Free Range Themes:
The Stick Fire Cooking Grate
The Free Range Stick-Fire Cooking Grate is a small, light-weight, cooking trivet designed to burn small sticks which, with a few tools and components, you can easily build yourself.
Using the Stick-Fire Grate
The Stick Fire Grate is (as people who like to quibble about words) technically not a ‘grate’ (where the fuel goes on top – though we have done that too!); it’s a ‘cooking trivet’, which separates your saucepan or kettle from the coals of the fire. Using the ‘grate’ is equally a practical and legal conundrum too.
Unlike the The Kelly Kettle (right), where the fire is completely contained, using the grate requires building a fire on the ground. This means you have to take a lot more care how you build the fire because of the damage this causes to the land!.
The law in England and Wales (in Scotland the ‘right to roam’ legislation is wholly different, and welcoming of well-tended fires) discourages the lighting of fires. Although The Countryside Code is mute on the issue, lighting fires is prohibited by access land law. In short, anything but land on which you have the ‘right to roam’ (unless it's specifically designated public right of way) is off-limits to fire-lighting.
By ‘stick fire’ what we mean is any woody biomass which is 1cm (⅜”) in a diameter or less; stuff you can snap with your fingers – no saw required. In most areas of the country there’s a plentiful supply of fuel for the grate available, just lying on the ground to be picked up. That could be: small wind-fall twigs from trees; the thatch that collects at the bottom of a hedge when it is flailed each year; or in late summer, it could be handfuls of waste straw gathered from a field and given a twist to form a ‘faggot’ (a word which evolved from the era of English history when everyone cooked on sticks!).
Sticks burn quickly. That means you get through quite a few. However, sticks are far more plentiful in the countryside than thick branches, logs or large lumps of wood – and take much less effort to collect. Most importantly, you can gather sticks without having to remove them from any standing tree or shrub. What’s more, while logs and branches are an important habitat for bugs and beetles, small sticks (less than 1cm/⅜” diameter) are not.
As sticks burn quickly, the heat produced changes quickly in response to how many sticks are put on the fire. This allows a certain level of heat control; certainly more quickly than with heavier cut/split logs.
To begin light a fire in the centre of the grate. When you have a bed of red embers to keep the sticks you add burning, you can start cooking. Controlling the heat you apply to one or both pans involves varying the amount of sticks burning under each/both pans:
- For the hottest heat – e.g. to boil water – use one saucepan directly over the fire;
- For a lower heat, move the saucepan(s) to one end so that one side is heated (you may need to turn the saucepan occasionally to keep the contents hot all over/stop one side burning);
- To ‘simmer’, allow the fire to die down as the sticks burn, and then feed just enough sticks to keep the fire burning at a very low level.
Here are a few simple rules to ensure that your small stick fire doesn’t cause damage:
- To avoid leaving a scorch mark you need to start with a patch of bare earth;
- Ideally a little below ground level so that you can cover it when you leave;
- Don’t light a fire on the dark black soils of woodlands, or the peaty soils of mountains or fens – you could inadvertently set the ground on fire, which might resurface later as a forest or grass fire;
- If you have to remove a leaf litter or moss to make a shallow pit, it’s not a good place to light a fire – move somewhere else;
- Most importantly, if you’re not setting the fire on a bare patch of earth or stones, you should remove a patch of grass – which you replace when you’ve finished to cover the remaining traces of your fire (and water if the ground is dry to stop it yellowing).
If you cook regularly on wood you begin to appreciate how fire is a ‘living’ thing; that you must learn to negotiate with by using different tactics. When you set-up you need to be aware of the wind – which will affect both the heat, and also the speed at which the fire burns. You might set-up a wind-break to protect the fire if the wind is too strong, perhaps weaving it from sticks and grasses.
You must also learn about wood, how to identify different trees, and the ‘heat’ value of trees and shrubs. Oak gives a good ‘clean’ heat; pines (and pine cones) or birch burn ferociously with some black smoke; hazel or ash burn more slowly, with clean smoke; shrubs like elder burn badly, producing rather noxious smoke.
Even if it is raining, provided that the dead sticks are not in contact with the ground, they will still be relatively dry inside – certainly dry enough to burn when heated over the embers. Inside the base of a hedge, or around the base of a tree/shrub where it is sheltered by the leaves above, you can usually find enough sticks and dry leaves to start the fire.
This is the other great advantage of the Stick-Fire Grate over a gas stove:
- With gas, you turn it on, strike a match, and it burns – at most you just have to turn the knob up and down to vary the heat;
- With the Stick-Fire Grate, just by the fact that you are using sticks, you are already having to engage with the diversity of nature – understanding about weather, types of wood, and where to find them.
The mistake of those who try and restrict camp fires is that they assume they are likely to cause damage. In fact, to use a camp fire well you have to engage with nature – and take care over it.
Finally, as part of his ‘ramblinactivist’ YouTube channel, Paul Mobbs has also created a short visual guide of how to build and use the ‘feral’ grate:
Click here to view the video.