Campfires and Tranquility

The Mountain laurel is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae). This family of plants contains many of our most common and best-known shrubs including huckleberries, blueberries, azaleas, cranberries and rhododendron. – Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Treading a path last month in the hills of Belle Plain State Forest, I encountered this delightful view of the Mountain Laurel, which appeared in sporadic bunches and clumps along the trail. Some of the plants were quite large, but this lone branch hung out in front of my path, and caught me at eye level, providing the opportunity for a closer look. The typical time period for observing these sweetly scented pink and white blossoms spans from about the middle of May and sometimes through much of June. They herald the fullness of spring and announce the arrival of summer most times, and are quickly gone.

For anyone unfamiliar with the pleasures of camping in the woods, the idea of spending time sleeping in a tent, cooking all your meals outdoors, and coping with the circumstances surrounding life in the natural world for a period of time longer than a walk in the park, the concept of such an adventure may seem unappealing at first glance. There is a fair amount of preparation that needs to be considered like the details of exactly where to go and how to arrange to stay at a campground, and if you haven’t ever been camping, there are some essential pieces of equipment that you need to acquire in order to conduct your daily routines of eating and sleeping and preparing for inconvenient weather, but most of the essentials really aren’t that expensive, and you can either rent the bigger items or borrow them from someone who DOES like camping and probably has them all. It’s an individual matter how you get there, but if you’re really not sure if you will want to do it more than once, it’s best to either rent or borrow the essentials, and maybe purchase a few of the smaller items which you could easily sell or give away to someone who you know enjoys camping.

Our family has been camping for many years now, and most of the time we enjoy it enormously. We’ve gotten pretty good at all the routines of setting up camp, knowing what to bring, packing the food, knowing which supplies can be acquired locally and which items you are better off leaving home. All it takes is preparing well, anticipating contingencies, and common sense. We have some favorite parts of camping down to a science now, but the learning has been fun too. Once you forget to bring something important, or fail to check the weather report, or bash you finger trying to break a tree limb with your bare hands, you generally don’t repeat those kinds of mistakes. And every once in a while, you meet up with a fellow camper who has figured out how to do something easier than the way YOU do it, and can learn from seeing what other campers do just by observation.

Many of the campgrounds are located in some of the most scenic and beautiful natural landscapes in the area where they are found. Tranquil scenes such as these are delightfully common. Spending time outdoors can be challenging at first, but once you have spent time in the natural beauty of remote areas, it’s easy to see why so many people do this.

For me, one of the most thoroughly pleasurable experiences of camping is enjoying the campfire in the evening. Few other moments of outdoor recreation rise to the level of enjoyment as sitting comfortably by the fire YOU have built after a long day of activity. It’s almost the whole point of camping in my view.

Constructing a campfire that is both pleasing and safe takes some practice, but it is possible, with the right preparation, to get it going and sustain it for hours if you apply a few simple techniques:

1) If possible, you should arrange to bring at least some firewood with you, or stop along the way to pick some up from locals who often have wood out for sale. Paying a few dollars per bundle is an inexpensive way to have a supply handy, and eliminates the need to find it later.

2) Keeping the wood you bring with you in your vehicle is generally a good idea, as wet wood can be a challenge to ignite if you happen to encounter a rogue storm or sudden downpour. If you are confident in the weather forecast for sunny skies, you can leave it out, or as an alternate strategy, cover it up with a plastic tarp just in case.

3) Most often, campgrounds will allow you to pick up the dead branches and sticks that are already on the ground for burning at your campsite, since this reduces the fuel for wildfires, but it’s best to check with the park ranger’s office or the rules for each campground which do vary.

4) Assuming it is permitted, you should start gathering this smaller wood supply in the afternoon, before it gets too dark in the evening. Keep in mind that you will need some small, thin branches as well as more substantial sized limbs to support the fire beneath your chopped logs you bring with you.

5) It’s probably a good idea to pick up a few of those “fire starter bricks” that you see in the stores in case the wood is damp, or not plentiful in the campground. They can supplement your small branches and sticks in keeping the flame alive while the bigger pieces of wood get started. We also like to hang on to our paper plates, paper towels, and cardboard packaging like cereal boxes, as these can also help to kindle a flame when first getting the fire going.

6) I usually start by placing either a half of a fire starter brick in the bottom of the fire pit, or some items of paper or cardboard trash underneath a small bed of sticks and thin branches as the “bed” for the larger pieces. A few medium sized limb chunks go on top of that, and maybe one or two large logs on top, before striking a match or better yet, flicking on one of those long handle lighters to get things moving.

7) Once the flames start lapping up the pyramid of sticks you have built, you may need to fan the flames a bit with a paper plate or piece of cardboard to stoke the flames enough to ignite the larger pieces.

8) Once you get the fire started, check to make sure you have good air flow around the larger pieces of wood, as this ensures an even burning of your fuel supply. Many times, campers see a lot of smoke or lose momentum in their fire due to improper stacking of the pieces to allow air to flow around them.

9) It’s always important to have someone tending to the fire at all times, or to at least be present at the campsite, in case embers escape from the main fire pit. Never leave a fire unattended, particularly when there are young children around. It’s also a good idea to have a jug of water handy or some way to dampen the fire should it be necessary. Careful attention to the fire is essential no matter what the conditions are in the surrounding area, and containment is the key.

Once you have enjoyed the warm glow of a campfire at the end of a long day, or spent some time in conversation around one, you will no doubt wish to return again to this ritual many times. Before you settle in to your tent at night, you should always pour some water on the bed of hot embers to ensure that it stays dampened while you sleep. Safety for yourself and your fellow campers is a must!

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10 comments

  1. Olletron

    I love camping, although I can’t say I’ve been that adventurous in terms of choosing a place to camp. I don’t think there are actually any local parks that allow camping and since I can’t drive, whenever I want to go camping, I usually just get some friends together and camp on my farm. This is usually satisfactory since we span a relatively large 650+ acres with a large, scenic stream running through some of the fields (it’s nicer than it sounds!). As for fires, there’s nothing like a camp fire, I can agree! We’re lucky enough to have the comfort of a fire a lot up here since we have a proper fireplace. I can empathise with the disaster that is wet or damp wood, certainly! Great post and nice pictures :D~

  2. jjhiii24

    Thanks for your nice comment and for sharing your own experience with camping. With the right combination of a natural setting away from civilization, and good company around a campfire, you almost can’t go wrong no matter where it is. I have been camping for many years now and have had the good fortune to visit many different campgrounds up and down the East Coast of the United States, California, and even Germany!

    These adventures many times provide solace from the daily grind, time to reflect on important thoughts and feelings, and an exquisite silence at certain times of day that I find rejuvenates me like no other method can do.

    Glad to share this sweetness with you………John H.

  3. patricemj

    Oh John! Now you’ve gone and made me want to go camping…and now!! You are so right, it is a wonderful ritual, particularly the fire in the evenings. In the past 5 or so years we’ve learned how to make getting out of town and into nature a bit easier on ourselves. We bought some plastic tubs and filled them with the camping essentials, this way all we really need to concern ourselves with is the food shopping before we go. We keep a little log in the bins now and write down what needs to be replenished so the next time we leave town we’ll know what to buy.

    BTW, I like your new header a lot.

    • jjhiii24

      I’m so glad you felt the urge to go camping from my post about camping! It’s always on my list of things to do, but getting it on the list of things to do TODAY happens far too infrequently. I suppose if it happened more frequently it wouldn’t be so urgent.

      Your suggestion about filling plastic tubs with camping essentials is most excellent! They stack easily in your vehicle and keep things dry and organized. You can put related items together and label the plastic tubs with the “theme” of the enclosed items, which will simplify a search for the spatula or the cups.

      Since camping is one of the best activities for promoting contemplation and silence and moments of solitude, as well as social interaction and quality time with those we love, it is completely appropriate to be posted in my blog, but attention to practical matters also enhances the experience, so I thought it would be…a win/win to write it.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with me……..John H.

  4. Anne Donnelly

    We always enjoyed camping with the kids. I will never forget the joy we had one evening in the tent, making shadow puppets with the flashlight. And the thunderstorm in Lake George, scary but awe inspiring. Or going to bed at Lake George sweating and waking up seeing our breath. We now have a fire pit in our backyard here at home and the kids, especially my son, make fires and sit around the fire chatting with friends. Good stuff!

    • jjhiii24

      Anne,

      What great memories you’ve made with your camping adventures! It has always been my feeling that if more people in the world would just stop periodically and sit around a fire of their own making and relax and chat with other people, that there would be a lot less turmoil in the world.

      Lake George in the Adirondack region of New York is a fabulous place to go camping, and I remember many mornings in the Adirondack mountains when the daytime temps were summer level and the early morning temps were more like late autumn–brisk and beautiful!

      Thanks so much for sharing your memories and spending time with me here……John H.

  5. dearfriends

    Hi John,
    It is so good to read about your love for camping–what a connection to the innate human spirit for being with nature. As my husband and I were walking in the dunes this morning, we were trying to decide which camping area we wanted to explore next. Imagine, we live right on the Pacific coast, have black bears, deer, raccoons, elk and coyotes right in our back yard (along with berries and mountain laurel)–and we still want to throw up a tent in someone else’s “backyard.” There is a huge effort here to help families and CHILDREN experience camping–to help folks understand the need for placing environmental need above greed and thoughtlessness. So Thanks for such a lovely reminder of what is so vital and soothing to the human spirit. Here’s to small camp fires, dry beds and bear-proof food containers–Barb

  6. jjhiii24

    Barb,

    It sounds like you have an ideal “backyard” to begin with, but I’m confident that exploring other locations will pay dividends that are unexpected. As someone who grew up with very few such opportunities for connecting to nature this way, even in the local campgrounds such as Belle Plain which is about an hour or so away I am able to connect to the tranquility it offers. Since becoming an adult camper enthusiast, with some extraordinary locations visited like Yosemite and Pinnacles out West, and the Allegheny, Blue Ridge, and Adirondack Mountain ranges in the East, just about ANY place that takes me away is a welcome respite.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food, but enough, and an immense quiet.” This perhaps best explains the feeling of hospitality one finds in the forests and mountains of remote areas. Connecting to our “innate human spirit” requires this sort of hospitality, and the immense quiet, only truly available away from civilization, is a profound silence that allows us to connect to it.

    I am delighted that something I wrote resonated for you so well. Hope you find other postings of interest which might prompt you to share your gracious commentary again.

    Warm regards……..John H.

  7. bitchpig

    John, I am planning a camping trip NOW! A cool thing about camping in National Parks in Thailand is you rent the tent, sleeping bag, pillow and gas lamp, and they pitch it for you! Also, we have zero health and safety issues over here 🙂 Cooking up a Tom Yum in a wok over a campfire is pretty special.

    • jjhiii24

      What a dream trip to go camping in Thailand! Your suggestion made me look up places to go camping there and it looks like Kaeng Krachan National Park would be great!

      For me, a unique camping experience like that would be amazing, but even if I have to pitch my own tent and bring my own stuff it would be okay.

      Let me know if you are going…..John H.

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