After a long day of trout fishing in the Virginia highlands, I had caught dinner and waded in the pristine setting of the Appalachian Mountains for most of the day. I was hungry, tired, and ready to tone it down and get the trout I caught cooked up for dinner.
I found a place to set up camp for the night, but I was trying a new method of fire starting and I hadn’t yet earned an appreciation for all the little nuances of firecraft. Tired and losing light, I struggled and struggled to get a small fire going. That fire was hard to keep lit and would not cook my fish. It was also not putting off any heat as the sun disappeared into the western horizon and the wind started to whip.
Had I known how to make a reflector fire it would have been a much better situation. Creating a better fire lay, stacking more smaller kindling, and building a reflector wall were all things I considered and worked on after the adventure.
I thought I would introduce you to the reflector fire in this how to article.
Seek Out the Best Location
When it comes to building a reflector fire, location is of the utmost importance. Wind is the enemy of a reflector fire. So, you want to seek out valleys, dense mature forests, the base of hills, mountains, or other natural rocky structures.
You are basically looking for a windbreak. The tighter the spot the better, just be sure you have enough room to make a fire safely.
If you are building a reflector fire, there is a good chance that the cold is getting to you. The fire is one piece of a larger camp that is designed to keep you warm and safe. Your fire should be close to your bed and your wall not much further so that the heat has a chance to bounce back to you before rising above you and away from camp.
A simple lean-to shelter is perfect for a camp that features a reflecting wall fire. The overhang of the lean-to will help capture some of the heat from your fire and the open front will allow all that heat to come right at you.
Choose a place, close to the fire, in camp for your firewood. In fact, a stack of firewood can become a smaller reflector wall, too! This can be placed at one side of the fire or the other to help reflect even more heat towards you.
Don’t skimp on the planning of camp. Most people don’t start preparing camp early enough. Measuring the sun’s distance to the horizon by turning your open hand, with fingers close to each other, parallel to the horizon is a very effective way to time sunset.
Rest one hand on the horizon so your fingers are parallel and stack another hand on that one to meet the sun. You might even need to remove your hand at the horizon and stack it on top of the second hand. Each finger is about 15 minutes. If you are two full hands from the horizon that you have about 2 hours till sunset. That is the bare minimum you should give yourself to set up camp.
Finding camp is not included in that time. That could be another hour or more if you are in a new area.
Starting the Fire
Start your fire using the method that you are best at. You can lay the fire any way you like. I am partial to the log cabin fire lay and I think it is easy to manage and get started. I also like how easy it is to explain to kids and how easy they can execute it.
Once the fire is crackling and popping and taking large fuel you can begin construction on your reflector wall.
Building your Reflector Wall
The reflector wall seems like a bit of an undertaking, but it really isn’t that much of a struggle. There are two kinds of reflector walls that can be built. The stationary wall, which is just stacked sticks that are held in place by 4 supporting stakes.
The other is the movable reflector wall that can be angled to improve the reflection of your fire’s heat. This build takes a little more effort, but it gives you more options and is best if you are dealing with some kind of precipitation.
The Stationary Reflector Wall
The first step in building the reflector wall is to find 12 saplings or straight branches of the same length. Lay one of the branches down as the base of the reflector wall. It should be positioned so that the wall is built close enough to the fire to reflect the heat back but not catch on fire itself.
At one end of the pole plunge a stick on either side. Do the same on the other side to keep the pole in place. Plunge them at least 6 inches deep.
At this point, you should be able to start sliding the remaining poles between the stakes to stack them atop the first pole you laid. The stakes should hold each pole in place. Once all of the poles have been stacked into your stake frame you should have a stationary reflector wall built and ready for a fire.
The Movable Reflector Wall
To build the movable reflector wall you have to start with a couple of tripods that are big enough to support a wall of 8-10 poles. I would recommend building two 4ft tall tripods with wood that is at least an inch thick in diameter.
Lash each together with cordage by wrapping about 4 lengths on a stick and then leaning the next stick in and lashing it four times and so on till you tie the end off on the third stick. You can even wrap all three together at the top and tie it off that way.
When the two tripods are complete you can gather your 12 poles and begin building.
Spread the two tripods far enough apart that they will be able to support your poles. Take two poles and angle them away from the fire so they lean against the tripod at an angle greater than 90 degrees. The wall is going to lean against the two sticks as they stack on one another.
Carefully lean the rest of the sticks against the angled wall. I find this method works even better if you use thicker logs. However, these can be harder to find and process without the right equipment. A log with about a 4inch diameter or better stacks easier than smaller saplings.
With fewer sticks, it makes unstacking and reangling the wall easier, too. This design allows you to manipulate the angle of the wall to reduce or increase the heat coming into camp.
Maintaining the Reflector Fire
The reflector fire will not do you much good if it goes out 10 minutes into your sleep. This is yet another reason why I favor the log cabin fire lay. This gives you the ability to build a nice tall stack of fuel on the burning fire.
As the fire burns, this stack will collapse a bit and fresh fuel will fall into the fire. You could also build a V fire or just get some nice big logs stacked up before bedtime. The most important part of your success will be having enough fuel to make it through the night.
Though once you are cuddled up in a sleeping bag or under a wool blanket you are not gonna wanna come out to feed the fire. Using a fire build that burns most of the night will be the best option.
Your Ability to Improvise and Adapt
Cold weather can be sneaky. A nice day can turn rapidly into a cold night. If you find yourself in a wilderness survival situation, it will likely be exposure that will come for your life first. You will want to employ every trick you know to manage your internal temperature.
The reflector fire is just another skill that you can add to the list. This type of fire will affect the temperature around you and will also help you warm up.
If you find yourself in a cold water submersion, the wall is a great place to dry your clothing. If you are in a rockier area you can use larger rocks as a reflector wall.
Survival is always about your ability to improvise and adapt. The reflector fire is a skill, but you will be responsible for building it to meet your needs.
Go here for more information about Campfires and Survival fires.