An all-night self-sustaining fire is the goal of any camper or survivalist.
But it’s a goal that very few are able to meet.
Rookie campers call it ‘Banking’. The more seasoned ones call it the ‘self-feeder’.
Irrespective of the nom de guerre, picture a flame that keeps burning all night while you catch some much deserved shuteye, after a grueling day spent hiking through the woods or paddling through the water.
No rotating shifts to stoke the fire or feed it.
Not the dreaded Indian alarm clock method. (Drinking a boatload of water that forces you to wake up every couple of hours to pee)
And definitely not a colossal fire that can burn the woods down.
Something that’s small enough to contain, yet sufficient to keep the campers warm.
What’s even better is that when done right, it can provide you with a great surface to rig a grill on. An even and consistent heat source for your meat.
Not to forget that it might keep the curious four-legged furry friends and foes, away from your camp.
Alright, you get the gist. But how do you achieve it?
Let’s demystify the all-night self-sustaining fire.
What Does a Fire Need to Burn Nice and Slow?
It all boils down to the basics.
A fire needs air to breathe and it needs a consistent source of fuel. With these two key variables in the right proportions, you can keep it burning all night.
The idea is to allow just a wee bit of oxygen to the logs to keep it going. Not a lot, else the fire will roar for an hour or two and then sputter to death.
You can create a fire pit with rocks, or at least emulate it.
Or construct the fire in such a way that the oxygen supply to it is limited.
If you have leftover ash from the previous night, add it to the wood. It slows down the burning rate.
You can also add dry rocks to the fire. So, even if the fire dies out, the rocks radiate heat keeping you warm through the night.
The Popular Rules
Most camping and outdoor survival forums would like you to believe that getting the campfire right is about selecting the right thickness of wood.
There’s the 1-inch rule that says that a log that’s 1-inch thick will burn for at least an hour, in ideal circumstances.
Then there’s the ½ inch rule that says that a ½ inch log would burn for an hour in ideal circumstances.
Which one is true? To be honest, neither is. But it’s a good reference point to go by.
That’s cause nothing’s ever ideal in the woods, let alone the circumstances.
There are many unforeseen and uncontrollable variables that can affect how long the wood lasts.
Rain for example, can kill even the most perfectly created campfire.
What you can do instead, is stack up the best variables in your favor to maximize your chances of having a fire that lasts all night.
The Type of Wood
If you are camping in North America, there are some good varieties of slow burning hardwood that can be found in the woods.
Almost any species of oak for example, burns dense and hot. No sparks or smoke either.
So do Maple, Ash, Cherry and Beech.
But at some altitudes and in some terrain, all that you can find is softwood, like spruce, pine, cedar, chestnut and cypress.
It is in such scenarios that you need to construct the fire in such a way that it burns nice and slow.
Always follow the basic safety rules while gathering firewood. Wear protective clothing, don’t wander off for miles searching for firewood. Stay as close to the camp as possible.
Here’s a great article which will help you pick the best firewood possible.
Follow park rules while gathering and burning your campfire.
Constructing the Fire
Most experienced campers have their own secret recipe for campfire construction. One that allows them to get a fire going for hours without tinkling with it.
Some prefer the pyramid styled campfire because surprisingly, it burns downwards and can last all night.
Others prefer the basic parallel fire. It has a barebones unassuming design. But can last through the night, especially if the conditions are right.
Nevertheless, here are some of the campfire styles that are popular among seasoned campers. For the full and more in depth list, check out this article I wrote.
The Pyramid styled stack finds many takers. The idea is to create a pyramid of logs with a few large logs placed parallel on the ground, a layer of logs placed perpendicularly on top of it, another layer perpendicular on top of the second layer and so on. You then ignite the smallest and topmost layer which causes the fire to burn downwards. Since the larger logs are at the bottom, it burns nice and slow provided you have at least a few hardwood logs in the stack. It takes a fair amount of effort to split the logs in the right size and construct the pyramid mind you. But it will be completely worth the effort in the end. Also, the pyramid produces a massive amount of coal.
The platform is a smaller version of the pyramid. The most notable difference is that the logs in the upper layers are stacked only along the outside edge. Somewhat like a log cabin. This creates a platform with a hollow center that can be filled with kindling. The platform styled campfire can also be used to create a fire starter for a larger blaze.
The Finnish Candle
The Finnish Candle is a unique campfire and probably the only one that can be created with a single thick log of wood that’s about 2-feet long. An 8-12-inch thick log works best. It is split multiple times with an axe or a chainsaw lengthways, to create vertical segments about 12-inches from the bottom. This creates a stable base for the candle. You can create 4-6 segments in the wood and then fill them with tinder or kindling. Light the kindling and the wood will burn slowly lasting for hours. The base can be buried up to 6-inches into the ground to keep it stable. You can also use the Finnish candle to heat a skillet or a kettle that can be placed on the top.
The Star Fire
This ancient Indian technique allows you to feed the fire without leaving the comfy confines of your sleeping bag/blanket. You need four to five logs that are laid out like a star or the spokes of a wheel, connected at the center. Kindling is used to light the fire in the center and as the logs are consumed, you just need to push them towards the center. If the fire gets too big, just pull the logs out. Easy.
The Twin Ramp
If you are cut out for the task, then the twin ramp campfire can last you for up to 14-hours. It does take some effort to build it though. You have to construct two ramps opposite to each other that meet at the bottom. Something like a V. Now stack your logs in each of the ramps so that the bottom logs from each ramp connect at the tapering end of the V. Separate the bottom logs with some dead wood. This will allow the fire to breathe until it gets nice and hot. Load kindling or tinder in between the bottom two logs and fire it up. The advantage of the twin ramp is that as the logs in the bottom burn out, the upper logs automatically get added to it.
The Parallel Fire
This is the simplest way to get a campfire going. Just place two logs parallel to each other. Add kindling in between them and fire it up. If you have thick logs of hardwood, then the parallel fire can easily last all night. The logs can be adjusted as and when they are consumed. Plus, the inside of the logs are burning too which slows down the rate of burn.
The Stone Wall
This is usually the first lesson that you learnt in Boy Scout Camping Guidelines 101.
Build a wall out of rocks and stones around the campfire. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as a camping ground fire pit.
Even a barebones rock wall will serve the purpose.
It helps to block the wind, can be used to prop up the grill or a skewer and most importantly, will contain any rogue smolders that can otherwise trigger a wildlife.
A stone wall will also radiate heat towards your lean-to shelter keeping you warm all night.
Extra perks – Use the hot stones to warm up your clothes or even your tent.
While using stones, ensure that they are dry and contain no moisture. A stone with trapped moisture can explode sending shrapnel at a high velocity towards you.
If, for some reason, you are unable to create a stonewall, look for a large rock that can serve as the reflecting wall and create your campfire next to it.
You can also create the fire next to your lean-to shelter. Some people call it the reflector fire.
A Few Last Words…
A good campfire completes the camping experience.
And let’s face it. There’s something primitively delicious about slow cooking your food over the crackle of a fire.
Follow these basic rules and you should be able to create an all-night fire with ease.