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Fire rings you can build for survival

by Frank Bates

When building a fire ring, the most common design people think of is the ever popular Cowboy Circle Ring. It is simple and usually works well, but there are other fire ring styles you should be aware of when in survival mode. Let’s look at four of them.

Keyhole Fire  

This is my absolute favorite fire-ring design for emergency or recreation use in deserts, mountains or swamps, unless high wind is a problem. It is a key-shaped ring with multiple purposes.

  1. The initial fire ring is “C” shaped rather than a circle.
  2. Build the ring two to four feet in diameter.
  3. At the opening of the “C,” add two additional straight stone or earthen rows, three to six feet long and several inches high.
  4. Once the “C” ring has a deep bed of hot coals, scrape them into the neck of the key. You can then pan cook, roast and bake foods more slowly. It also spreads more ambient heat to keep your area warm.
  5. When you have limbs or logs that you cannot cut, lay them in the key with one end inside the “C” ring. Then, simply push them forward into the ring as they burn down.
  6. You can cover a portion of the key neck with an aluminum foil frame, making an oven to slow cook, dehydrate or gently bake foods.
  7. Drag mounded coals from the “C” ring into the arm for heating up hot rocks for rotation as interior shelter heat, stone cooking, etc.

Dakota Double Pit fire

The Dakota Double Pit Fire is recommended for use in dry deserts and plains, or whenever battling high winds.

  1. Dig two side-by-side holes straight down about the length of your arm.
  2. The holes should be no more than one to 1½ feet in diameter and separated by about a foot of earth or less.
  3. Reach down and carefully tunnel between the two holes, bottom to bottom.
  4. Light your fire in the “downwind” hole. The “upwind” hole will provide accelerated airflow to oxygenate the tightly contained fire.
  5. Be very careful when adding wood by hand or cooking over the fire hole. The heat coming out of the Dakota fire can be much hotter than open-air campfires.
  6. The higher the wind, the faster, hotter and more fuel the fire hole burns. You can slow the fire if necessary by partially covering the ventilation hole.

Cave Fire

Whenever you find a small cavern in the side of a cliff or rock face that isn’t big enough to crawl into as a shelter, that’s a good place to build your fire. Erect a lean-to shelter facing it and bed down in front of the cave. The rock cavern will radiate the heat out toward you, even in moderate wind.

Warning: when using a cave fire, some types of rock such as layered sandstone can crack and crumble when super-heated. Thus, you need to remain watchful for developing fractures and the possibility of cave-ins.

Indian Star Fire 

The Indian Star Fire starts with the basic cowboy circle and was the common design used inside Native American teepees. It is handy when you have no way to cut long pieces of wood or thick branches.

  1. Make a basic Cowboy Ring of stone or earth with five to seven intermittent gaps in the sides.
  2. Once you have started a small fire, put the tip of five to seven long logs in the gaps, arranged like a star and touching in the center of the ring. This fire style rarely flares up very high.
  3. The long pieces almost never burn past the rock or earthen ring, which absorbs the crawling heat.
  4. As the ends of the logs deteriorate and crumble, they give you a heavy bed of coals.
  5. As the burnt ends of the logs crumble, push the unburned portions into the central touching point again, immediately over the growing bed of coals.

There are many other fire ring designs, but the above are the easiest to build and most practical when you’re thrust into survival mode.


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