You may be asking yourself why bother making a fire when you can get all the heat you need from a stove and all the light you need from an LED lamp. Is it because people like sitting together in a cosy group or because being outdoors isn’t just about functionality – it’s about the atmosphere, too? Well, that’s part of it, but there’s much more to it than that. Fire doesn’t just deliver warmth and light – it can also be used for cooking, sterilising and protection. If you don’t know how to make a fire in the great outdoors, this article is definitely worth reading.
The first thing to remember is that you can’t really stroll into your neighbourhood forest and light a couple of sticks on fire. Along with the physical challenge of building the fire, there are rules and regulations to keep in mind as well, especially in Germany. We’ll take a closer look at these before we delve into actually building the fire. But, let’s get a little definition out of the way first.
Not all fire is created equal
When we talk about “building a fire”, it generally refers to “open fire” – not a fire in a stove, fireplace or oven. To put it more simply: fire is “open” when it is not lit in a closed chamber, so campfires are clearly open fires.
But incinerators, hobo stoves, barbecues as well as some types of camping stoves are also considered “open”, so it’s easy to get lost in a morass of grey areas, forcing you to use your own judgment. For this reason, this series of articles will focus solely on traditional campfires in the great outdoors.
What do you mean it’s not allowed? Rules and regulations
At first glance, the answer is as simple as it is sobering: in Germany, open fire and naked flames (candles, torches, lanterns) are forbidden in forests and within 100 metres of the forest edge. Smoking is normally forbidden between 1 March and 30 October, and disposing of glowing cigarette butts is, of course, also prohibited. There are also restrictions and prohibitions for meadows, fields and shore areas.
But, as always with rights, rules and prohibitions in Germany, the ones concerning fire are complicated and comprehensive. The German Federal Act for the Protection of Nature and the Federal Forest Act provides the regulatory framework, but many things are also regulated at a state level and can even vary from one municipality to the next. This means that the rules can be contradictory on various levels. According to outdoor and survival expert Kai “Sacki” Sackmann, when in doubt, the state-specific regulations apply. Sackmann’s very interesting article is one of the few detailed and clearly structured commentaries on the legalities of outdoor fires in Germany.
But why are things so complicated and heavily regulated in Germany? Well, there are a lot of people there (225/km² on average) who share relatively few, generally small natural areas. The rules and regulations aren’t there to annoy outdoor enthusiasts; they are there to protect the remaining forests and natural habitats from fires and other damage.
The great majority of forests are freely accessible, but not in the least wild. They are usually properties used for forestry, belonging to cities, states, municipalities or private individuals. Even permission from the property owner doesn’t always mean that you can do whatever you want because restrictions also apply to private properties – especially when they are near a forest. When in doubt, it’s better to just leave fire out of the picture entirely…
Even though the millions of grill aficionados don’t like to hear it: every fire produces air pollution. For that reason, you should always ask yourself whether your grill or campfire is really a sensible thing to do – regardless of the legalities.
You should also always be considerate of residents or other campers who might be bothered by the smoke. You might even be able to get them on board by inviting them over for some bread on a stick.
Even when fire is permitted, it doesn’t mean you can just toss any flammable materials you want into the fire. Generally speaking, only dry, untreated wood or charcoal should be burned. Wet materials create excessive smoke; treated material (such as lacquered wood) is harmful to the environment and your health.
The legal situation in Switzerland and Austria
If you’re a mountaineer, the legal situation in the Alps is obviously also of interest as well. So, what do Germany’s neighbours to the south have to say about fire? The Swiss put a certain amount of trust in people’s common sense when it comes to nature, so they take a more liberal stance on the issue:
“At the federal level, there is no law that would generally prohibit building a fire in the outdoors”, Rebekka Reichlin from the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment explained to the Swiss consumer magazine “Espresso”, which is published by the broadcaster Radio SRF 1.“There is no explicit prohibition on the use of fire in Swiss legislation on forests, hunting or natural conservation. This means that, in principle, building a fire is permitted.”
That may be great news for fans of grilling and fires in Switzerland, but it doesn’t mean that you can just light fires anywhere you want. There are very well regional and temporary prohibitions, most of which are in place as a result of the risk of wildfires. According to research performed by the SRF, there are at least 500 official fire pits that are pretty luxurious (free firewood)!
The situation in Austria is similar to that in Germany. Here, too, it can be generally assumed that fire is prohibited in the forest. As for other areas, it’s always a good idea to ask the responsible municipality first to be on the safe side.
Where? The right place for a fire
Fortunately, there is more to life in the outdoors than just prohibitions. Outside of protected areas, you’re certainly free to ask the responsible forestry authority for permission. According to “Sacki” Sackmann, experienced bushcrafters have a success rate of about 50%.
Other than that, the question of where you can find a suitable and “definitely permitted” spot for a fire almost answers itself: use designated grill areas and fire pits, which are usually marked on walking maps or signs in the local area. You can also sometimes find a list of official fire pits on the website of the local tourism association. Google Maps will occasionally show these locations if you search for “fire pit”, “grill area” or similar.
You should try not build a fire within the forest itself. If it must be in the forest, choose the most open area available, such as a clearing.
Furthermore, not only should you be aware of the fire risk caused by smouldering coals and flying sparks, but you should also avoid leaving an unattractive hole in the ground vegetation. For this reason, you should use existing fire pits whenever possible. In general, sand, gravel, rock, and mineral surfaces are the best choices. These surfaces are also the easiest to remove traces of fire from.
If no such surface is available, dig a hole and carefully repack it before leaving. A strong knife or a foldable spade can work well for this. But be careful: on peat, moorlands, and marshlands, organic material can smoulder unnoticed underground long after the fire has been put out, which can cause fires!
It goes without saying that the fire should be built at an appropriate distance and on the downwind side of your tent, away from any flammable objects.
Preparation: what else do I need to look out for?
Some outdoor enthusiasts build fires that are much too large. Not only do these burn more material than necessary, but they’re also harder to regulate. When you’re cooking, it doesn’t do any good if the fire heats a huge area, but then you can hardly touch the pots or pans.
Once you’ve determined the right size, you should clear any leaves, moss or other organic materials within approximately a one-metre radius around the fire area. This also applies to any damp materials that could catch fire after the moisture has evaporated.
Before lighting the fire, you should also have plenty of tinder and firewood in various sizes close at hand to get the fire started and keep it burning. Frantically gathering it just before it goes out is counterproductive. We will cover tinder and kindling in a later article, which will detail the proper way to start a fire.
As was already mentioned, only dry wood and charcoal should be used for fuel. Straw and brushwood (thin, dry twigs) are suitable only for use as tinder because they burn so quickly, produce a great deal of smoke and come with a high risk of flying sparks.
Burning green waste or garden waste is generally prohibited due to the poor flammability and, most importantly, how harmful the smoke can be to the environment. Doing so can result in heavy fines.
Which wood for which fire?
What is the purpose of the fire? Do you want it to burn hot and fast+ to boil a pot of soup or water for tea? Or should it last longer and burn evenly in order to grill or simmer something? Perhaps, you just need a big fire for some warmth? Basic knowledge of the different types of wood and their characteristics is extremely helpful, even if you won’t always be able to find the right wood.
The first principle is to use only deadwood rather than taking “limbs” from living trees. Deadwood that is still standing (or hanging) is ideal. Wood found lying on the ground can also be used, but this tends to smoulder rather than burn because of the moisture content. But when the fire is really burning, damp wood can be dried next to the fire to some extent and then added to the flames.
Living wood is known as “green wood” among experts. Because of its high resin content, it produces a great deal of smoke and sparks when burning. This is especially true of coniferous woods. They are relatively soft, burn easily, and produce a lot of heat, but they create much more smoke and sparks than they do embers. Pinecones can be used to help with this issue, as they smoulder brilliantly.
Wood from deciduous trees such as beech or oak is more difficult to light than coniferous wood, but it burns longer, produces longer-lasting embers, and creates less smoke and sparks.
What can you do when there are no trees in the area? You can use stuff from bushes and shrubs or driftwood from beaches and riverbanks. However, the latter is very dry and burns accordingly hot and fast. In emergency situations, grass, moss and reeds could also be used; they should ideally be tightly compacted before use. Additional emergency solutions include peat and dried animal dung.
Fire accelerants such as alcohol or gas are a bad – and sometimes deadly – idea! Aside from the fact that the fire could get out of control, you also run the risk of it backfiring while you’re pouring or spraying the accelerant, meaning that the flames could suddenly leap out at you.
Wind, rain, snow: fire in difficult circumstances
If the area is wet or full of snow, you’ll need a bowl or other base (such as sand, gravel, rocks, damp greenwood) because the fire could otherwise sink and go out in a puddle. If wood is used as a base, place similarly shaped twigs and branches next to each other like a grate.
If there are strong winds, protect it with a fallen log, a wall of rocks or with other available materials. However, because fire needs oxygen, be sure to allow for enough airflow. Instead of building a wall, you can also build the fire in a pit – we’ll go into that and the different types of fire in our next post.
When it’s raining, the lower branches of coniferous trees are usually fairly well protected. If you remove the outer layers of spruce or pine branches with a knife, you’ll get firewood that is still relatively dry even in wet weather.
Last but not least: use caution on wet or icy rocks! They often have water in the pores and cracks that increases in volume as it turns to steam. This can create so much pressure that it causes the rock to explode, turning it into a dangerous projectile! This risk can be decreased by heating the rocks very slowly.
After all this thorough prep, were ready to get this fire started! In the next article, we’ll not only discuss how to light a fire but also tell you how to keep it going. We’ll also introduce a few other useful types of fires. See you in part 2!