By Edgar Tooley
Jan 14, 2014

Fire Building Like No One Taught You

As a Scoutmaster I’m always looking for new ideas, ways to improve my Scout program, and ways to be more comfortable in the outdoors. You see growing up I didn’t spend much time camping; in fact my first scout camp as a boy was sleeping in the home of my Scoutmaster’s sister. I need all the help I can get when it comes to outdoor skills.

You now understand why I was paying special attention when a fellow Scouter said, “Let me show you how to stay warm at night.” We were on a winter camp and it was cold. We were all huddled around the fire telling stories and trying to get warm that icy winter night on the mountain. Joe, the scouting friend who now held my frozen attention, is an experienced outdoors-man. Since he went hunting and fishing with his family all his life, he had all the advantages of an outdoor education in his childhood.

Joe dropped a large stone in the edge of the fire and explained how many times he had beat the cold by loading his sleeping bag with this natural bed warmer. The rock stores heat as it sits next to the fire. Then when it was time for putting out the fire and climbing into the bag he can pick the rock up with a towel and slip it into his sleeping bag. The rock then slowly releases heat through the night. Clever.

Klondike Stars

I love the evening campfire. It is a magical time. Leaders and boys drawn together to experience the warmth of the fire, but sharing in the warmth of the brotherhood that happens in God’s country. A glowing carpet of stars spread above us in the night sky. We talked and told stories until the roaring logs passed to glowing embers. Each of us said good night and stepped into the cold darkness in the direction of a tent, and Joe scooped up his now fire-filled rock in his towel.

A towel as a camp item is an interesting thing. Every Scout knows the 11th point of The Scout Law is a Scout is clean. A washcloth and towel are on every Scout camp packing list. Those towels that make it to camp often return home unused or if the camp has a lake they may return in a condition that prevents reuse by the general public as an item of hygiene. It is not uncommon for a towel to be seen as optional on a winter overnight-er, left at home waiting for the anticipated shower of recovery. Such was the fate of my towel so I couldn’t follow Joe’s example.

I climbed uncomfortably into my cold sleeping bag in the tent I shared with Joe. As my teeth chattered I could see his big grin in the darkness as he settled in against his warm bed buddy. We are talking pet rock with a capitol P. I decided next winter camp I would take towel off the optional list. I dropped into a fitful sleep as I tried to keep from moving and thus expose myself to the unheated territory inside my sleeping bag. Failing in my attempt to dream of warm places.

Fire as every good scout knows requires three things, oxygen, fuel and heat. Remove any of these and the fire can go out. Water works well to put out most fires because it eliminates two of these. A cold winter night also works for many a Scout campfire. It is usually considered safe enough to leave a few embers to burn out through the night in a carefully prepared fire ring. It was with some confusion then that I was stirred awake by smoke in our tent. I wondered how the fire 20 feet uphill from our tent had rekindled enough to be producing the smoke that was now burning my eyes and causing difficulty breathing.

Sleeping bag Fire

I opened my stinging eyes just in time to see Joe jump from his sleeping bag, open the zipper of the tent and toss his towel-wrapped rock into the night. Joe began complaining that things were a little warmer than he expected, and surveyed the melt down that left a new zipper free entrance to his sleeping bag. It didn’t take long for the smoke to clear once we opened the tent door to the cool night air. Soon I was ready to sleep in my unheated, but unvented sleeping bag. Joe also settled down in his bag, now working to keep the hole against the floor of the tent to prevent air exchange with the bone-chilling night.

I was startled awake again a few minutes later by a gasp from Joe. I looked toward him and saw the astonished look on his face now illuminated by a flickering light outside the tent. It seems that the once smoldering towel burst to flames when exposed to the air outside and was now burning brightly at the door of our tent. Joe sprung from his sleeping bag once again and tried barefoot fire walking over his spurned rock and the ashes of his wife’s once-good towel. The stars and I were the only witnesses to the spectacle that night of a grown man in long underwear dancing barefoot in the snow. It seems Joe found an expensive but effective method to produce char cloth in a sleeping bag and then showed how easily a cotton-towel ember can be fanned to a flame even in the snow.

Joe moved away and I miss the benefit of his outdoor wisdom. I still haven’t tried to beat the cold of the night with a rock from the fire. That doesn’t stop me from wondering if I could stay warm while avoiding a similar fate. For now I just stay warm with the thought of Joe’s firelight dance on that cold January night.

Names have been changed to protect the guilty. 🙂 

Edgar Tooley uniform.jpg

Edgar Tooley



Author: Edgar Tooley | Woodbadge Scribe and Leader – Troop 1131, Highland, UT


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One thought on “Fire Building Like No One Taught You

  1. Avatarcolleen

    I loved your story! I had heard stories like this when I first started in Scouting. Needless to say, I took a word to the wise and don’t heat my sleeping bag with fire heated rocks! I am going to share this story with our Scouts tonight. Thanks for sharing. You have a really good sense of humor, and I hope I can do the story justice when I tell it.


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