Generally it isn't hard to find dry kindling and fuel in the woods if you know where to look. Search for the inner bark of certain trees-notably birch-pine cones and knots, palmetto fans, cactus spines, cedar roots, or dead limbs still attached to live trees. Or you may find a lightning or fire-killed tree, sometimes still standing, or a fallen tree that has been kept partly clear of the wet ground by branches. These are usually dry and sound when you penetrate several inches beneath the outer layer of wet bark and wood. Look also for dry kindling under overhanging banks, in small caves, inside hollow trees, and on the underside of a leaning log or tree.
You can't have a good fire without a good draft, especially in heavy, damp weather. Sometimes nature won't provide that draft, and in that case a "stimulator" comes in mighty handy. That's simply a 30-inch length of rubber tubing, with or without a flattened tin nozzle (like that of a Bunsen burner). The tube weighs only a few ounces, so even light-pack hikers need not dispense with its aid. When you get the fire smoldering, hold one end of the tube close to the blaze and blow gently through the other, increasing the pressure of the artificial draft as the fire picks up.
Better draft-and less backache-with this one.
Sometimes it's wise, on heavy, damp days, to elevate the fire several inches in order to get a better supply of oxygen from the air. You can build it on a platform of short pieces of pole, upon rocks, or on a flattened mound of earth.
If the ground is soaking wet, insulate your fire from it with a layer of bark, or with sticks or stones. Otherwise the heat may bring up steam enough to smother your fire, or at least to slow it down.
A camper must usually be content with the fuel he finds close to his camp site. But whenever you have a choice, remember that the hardwoods (maple, hickory, ash, oak, etc.) burn slowly and steadily, and produce greater heat, thus giving you more return for your labor of chopping. These woods also form the beds of hot coals which are so essential in making camp cookery easy and efficient. Soft, spongy woods (the evergreens) burn directly into ash and do not provide long, steady heat. Wood which grows on high, dry ground is usually better for fuel than the same species as found in the marshes or river bottoms. Driftwood is often so waterlogged that it makes poor fuel.
If green wood is the only fuel obtainable and you have a choice of that, select hickory, maple, or ash. Cedar, spruce, elder, tamarack, and the pines are liable to pop and spit out ambers. Never use them on fires inside a tent or close to anything that's inflammable. Hemlock bark makes a fine cooking fire because it provides a bed of hot coals in a short time.
Campers often waste time and strength in working up a supply of fuel from logs to serve large or long-burning fires. The usual practice is to chop the log in two, and then split up the chunks. This is all right if you need the exercise, but if you want to save time and labor try this plan:
Chop a notch, 4 to 6 inches deep, into the log about 18 inches from its end. Split off this 18-inch slab, chop another notch 18 inches farther on, split out the slab, and repeat. Soon you'll have a pile of slabs ready for splitting into smaller pieces.
Want dry kindling in a hurry? Pick out a fallen log or large limb, chop two notches almost halfway through it near the middle, and split out the slab. Cut the inside part of the slab into kindling, then build your fire against the notch you've cut in the log. The flames will finish cutting through it for you, and you'll have two ends ready for chopping up into fire lengths.
The elevated fire is advisable only when the air is damp and lifeless, and there are no high winds to scatter embers. To make it, drive stakes side by side to form an inclosed space about 30 inches square. Fill the inclosure with dirt, and build your fire on the slightly cupped-out top. Longer forked stakes are driven at opposite sides of the "palisade" to hold a kettle bar. Biscuits bake in the direct heat of the fire, and you can fry, of course, in the usual way.
Another "camp range," one which is safer on a windy day, consists of a hollow pit in front of the fire, dug between the green side logs that support the fuel and sloped so that hot coals will roll into it from the fire. Pile the excavated dirt up so that you can lean your baking pan or skillet against it for baking, or hold the skillet directly over the hot embers for frying.