Total reading time: 9 minutes.
How would you like to light a fire perfectly and have it burn for 3-7 hours without touching it or putting on more wood? It can be done, every time, but it requires forgetting everything you’ve learned about starting fires…
I have — as most boys and men do — fancied myself quite a fire-maker.
I can make a raging furnace like the world has never seen, a crackling and screaming banshee of life-giving heat that springs to life. This lasts for a euphoric five minutes. Then the real fun begins: the fiddling and fussing, poking and prodding, every five minutes thereafter for the next hour to keep the charred remains clinging to life.
I was in the Boy Scouts and learned the ropes from men who repeated the steps like religious commandments: tons of paper and tinder at the bottom, building up like a tipi (teepee) with the smallest kindling at the bottom and the biggest logs at the top. It’s how fires are built, right?
Let’s call this the “tipi” fire.
Here’s the problem: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. It requires dry wood. I needed a fire-building method that worked every time with all types of wood, whether dried like an octogenarian in Palm Springs, or bordering on waterlogged, like most of the wood we had at home, which had been rained on due to a punctured tarp.
Enter the Upside-Down Fire.
To learn the manliest of the manly arts, it took one of my most feminine readers, Marcie, who also happens to help moderate the forum. She was looking for the best method of starting fires for her mountain-side cabin, and the final result was as odd as it is effective.
Even I couldn’t believe this one until I tried it.
The method is simplicity itself: do exactly the opposite of the tipi method.
1) Put the largest logs at the bottom, ensuring there is no space at all between them.
2) Put a second layer of smaller logs on top of the largest, again ensuring there are no spaces between them.
3) Repeat until you get to the top, where you will have strips of crumpled paper and — at the very top — 3-5 fire-starter squares (my preference) or fire-starter oil sticks. My favorite sequence from bottom to top is large logs (unsplit), split logs, sapling wood, cedar shingle wood, then paper and fire-starting squares.
Here’s what it looks like in photos, which you can scan through quickly, taken here at Christmas 2008 at home on Long Island. The embers this fire produces are unlike anything I’ve ever seen:
The final construction after three minutes of assembly. Following lighting, I wouldn’t touch it again for about three hours:
The second successful experiment, with about 50% less wood and almost equal burn time:
Much more heat - Once it’s about 3/4 through the shingle wood — in my example sequence above — it will start to give off a LOT of heat. The upside-down fire produces and projects much more heat than a standard tipi fire. The fire from the top warms the air in the flue and creates a more efficient current of air for cross-ventilation, and there is little warmth wasted.
No smoke or minimal smoke - this is related to the thermodynamics of the flue air being heated faster, based on explanations I’ve read. Since most fireplaces aren’t actually very well designed for fires, this is a huge benefit. No backdraft smoke into the house.
No management - once it in process, assuming you don’t have gaps between logs, it will burn beautifully for 3-7 hours, depending on the amount of wood used. This alludes to one potential drawback: you must start with a substantial amount of wood. It’s less than you’d use over 1/3 the total burn time with the tipi method, but it makes it largely impractical for outdoor survival purposes.
No ashes - this amazed me. It all burns down to nothing. No waste at all as every fiber is converted into heat. Beautiful, in fact.
There are a few things to keep in mind:
1) The upside-down fire will take longer to produce large flames, and it might not look like much for about 20 minutes. Be patient. The goal is to create embers that then fall to the layer below, which is why there cannot by any spaces between logs.
2) This is important: ensure that the paper strips are bent or otherwise prop the fire-starting squares/sticks a bit off of the shingles or layer below. If you don’t have this slight elevation for the paper to catch, you will have trouble starting the fire and get frustrated.
Don’t let fire tending turn into another full-time job. Enjoy the warmth and reap the rewards of a better method, as counter-intuitive as it might be.
Additions from readers:
There are some great suggestions from readers in the comments below, which also address modifications for survival use and outdoors, plus tipi-style fires for cooking:
“For outdoor application, I recommend doing a mini “log cabin” on top of the fire-starters with a small gate surrounding them to prevent a draft from snuffing out the fire in it’s infant stages.” (also see JBB’s points)
From Andy, even if you use a tipi-style fire:
“One tip for a smoke free start is to light the end of a rolled up newspaper hold it up the chimney for 10 or 15 seconds before lighting the fire to get the airflow moving and avoid any back draft.”