Building A Fire with Kids: Four Tips for Success

One of my favorite chores of childhood was collecting tinder and kindling for campfires. My brother and I used to scour the Adirondack forest floor for just the right mix of twigs, leaves, and sticks to start our blaze. As we got older, we learned more about how to assemble those materials and manage the fire itself, but I always loved the simple but profound task of gathering fuel.

So I was delighted last month when I had a chance to introduce my daughter to this rite of camping. We were on a late summer trip to Tully Lake, staying at a walk-in campground managed by The Trustees of Reservations. Wood was available for purchase and fire pits were already built at each site, so it wasn’t quite the backcountry experience of my own childhood, but then, the growing awareness of Leave No Trace principles has made backcountry campfires more rare.

My daughter, who will soon turn 3, suggested we use her beach pail to carry our kindling back to the fire pit. And quickly, she began to express opinions about what was appropriate to put in the pail: “Too big,” she told me, rejecting a stick I offered. Since I had just moments earlier taught her about choosing small twigs to help the fire start, I had to laugh. I haven’t yet explained how to build the fire itself, but I won’t be surprised if she has opinions on whether it should be in the shape of a tepee or a log cabin.

If you want to introduce your kids to campfires, remember to do so safely. Here are a few tips, adapted from Smokey Bear, mascot of the United States Forest Service. Check out Smokey's website for more details.
  1. Choose an appropriate location. Build fires only when and where they are allowed, and then in designated areas such as fire pits. If no fire pits exist, ask your kids to help you find a spot at least 15 feet from tents and flammable objects, with no low-hanging branches overhead.
  2. Create a safety zone. Explain to children why the area around your pit needs to be cleared, and enlist their help in clearing it; put your extra firewood upwind and away from the pit; and keep a pail of water and a shovel on hand for putting out the fire and any errant sparks that might jump from it.
  3. Build and tend to your fire. Take a cue from my parents and put the kids in charge of gathering your tinder and kindling, and larger wood if they are ready for that. Don’t cut live trees or branches. Build your fire safely and keep it small and under control. Supervise kids and animals near the fire. Never leave it unattended.
  4. Put it out thoroughly. When you’re ready to put the fire out, douse all the ashes and embers with water (or dirt if you don’t have water), and stir until everything is cool. Involve the kids, who may enjoy stirring until the sizzling stops. Do not just bury the embers, as they could smolder and catch tree roots on fire, eventually causing a wildfire.

Photo by Heather Stephenson.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an AMC Outdoors blog written by Heather Stephenson.

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