I have a love-hate relationship with fire. There's nothing better than sitting by a campfire when you're out in the wild, the light from the flames is a nice comfort, and a grilled steak is the perfect dinner after a day hiking.
But for reasons unknown to me, the smoke from the flames always seems to follow me. It's like a curse. Wherever I go I get trapped in a smoky haze, with stinging eyes and the smell that lingers for days on my clothes.
This also presents a danger for survival. If you build a smoky campfire this is like a beacon. White fluffy smoke can be seen for miles and is a dead giveaway there are people in the area. If there's anyone out there will ill-intent, a full plume of smoke from your fire could be the magnet that draws them right to you.
The good news is that making a smokeless campfire isn't rocket science. You just need to get a few things right, and you can enjoy the warmth from the flames without choking on the smoke or giving away your position to anyone who is looking.
Understanding how fire works
Burning wood in a fire is a combustion reaction. You're using the heat from the flames to turn wood back into light and warmth. Smoke is a byproduct. And the less efficient your fire is, the more smoke is generated. Smoke is created when there isn't enough oxygen to burn the wood you've placed into the flames.
Of course, when you're using firewood there's also carbon and other organic compounds being burnt, and these will always smoke a little, but you can greatly reduce this by creating an efficient fire. Oh, and never stick wet wood into a fire. It will smoke and smolder like crazy, as the water and dampness counteract the ability of the wood to burn. But you knew that, right?
Starting an efficient fire
The trick here is to remember that oxygen is key. If you want to build a fire that doesn't smoke, you need two things.
- Dry wood.
Get your tinder bundle ready and spark a flame. One of my favorite new fire-starters is the Tesla Lighter, it's an electric lighter that creates a spark, but I've also always got my Ferro-Rod Endless lighter on my keychain. Starting a friction fire is just too time consuming, and burns too many calories.
Once you've got a flame, slowly start to add tiny twigs. The key here is balance, and to pay attention to what the fire is doing. Add too much wood too fast, and the fire will not have enough oxygen and can smother. Too little wood and you run the risk of it burning out. Be patient, and let the fire grow as it needs. Keep adding wood until you're putting on pieces about as big as your finger. As these burn, cook what you need. Just don't let it get too big. These pieces of wood, so long as they are dry, will give you more than enough heat to boil water, or to cook your dinner without creating a whole lot of smoke. And as soon as you're done you can snuff out the fire with a couple of handfuls of dirt.
Creating a Dakota Fire Hole
If you need a fire for more than just a few minutes, but still want to remain stealthy, you need to create a Dakota Fire Hole. It works best in ground that's not too muddy, that's firm enough to dig in. I always carry a small tactical shovel with me when I hike, and it's the perfect tool for this fire.
Dig two holes about a foot wide, and a foot deep. One is for the fire, the other is to act as an air duct to feed the flames. They should be positioned about a foot apart, and then use your arm to dig a connecting tunnel between the two. The idea here is that the ground around the fire will conceal any light from the flames, while the tunnel and air duct provide a way for the fire to draw oxygen into the base of the fire. It's kind of like a furnace.
Then simply start your fire as you would any other. The heat from the flames is what makes this work, and you'll be surprised at just how hot this type of fire will burn. Plus, I feel like this is one of the most efficient fires you can make, it requires less wood than a traditional campfire for it to work. It's also a great trick to use if you're trying to get a fire started in the wind or rain, as it adds a little more protection to the flames. Just make sure you completely fill in both holes once you're done. Always leave no trace when you're in the wild.
Learning to make a smokeless campfire is a key survival skill. Aside from being annoyed at the smoke, if you're able to cook food and purify water, without giving your position away, you're in a much better position to survive. Because you won't be fighting off the people who want to take what you have. Because they won't even know you've been there.