Chop Wood Without An Ax

When my family rolls into camp, we divvy up the duties: After the tents are up, half of us start hauling in the sleeping bags and pads, while the other half totes camp chairs and sets up the kitchen.

Then we all go on a firewood-gathering assault.

We’ve learned the dark, cold way that the answer to the question, “How much firewood do we need?” is nearly always, “More.”

Whether you plan to cook over coals or just keep the kids entertained until bedtime, keeping the flames leaping consumes more wood than you might think.

Here’s how to get the entire family in on the fun.

Younger kids can gather tinder, the fine, flammable materials that gets the fire going.

Explain that you’re looking for small, dry stuff that will burn easily and fast. Pine needles, strips of dead bark, handfuls of brown grasses, and similarly sized items can work. Tell them to think like a bird building a nest: They shouldn’t bring back anything a mama bird couldn’t carry in her beak.

You might have to sort through their treasures to find workable, dry tinder, but the important thing is giving them a job they can handle.

Older kids are on the kindling team.

Kindling is the wood that catches fire from the tinder, and in turn lights the larger pieces known as fuel.

Kindling can vary in thickness from the kids’ fingers to their wrists. If they can break it by pulling it across a knee, that’s a great size. And broken, split wood catches fire quicker and burns better than whole round sticks.

The trick is that kindling has to be super dry. No green, living wood. Put older middle-schoolers and high-schoolers on fuel duty.

Fuel is the catch-all term for the large pieces of wood that will burn long and provide lots of coals. When scrounging for dead-and-down fuel, the best bets are often larger, longer dead limbs that have sheared off of hardwood trees.

Tell your fuel squad to look for wood that’s off the ground, as it will be drier and more rot-free. Branches that have fallen and are leaning against other trees, or larger branches with lots of smaller branches held above the ground will burn like crazy.

In areas where it’s permissible to gather your own firewood, however, the challenge is that the wood available around most camping areas has been scrounged over, and the stuff left to burn are the larger pieces that require working over with a saw or ax.

There’s an easy, safe way to turn a 15-foot-long branch into campfire-handy smaller pieces, however, and the kids can pitch in and put in a store of firewood fuel without slinging a heavy ax.

Let’s call it the “break and bake” trick.

First, find a sturdy Y-shaped tree crotch about as high as your waist. Insert a dead tree branch into the crotch, and push or pull until the wood breaks.

You’ll be amazed at how quickly you can stack up a pile of campfire wood that would make a lumberjack proud.