Can You Control Fire With Your Mind?
BioLite Team, A PCT Through Hiker, The Tool Experts at Garrett Wade & Leatherman.
A BioLiter's Guide to Fire Starting.
Knowledge is power. And demystifying your fire is one of the best tools you can have when it comes to fire starting and fire management.
Our engineers have spent thousands of hours building and testing BioLite flames over the past six years and today we’re sharing some of the most helpful tips they’ve got for those of us not in the lab five days a week.
Let’s Start Here: What’s Frustrating About A Fire?
Whether it’s a smaller camp stove flame or a big roaring campfire, we consistently see three major areas of anxiety when it comes to making a fire:
- #1: Startup - It just won’t seem to catch - and what if I don't have fire starter to help?
- #2: Smoke - Why won't it burn clean?!
- #3: Refueling Roulette - When I add more fuel, I never know if it's going to burn bright or make a giant smoky mess and disrupt everything.
We hear you - starting a fire can feel like a daunting task.
But the good news is, there are some easy ways to set yourself up for success and solve for common stumbling blocks in building a fire. Turns out, step one is all in your mind:
Top Tip: Think About Your Fire Differently. Think About It Like An Ecosystem.
When it comes down to it, an efficient fire is based on a carefully calibrated ecosystem.
Ryan Gist, our head combustion engineer here at BioLite, summarizes this succinctly by referring to what he calls The Fire Triangle: “Any good fire is made up of three components known as the “fire triangle:” fuel, oxygen, and overall temperature,” says Ryan. “When you properly mix oxygen and fuel in a fire, combustion improves, raising overall temperature , which — you guessed it — further improves combustion. This allows particles to burn more easily and efficiently before they have a chance to escape the fire.”
BALANCING FUEL & OXYGEN
- If you introduce a lot of oxygen (ie. a high fan setting) your fire will burn hotter and faster. Use fan speeds to help regulate how fast you go through your fuel.
- Imbalances that lead to smoke: Overcrowding your burn chamber can cut off oxygen from key areas that is needed to feed your fire and create a better mix of gases for more even combustion.
- Solution: Avoid stacking fuel flat against each other and create gaps in your pile so oxygen can reach everything
BALANCING FUEL & TEMPERATURE
- When your fuel heats up to a certain point, it starts an exothermic chemical reaction (Translation: fire spreads to other fuel until everything is burnt).
- Imbalances that lead to smoke: wet or large fuel lacking a coalbed - These force the ambient temp to drop allowing particulate matter to escape before being properly burned - that’s the smoke you’re seeing.
- Solution: Make sure your fuel is DRY and that you start with small pieces so you can build a coalbed that will create a HOT environment that keeps temps up as you introduce larger pieces of fuel.
BALANCING TEMPERATURE & OXYGEN
- The more oxygen you introduce, the more intense the heat of your fire - if you’re looking for big flames but not big heat, consider a low fan setting.
- Imbalances that lead to smoke: Introducing too much air too early can snuff out a nascent flame.
- Solution: Start out on the lowest fan setting until you start to see coals forming.
When you start thinking about your fire as an ecosystem, you begin to focus on how to create the right conditions for that ecosystem to thrive. It’s a balancing act - if one piece of the triangle gets thrown off, it affects the entire fire. Remember to keep the oxygen flowing, add in the right amount of fuel, and keep the temperature up at all times.
Meet Your Startup Squad: Kindling, Fire Starter, Igniter
Starting a fire is where a lot of people get nervous – things are always a little easier with good friends in tow, so get to know your trusted companions, The Startup Squad.
These three items [Kindling, Fire Starter, Igniter] will help you build your fire in a controlled, gradual way that helps you build a hot environment that can eventually take on larger and larger pieces of fuel.
Throwing a bunch of big logs and some fire starter together won’t create an instant fire; usually the fire starter will end up burning the surface area of the log and the underlying layer will start to smoke, unable to combust because ambient temperatures aren’t sufficiently high. A little patience is all you need; start with small pieces of kindling and build up slowly.
If you need tips for right sizing your fuel, our friend Anthony at Garrett Wade recommends using a hatchet. “It feels gratifying (and looks cool) to split a log clean open with one well-aimed blow, but this rarely happens unless you have the perfect splitting-stump to chop on. One tip that’ll help you to easily split logs without a stump is; to “hammer” the hatchet into the log using a short stout branch. This technique is called batoning and can be used to further split your firewood down to even thinner pieces suitable for kindling to start the fire. The ideal “baton” is about the thickness of your wrist but sometimes one of the smaller pieces of your firewood can be good baton. You’ll simple use this like a mallet to drive the hatchet into the end of the log.” For more advice on how to use and care for your hatchet visit Garrett Wade’s guide.
Whether it’s the wood shavings included with your BioLite Fuel Pellets, a fire-starting puck, or a Dorito (seriously - a corn chip fried in oil really works), using a little fire starter can go a long way in helping your flames catch. These highly combustible fuels burn hot and fast and can be the kickstart you need to get your kindling going, especially if you’re in sub-ideal conditions.
And if the DIY mood strikes you, they’re super easy to make.
“I like dryer lint with a little wax melted onto it or petroleum jelly rubbed on there,” says BioLiter Zach. “Cotton balls also work, but I like re-purposing dryer lint since it has no other purpose. I also pick up a couple handfuls of dried pine needles when I see them, they work great!”
Carie at Leatherman says, “One of my favorite fire starters is to create some paraffin wax fire-starting eggs. When you have an empty egg crate you can fill it with Old Man’s Beard that you’ve collected from around the campsite and then pour candle wax over it. Let them harden and then toss them in your camp kit to have some quick fire starters when you need them.”
Once you’ve set up your kindling and fire starter - you’ll need something to light it. There are varying levels of convenience - each with their own pros and cons - and ultimately it’s up to you and what you feel most confident using:
- Easy Street: BBQ Lighters. Their long neck makes it easy to reach far into a burn chamber and can light fire starter quickly. Heads up: check your fluid levels before heading out and make sure the clicker still works (sometimes they break down).
- Practice Required: Matches (especially long-stemmed ones) are lightweight and provide an on-demand spark. Heads up: practice striking in windy conditions. Learn how to cup your hand around the match so it protects it from breezes that can blow it out.
- Scout Skills: Try your hand at a good old fashioned flint, but make sure your fire starter is up to the task and can light quickly (this is where shavings are really useful). Check out Leatherman's Signal Multi-Tool which features a ferro rod that's great for igniting a spark (pictured above).
Keeping the Triangle In Balance: Refueling, Wind, and Inclement Weather
Maintaining a strong fire requires the same care you took to build it up. If you encounter a challenge in the process, rather than freak out - take a step back and ask yourself - am I keeping the fire triangle balanced?
- Refueling - We’ve all been there - you throw a few too many logs on a fire and it starts to smoke like crazy. Well, chances are those extra logs are blocking oxygen from getting to the heat source and throwing off your fire triangle. Good news is it’s an easy fix. Using your favorite fire stoker or heat proof tongs, remove a piece of wood and rearrange your logs in a way that allows the fire to get more air. If that doesn’t work, your fuel might be wet - try kicking up the fans on your BioLite stoves a notch to help oxygen flow increasing the temperature and helping the fuel catch.
- Wind - While we geek out about airflow here are BioLite - there is such thing as too much oxygen in a fire. And wind is the main culprit. If you’re in a super windy area, it is going to throw off the circulation of air to your fire. Always look for a spot that is blocked from the wind if possible. If you can’t avoid a sudden gust of wind that pushes past your site, you’ll likely notice some smoke - let the wind die down and the fire should correct itself.
- Inclement Weather - “It's time consuming to start a fire in damp conditions,” says Kelsey a BioLite ambassador who recently thru hiked the PCT. “We tried to carry as little supplies as we could, so all we really had to start the fire was a lighter. We always found it helpful to start with our oatmeal packet tinder first. After that, we would do our best to find dead branches and dry twigs.” Rain or damp weather make it harder to start a fire. Look ahead at the weather and always come prepared with some dry kindling. There’s nothing worse than getting to a campsite and realizing you have no dry fuel.
A simple shift of mindset will get you started thinking about fires in a totally different way. It helps you build a better base for your fire and in the event you experience any issue, you can identify it and solve for it quickly. Whenever you head out to start your fire, we recommend bringing your startup squad and always being on the lookout for ways to balance out your fire triangle.
Still have questions? Submit them via the form below or tweet to us @biolitestove. We’re here to help!
Appendix: Best Practice Fuel Guide For BioLite Stoves
When burning biomass, you have a lot of fuel sources to choose from, use the chart below to see what fuel is best for your fire.
|Pellets||Sticks & Twigs||Split Firewood||Charcoal||Pinecones||Brush|
|Ideal For||Cooking meals, starting fires||Getting fires started, refueling smaller, more contained fires||Refueling once you have a fire started||Cooking meals, starting fires||Fun to use as fuel. Burns hot and bright.||Not recommended as main fuel source.|
|Not intended for||Use in FirePit, BaseCamp, HomeStove. Pellets can clog burn chambers and airways.||Substantial refueling in larger campfires||Small, contained fires (unless you split off small pieces)||CampStove, BaseCamp||Substantial refueling in larger campfires||Substantial refueling in larger campfires|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||CampStove 2 (fill your stove ¾ of the way with BioLite Fuel Pellets and only refuel after about 30 minutes)||CampStove, BaseCamp, FirePit, HomeStove||FirePit, Basecamp, HomeStove||FirePit||CampStove, BaseCamp, FirePit||CampStove|
|Notes||If you plan to cook using pellets, make sure they are food-safe like BioLite Fuel Pellets||If using sticks inside your CampStove, as your fire grows, gradually work your way up to larger pieces. The thicker in diameter, the longer sticks will last||If you’re looking for the best types of wood to use, take a look at Good Home Design’s wood comparison chart. We don’t recommend using any treated wood - it’s full of chemicals||If you start your night cooking over charcoal on your FirePit, you’ve already got your coal bed: carefully lower the fuel rack using tongs and you can skip the kindling and move to larger pieces of wood to get the campfire going.||Keep in mind brush won’t last long but if it’s dry, it’s great for ignition.|
|Ideal for||Cooking meals, starting fires|
|Not intended for||Use in FirePit, BaseCamp, HomeStove. Pellets can clog burn chambers and airways.|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||CampStove 2 (fill your stove ¾ of the way with BioLite Fuel Pellets and only refuel after about 30 minutes)|
|Notes||If you plan to cook using pellets, make sure they are food-safe like BioLite Fuel Pellets|
|STICKS & TWIGS|
|Ideal for||Getting fires started, refueling smaller, more contained fires|
|Not intended for||Substantial refueling in larger campfires|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||Substantial refueling in larger campfires|
|Notes||If using sticks inside your CampStove, as your fire grows, gradually work your way up to larger pieces. The thicker in diameter, the longer sticks will last|
|Ideal for||Refueling once you have a fire started|
|Not intended for||Small, contained fires (unless you split off small pieces)|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||FirePit, BaseCamp, HomeStove|
|Notes||If you’re looking for the best types of wood to use, take a look at Good Home Design’s wood comparison chart. We don’t recommend using any treated wood - it’s full of chemicals|
|Ideal for||Cooking meals, starting fires|
|Not intended for||CampStove, BaseCamp|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||FirePit|
|Notes||If you start your night cooking over charcoal on your FirePit, you’ve already got your coal bed: carefully lower the fuel rack using tongs and you can skip the kindling and move to larger pieces of wood to get the campfire going.|
|Ideal for||Fun to use as fuel. Burns hot and bright.|
|Not intended for||Substantial refueling in larger campfires|
|Pairs well with this BioLite Stove||CampStove 2|
|Notes||Keep in mind brush won’t last long but if it’s dry, it’s great for ignition.|