After six miles slogging up a mountain track, heading for a bothy, I start to hate my pack. It’s heavy, cumbersome, and expects me to carry it. Why can’t they invent a pack that can walk? The Internet’s all very well but it won’t get your dinner into Sheneval Bothy will it?
The item in my pack I resent carrying the most the coal. It’s heavy and dirty but, I must confess, I wouldn’t be without it. I often read accounts in bothy log books of walkers who have failed to light their fire. This blog will tell you how to get a nice roaring fire so you can warm your toes and spend an evening watching the dancing flames.
Most people live in centrally heated houses and never have to light a fire so it’s understandable that they struggle. Here’s how to light a coal fire. Wood fires are a bit different, and I’ll deal with them in another blog. Most bothies don’t have a plentiful supply of wood so it’s best to take your own coal. I take about 6-8 kilogrammes. I know it’s heavy but you only have to carry it one way and, on a cold night, you’ll be glad of it.
Always get the best coal you can. Get house coal, not smokeless fuel. I find it best to go to a coal merchants, the stuff you can buy from petrol stations is often expensive and poor quality. You should be able to get a 25kg bag for about £10. You also need firelighters and kindling, which is little sticks, to start the fire. Firelighters come in small cubes, the best ones a light in weight and individually wrapped in film. Avoid kindling that has been left outside the store in the rain as it’ll be damp and useless.
Preparation is everything. Clean any old ash and cinders out of the fire grate. The fire will need to get oxygen to burn coal and it won’t get that if it’s choked with ash. Sometimes the previous occupants will have left the fire full of ash. That’s not always their fault as the fire may have retained heat overnight and, in the early morning, it may have been too hot to clear, the other explanation is the people here before you were just bone idle. When you leave next morning, try and clean the fire out for the next visitor, it’s good manners.
A coal fire needs to draw in air up from underneath to burn properly. Try and ensure that there is space underneath the grate to allow air in. Bothy fireplaces take a fair amount of stick and it’s not unusual to find the grate broken. I’ve had improvise many times, with everything from a rusty horseshoe to a bit of old bed spring, just to try and get an air space beneath the fire.
Once the fire is clean lay a bed of coal across the grate. This only needs to be on lump of coal deep.
Now place your firelighters on the coal close together. It takes intense heat to get coal to burn so what you are trying to achieve is a small area that’s very hot. You are trying to produce a ‘heart’ for your fire that will be hot enough to get the coal burning.
Place your kindling on top of the firelighters. You don’t need a great deal of kindling, half a dozen sticks should be enough, and they weigh very little. Many brands of firelighters claim that they can light your fire with them alone. I’ve found that a small amount of kindling makes a big difference and always carry it.
Put another layer of coal over the top of your kindling so you have a sort of coal sandwich with firelighters and kindling in the middle. A good tip is to try and use small lumps of coal to start your fire, say about the size of an egg. Large lumps of coal can be difficult to light as it takes a lot of heat to get them to the right temperature to burn. If I only have large lumps I smash it up with something heavy.
Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for you get to light the fire! You’ll see Bear Grylls rubbing sticks together to get a fire. Has he never heard of matches? You can get matches in most shops and avoid all that stick rubbing. Poor old Bear, he had to be a tough outdoorsman with a name like that, it’s a good job he didn’t fancy being a hairdresser.
Always carry one box of matches and a back-up in case your box gets damp. There are often matches in bothies but they are usually soaked and useless. I always buy extra-long matches to avoid burning my fingers. If you are running low on matches light a candle and use that to light everything else. Apply the lighted match to the fire lighter.
Once your fire starts to burn the best thing to do is leave it alone. I think of the fire as ‘cooking’ the coal at this stage, getting it up to ignition temperature. A lot of smoke is good news right now as the fire gets going and heats the coal. You might see quite a bit of bright yellow flame which is spectacular but it’s the firelighters and kindling burning and not the coal yet.
Don’t play with the fire at this stage. Remember you are trying to create a ‘heart’ in the centre of the fire hot enough to ignite the coal. Give it a bout 15 minutes then, if you can see a red glow in the centre of the fire you can add more coal in get it really burning.
Once it’s lit, sit back and enjoy. Sitting in front of a roaring fire is one of the great joys of bothying. I’ve had many great nights and I’ve included some of these in my book, The Last Hillwalker . My book will be out at the end of May.
In the mean-time light your fire and enjoy. When you leave the bothy in the morning make sure the fire is out and don’t leave hot embers in the ash bucket. Bothies burn well, make sure you don’t reduce the place to charred ash, that will make you very unpopular indeed!