The campfire is still everything.
The campfire is still everything. (Photo: Ian Allen)
New Rules of Camping

Why We’ll Always Be Drawn to Campfires

They're a connection to our wildest selves

The campfire is still everything.
Ian Allen(Photo)

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I grew up in California, which means I spent my childhood learning to put fires out. Any campfires I encountered—when conditions were just right, after our once-yearly week of drizzle—were anxious affairs, requiring a constant inventory of grass and wind and access to water. My family mostly stayed inside, put a Duraflame in the fireplace, and called it a day.

Then I moved to the Arctic, and suddenly everything depended on starting fires and keeping them burning. I saw ten-year-olds build them in snowbanks like they were tying their shoes, and there I was puffing my cheeks at crumpled newspaper, willing damp twigs to catch. The dance of heat, the layers of kindling, the precise line between too much and too little air—none of it was intuitive. I practiced every day, in private, until fire started to feel like a friend.

Since then I’ve slept by fires to avoid predators; I’ve watched a campfire save a life. But what I remember most are the ordinary things. Telling ghost stories and jumping when a log cracks. Holding hands in the dark. The smell of smoke in your fleece the next day. That’s the thing about sitting around a campfire: it makes even the smallest moments matter.

A barefoot hiker told me once that the reason we’re drawn to screens is that we’re looking for fire, and now whenever I’m in a bar or an airport, anyplace with a TV flickering in the background, I think of that. It feels true. I can’t take my eyes off CNN because I’m meant to be sitting by a fire instead, I remind myself. Somehow that’s comforting, that even in the most civilized places, we’re steered by our relationship to nature. We look for fire because we need it, and when we sit together around a campfire, leaning into the glow, we’re acknowledging that need together. It’s humbling in the way all desire is humbling. You can’t pretend you’re not a body, drawn to warmth. You can’t pretend you’re alone.

The tricks to building a campfire, I’ve learned, are to gather way more tinder and kindling than you expect to use, tend the flames closely until you get coals, and turn the burning sides of logs toward each other, bouncing and focusing the heat. If you don’t have a lighter or matches, the secret to using a bow drill is to work with someone else, a person at each end, sharing your strength until you form a red coal. Small sticks make light; big sticks make heat. Keep piles of each nearby in case you need to rebuild the fire in darkness.

The flames require fuel and so do you. Slice off the top of an orange and eat the fruit with a spoon, then fill the peel with vanilla cake batter. A boxed mix with water works just fine; don’t worry about the eggs. Put the orange top back on like a lid, wrap the whole thing in tinfoil, and bake in the campfire for ten minutes. Enjoy.