Fire was an incredibly important part of Viking life. It gave life-giving heat, was a means of cooking food, a tool for illumination, a deterrent against insects and predators, a provider of safety when used as a beacon, and an instrumental part of sacred Norse rituals such as a Viking funeral.
Whenever they went hunting or traveling, Viking warriors needed to eat and keep warm, so they had to have the ability to make a campfire in all weathers. A campfire was essential and the center of most activities when Viking warriors made camp. Here they would cook food, eat, talk, dry clothing and equipment, and keep warm. Once a campfire was made, cooking equipment would quickly appear, as would drinking horns, mead and tall tales.
Campfires have been around a long time. Archeological evidence shows that man built campfires 1.9 million years ago. Campfires have been consistently used whenever people spent time outdoors, and a campfire is as popular today when outdoors as it was in the Viking Age.
Whether you use historical tools, or modern equipment such as a lighter, match, paper or flammable fire-starter to start your campfire, the main goal is to get the campfire going safely and enjoy the experience. With the help of some basic information, it’s possible to start a campfire in any weather.
MAKING A CAMPFIRE
The principles of how to make a campfire have not changed since the Viking Age. There are many ways to make a campfire, but the secret to making a good campfire is to build it piece by piece. Firstly, there is the material used to make the fire. Secondly, there is the method used to ignite the material. Thirdly, there is the construction of the campfire.
Material used to make the fire
Wood shavings and thinly cut strips of dry wood light easily and are a great way to start a lasting campfire, as are dry pine needles, dry twigs and dry grass. Bark from a tree is a very good material for starting a fire. Most tree bark will do, but Birch bark is probably the best. Dry string and unprepared wool are very goodmaterials to start a fire. The natural oil in wool is very helpful in getting a fire started.
Vikings collected a fungus called touchwood from tree bark, boiled it for several days in urine, then pounded it into something similar to felt. The sodium nitrate found in urine allowed the material to smolder rather than burn, which meant that Vikings could take this smoldering material with them as they moved from place to place, and start a fire quickly with the urine-soaked touchwood.
Method to start the fire
A lighter or matches work well enough, but if you ever run out of lighter fuel or matches, there are other methods of getting your campfire started. One method for starting a fire is the friction-based method usually called a fire-drill. This usually means rubbing a piece of wood (drill) against another piece of wood in order to create friction, which creates heat, which in turn warms up the material used to make a fire, such as wood shavings, wool or touchwood. It is a laborious job which can often lead to blisters. Old Icelandic texts refer to this form of fire starting as bragð-alr (twirling-awl) and bragðals-eldr (fire produced using a bragð-alr).
Another method, which is called percussion, is when metal is hit against stone. On the hit, the spark from the metal falls into the wood shavings or wool to start the flame. In the Viking Age, the dominant hand struck a steel object against flint, which was held in the opposite hand. Touchwood or other flammable material was held on the top of the flint, near the edge. In Old Norse, the name for this type of fire starting is drepa upp eld, meaning "to strike up a fire."
Vikings used a hand-forged steel fire striker called “fire-steel” to ignite a fire. When fire-steel was hit against a piece of stone or flint, they produced sparks hot enough to start a fire under any environmental conditions. Ancient fire-steels are usually found accompanied by pieces of flint, and often packed together with flint and tinder in a small leather pouch. These fire-making kits are called eld-virki in Old Norse, meaning fire-worker, fire-making kit, or tinder-box.
Construction of the campfire
There are many methods of construction in building a campfire. Each method is a functional design made of wood that is placed above the material used to make a fire, once that material is burning strongly. Here are a few examples of the most popular campfire designs:
1. A campfire can be built by placing thin pieces of wood against each other in a pyramid formation over the fire. The top ends of the wood can be held together by string, before placing over the fire, or placed loosely against each other. Either way, it is very important that there is enough room for oxygen between the fire and the wood.
2. Another type of campfire is one built in the same way a log cabin is built. Here two sticks or pieces of wood are laid parallel to each other, on opposite sides of the fire. Two more sticks are then laid across the top of the first sticks. Then two more sticks are laid across the top of the second row of sticks. Of all the campfire designs, the cabin design is the most difficult to fire up, but it is the least vulnerable to premature collapse, and is the most ideal cooking fire as it burns for longer and can support cooking pans.
3. A variation of the cabin design is the funeral pyre design. The main difference from the standard cabin design is that the funeral pyre design starts with thin pieces of wood at the bottom and moves up to thicker pieces in the second and third layers. This design means that when the fire-build collapses, it does so without restricting the air flow.
I highly recommend using lots of thin sticks to get the fire going. Once the fire is going strong you can place split logs onto the fire in either pyramid fashion or log cabin fashion. Just make sure there is enough oxygen getting into the fire.
There are several problems that can prevent a fire from lighting properly. Either the wood is wet, there is too little material to start the fire, too much wind, and the most overlooked reason; lack of oxygen. A campfire may need forceful blowing to get it going, but too much blowing can extinguish a fire.
Rain usually extinguishes a fire, but wind or fog can also stifle the fire. One way of getting a fire going in the rain is to put your flammable materials and wooden sticks inside a plastic bag and start the fire in the bag. In a strong wind you can use your body as a barrier against the wind.
In winter, it’s best to dig through the layers of snow down to solid ground, otherwise the fire will move downwards and collapse as the snow melts. Avoid building campfires under hanging branches, especially when they are covered in snow. Avoid making a campfire on a steep slope.
In popular hiking areas it’s recommended to use established camp sites so there is less wear on nature. When making a campfire in wilderness areas, it’s best to replace anything that was moved when preparing the campfire site. Tufts of grass can be cut away to create a bare area of ground for a campfire. These tufts can be carefully replaced after the campfire has been extinguished. Covering grass or ground with a few inches of sand helps keep the grass from burning or being destroyed by the campfire.
Ideally, campfires are made in a fire ring, made up of a ring of rocks that surrounds an area of barren ground. This is done to protect nearby grass or wood from catching fire. For a Viking, such safety measures were of paramount importance. Losing wooden equipment, a tent or a wooden longship whilst traveling could mean disaster.
Don’t make campfire near combustibles. Don’t bury hot coals as they can continue to burn and cause tree root fires. It’s best to never leave a campfire unattended. An unattended campfire can be dangerous as any number of accidents can happen which can lead to property damage, personal injury or even forest fire. When leaving a campfire for good, it's best to make sure it is fully extinguished. Ash, dirt, sand or snow can be used to extinguish a fire, but splashing water on the embers is best to make sure the fire is dead.
Campfire embers left overnight only lose a fraction of their heat, and it's sometimes possible to restart the campfire by blowing gently on the embers.
In Norway it’s allowed to make a campfire between 15th September and 15th April, or when it obvious that it can’t cause a forest fire. There may be local variations, so check the rules for the nature area you are going to visit.
Fire is needed
For those who visit
And are cold
Food is needed
For those who have traveled far
Hávamál - verse 3