It might not be the wilderness, where you usually camp, but it will do to help your friends and family understand how special the outdoors is to you. You’ve finally rallied your generally non-camping buds to enter your domain: the woods, in a drive-in campsite, surrounded by other campsites, in a campground with a playground and general store. And soon it will be your time to shine: Time to start the all-important campfire.
Your fellow campers will be in awe of your outdoors mastery. They will gasp, audibly, as the fire sizzles to life, amazed at your ability to harness the element (fire). As they sit around the glowing embers through the night, warming their toes, toasting marshmallows, and sharing stories, they’ll have you to—oh crap, someone else just volunteered to start the fire.
Looks like you’d better learn how to watch someone else made the campfire. Here are a few tips.
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1. Establish yourself as the expert
Fine. The other guy can start the fire. But if anyone wants to eat before sunrise, he’ll probably need help. You will be the fire supervisor, which is even more important than the actual fire maker. You saw this guy start a grill once and it took an entire bottle of lighter fluid. Tell him you’ll guide him through the process, to take the pressure off.
2. Give the fire builder a job
Explain to Mr. I’ll-Make-The-Fire that he’ll want to start with the smallest twigs he can find—thinner than a pencil—and then gradually use larger twigs. Send him off to collect sticks. Stress that more is better, and to make sure all of the kindling is dry. Plan to delight onlookers by showing them that old man’s beard lichen makes an excellent fire starter. Watch Mr. I’ll-Make-The-Fire pull a bundle of firewood from Walmart out of his trunk and drop it in the fire ring. Explain to him that it would’ve been more satisfying to start the fire after collecting wood from the forest, but since it’s his first time, sure, he can do it the easy way.
3. Determine the best fire structure together
Now it’s time to choose a structure. Explain that he’ll probably want to go with the log cabin or the teepee, and that once he’s got a few fires under his belt you’ll show him advanced techniques like the star or even the inverse campfire. Pause to allow everyone time to be in awe. Reach for the wood to demonstrate what these look like. Act confused when Mr. I’ll-Start-The-Fire insists that he’s got this and that you should go help the other campers drink beer at the picnic table. Repeatedly ask if you can just show him one thing until he tells you he just needs quiet.
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4. Take a hint
It seems like Mr. I’ll-Start-The-Fire doesn’t want your advice—which is weird, because he knows you spent two weeks backpacking in Colorado with Outward Bound when you were 17—but that doesn’t mean you can’t observe. And every time you see him do something wrong, you can nudge him back in the right direction with a condescending comment. “Interesting,” “mmhmm,” and “if you think that’s going to work,” are all great options for voicing disproval.
5. Bide your time
It’s clear that Mr. I’ll-Start-The-Fire is going to fail to start the fire and yet for some reason your help is not welcome. For now, find a good tree branch, flip open your knife, and start carving your marshmallow stick. As you whittle the stick into a spear capable of felling a caribou, explain to your neighbor how you should always cut away from the body when carving a marshmallow stick. Pretty soon Mr. I’ll-Start-The-Fire will give up and beg you to—wait, is that lighter fluid?
6. Dismiss the roaring fire
Tell anyone that will listen that anyone can start a fire with lighter fluid, and wonder aloud why this guy thinks what he did would impress anyone. Get confused when the person standing next to you says that the goal wasn’t to impress anyone, the group just needed a fire to cook hot dogs. Offer to start a different fire to show everyone how to start a real fire without lighter fluid. Ask again, louder, after no one responds. Tell the story of the one match, about the father and son in Alaska who only had one match and—
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6. Receive a hot dog
They’re trying to shut you up. Eat the hot dog, but refuse to let this go.
7. Admit defeat
Spend the rest of the evening taking potshots. Complain that it smells like gas and it’s giving you a headache. Wonder aloud what Mr. I’ll-Start-The-Fire would do if he found himself lost in the woods—with no lighter fluid—and needed to stay warm. Ignore it when he says that he doesn’t usually leave the city and that he’s only here because you invited him. Beg everyone to bet you $100 you can’t start a fire with just one match.
Photos by Elise Giordano.