a friend or to teach a child.

Hope you find it easy to fit fires into your life!
Thanks for reading, Jeff

--the next sections offer a few tips

Here are a few others I've recently posted:

Step 5: Extinguishing a Fire

Leaving a fire pit cold is important. Please check for any warnings and only build fires where it is appropriate.

How to Extinguish

  1. Separate any remaining wood. This reduces combustion and slows the fire.
  2. Break up the remaining coals with a stick. This allows them to burn themselves out.
  3. ---after about 5-10min a small fire should be nearly extinguished
  4. Pour water to extinguish any smoldering coals.

Further Tips

  • never start a fire next to a river... dumping coals in the river kills fish
  • never bury a fire. The heat can be trapped for an extended period and actually start fires in area trees if they burn any roots.
  • when to bury a fire... here's an alaska drifter trick I learned a few years back. if you buy a fire in a safe space (picture a sandy beach) you can then setup a tent right over the coals. You'll be warm even on the coldest night. Just careful to bury it properly

Step 6: Fire Pit Building

We camped on Lake Superior. There was an existing pit for us to use but it would have only take a few minutes to use the supply of round beach rocks.

Note: Never use wet rocks. Rocks from lakes and rivers are porous and can have water inside of them. As the rocks heat up the water expands which can cause the rocks to explode. This is very dangerous.
Or... Go Big! Worth noting the legendary Aussie and South African beach fires. These huge fires typically scale up with shovels to dig a pit and heaps of pallets. Bottles are thrown into the fire, on occasion, and the hot fires leave a puddle of glass in the sand.

Step 7: Gathering Wood

Please see this activity as effortless. Otherwise, it's much more difficult to decide to build a fire. As you walk simply pickup a few handfuls of driftwood.

  • Four handfuls (two people) is all it takes to get a fire going.
  • Four more of kindling will keep in going for 20-30min.

LNT, best practice is to 'leave no trace'. Never disturb the environment to gather wood. Avoid pulling branches from live trees.

--Please note: know that driftwood from the ocean (salt water) creates a colorful flame and toxic smoke. It's usable for fires but you should avoid inhaling the smoke.

Step 8: Wet Wood

In Step 3 I went on a rant about fire starters... yes, I find them totally unnecessary. We certainly could come up with a scenario where they would be good to have... that said, are they worth the weight?

Starting with Wet Wood

  • Peel bark from a down tree.
  • Widdle wood shavings from piece of wood
  • Strip the bark (outside layers) of midsize pieces to expose dry wood that's ready to burn.
  • Look at the base of trees for dryer wood
  • Tear a few of the first pages from a book you care camping (if really needed).

Here are two books I recommend from my days leading youth outdoor programs.

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