How to Build Your Own Fire Pit – Part 1

Growing up, I always enjoyed it when we had a fire pit in our yard.  It gave us the freedom to sit around the campfire whenever we wanted.  So logically, this was a high priority project that I wanted to work on soon after we moved into our first house.

Research – This was a project that I really wanted to go well.  I wanted to make something that would be practical, cheap, and look nice so I needed to research my options.  At first, it was a little overwelming.  I had no idea that there were so many different ways to make a fire pit.  There was everything from placing some rocks in a circle to elaborate ones created by professional landscapers.   Eventually, I grouped fire pits into three categories to choose from: Natural, Metal, and Stone.

Natural – Depending upon how you do it, this may be the most basic way to make a fire pit.  Dig a shallow hole, and line it with large logs, stones or bricks that you have lying around.  When I was younger, the first fire pit I ever made was similar to this concept.  I dug a hole, lined it with cement blocks and then placed rocks around the edge.  Although it was extremely cheap to make, it wasn’t  the best looking.  The stones varied from size and shape and often times weeds and grass would grow between them.  It did last for quite some time (it may actually still be there today) but some of the concrete blocks had cracked and the rocks didn’t always stay in place.  Nevertheless, it was simple, cheap, and a good fire pit to make for my first try.

*Note: When using rocks to line your fire pit, do not use rocks from rivers or streams.  These may have water trapped inside them which causes the rock to explode when heated at high temperatures.

In my research I came across this fire pit that was created by an artist.

In my research I came across this fire pit that was created by an artist.

Metal – Unless you, or someone you know is skilled in metalwork, a metal fire pit is usually bought.  For this project we had initially considered purchasing a metal fire pit, but we ended up going a different route instead.  There are a lot of really good metal fire pits that you can buy.  Some are homemade, like the bottom of a propane tank or the wheel rim of a truck.  Others are meant to be installed in the ground, like the heavy ones you might see at state parks.  And over the last several years outdoor fireplaces that you can place on your porch or driveway have been increasingly popular.  My brother recently purchased one of these and was quite happy with the result.  They work well due to their portability and low maintenance.  Depending on what kind you decide to buy, for a good one you will probably end up spending $100 – $200.

DSC03038Stone – A stone fire pit is usually put together with bricks or landscaping stones.  If you hire someone to build a fire pit, more than likely, it is going to be a stone one.  But this is a do-it-yourself entry so we aren’t looking to hire anyone to build this for us.  Stone is what we decided to use for our fire pit.  It looks nice, it’s sturdy, and it was cheaper than I had expected.  If you plan to build one of these yourself, make sure you leave a good half day open to get it done (assuming you have already purchased all of the materials you need).  If you plan to use cement for the base or for securing the blocks, then I would plan at least a full day of work.

Part two of this project will go over the step by step details of how we went about putting together our stone fire pit.  We hope you enjoy it!

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Spring Has Sprung

DSC02826This year has given us an early spring!  Traditionally in Wisconsin, March is the snowiest month of the year.  This year, we had one day of snow and it didn’t last more than a day.  It snowed just a little this month already, but it melted by sunrise.   The birds have been around for a while, buds are on the trees and flowers are blooming.  Time to get ready for spring camping!

As some of  you may recall in one of my earlier posts I set some goals to keep myself active over the winter months.  Before I get into that, I must apologize for the absence of blog entries over the last several months.  I will admit that it was a surprisingly busy winter.  So how did my planned winter activities go?  Well, I’ll sum it up by saying, very poorly.   I never did get out cross country skiing.  I got out my ice skates, but just to pull the cobwebs off of them.  I didn’t do any geocaching either.  I had the plans and most of the supplies for the snowshoe project, but that didn’t get up and flying either.  So what did I do all winter?  Something that would keep us busier than all of those things combined; we bought a house.

DSC02896We had been playing around with the idea of purchasing a home for some time, but in December everything started to fall into place.  From then on, it seemed like all of our free time was spent making plans for the move, signing papers, packing boxes, signing more papers, unpacking boxes and putting everything in its place.  Now we are all set up with a new roof over our heads, a yard, and more space than we are used to.  And I think we get to call this place our own!  Soon after we moved in, I began to realize that there were many projects that I wanted to work on.  Not just for the house, but for recreational purposes as well.  And the great thing is, I now have the space and the means to actually do them.  And of course I’ll be recording them on my blog as they happen.  So here are few of the upcoming projects I’ll be working on:  Building your own fire pit; the continuation of the snowshoe project; building your own bean bag toss game (aka cornhole) ; and our week long spring camping trip.

Thank you to those of you who encouraged me to keep blogging.  I was never planning on stopping, I just had to take a small break.  As we get into the camping season, if you have topics or questions that you would like me to write about, please feel free to send me an email.  Happy camping!

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Camping Gear Essentials: First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit 2Whether you are playing with fire, using a knife, or hiking on a trail, these are all activities that could require a first aid kit.  I work with a local Boy Scout troop and this month we just started the first aid section.  As I researched the information for my lessons, I thought it would be a great time to discuss first aid  on the blog.  As for basic first aid technique, I will save that for another post, but today I want to discuss what to have in your first aid kit.

Importance - I don’t think I need to spend too much time on the importance of having a first aid kit with you when you camp.  If you have been on several campouts you will already know that accidents are not uncommon outdoors.  If you have been fortunate enough not to need a first aid kit yet, I would refer you to the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared”.  The first aid kit is one of those things that you hope you will not have to use, but if you do, you are very glad you have it.  I have had my share of cuts and burns to know that whenever we are outdoors we need to have it with us.

Some things to consider

Size – How much room do you have for your first aid kit?  Consider where you would like to store it and then find a container that will fit.  Kits come in all shapes and sizes so you should be able to find something that fits where you want it to.

Season – If you will be camping in an area that has considerably different weather during the four seasons, remember to update your first aid kit accordingly.

Special situations – Consider any special needs that anyone traveling with you may have; bee sting allergies, contacts, etc.  In my case, I wear hearing aids so I always make sure I have a fresh pair of batteries in the first aid kit.

What is in my first aid kit

I don’t consider our kit comprehensive by any means, but I thought I would list what we keep in it to help share some ideas.   We keep this first aid kit in our small backpack that we take with us whenever we do outdoor activities.  It has come in handy quite a few times.

regular size band aids
small band aids
First Aid Kit 1circle band aids
small bottle of hand sanitizer
medical tape
insect sting relief wipe
clean towelette
antiseptic wipe
alcohol wipe
antibiotic ointment
moleskin
sterile pads
petroleum jelly
tweezers
ibuprofin
hearing aid batteries
2 rain ponchos
first aid instruction packet

As I looked through our first aid kit, I was reminded that it is important to keep it well stocked.  If you have not looked at your kit lately, pull it out and just make sure it is up-to-date.  For more ideas about first aid kits I recommend visiting RedCross.org.

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Hiking Boots – Out With the Old, In With the New

Each year it seems like I push myself more and more to get out and enjoy the outdoors.  Mary and I have definitely found ourselves doing more outdoor activities in 2009 than any other year.  The rise in our participation of such activities has justified an upgrade in gear.  For Christmas this season we decided that we would each get to upgrade our hiking boots.  That will get us ready for some serious hiking in 2010.  Of course, the only downside to this was that I already knew what I was getting for Christmas.  :(

Boots 1

The Old - My old hiking boots are roughly 7-8 years old.  I bought them at a Lands’ End store when I was in college.  The main reason I chose this particular pair of boots was because at the time, I was a poor college student and they were on a super sale for about $15.  These boots have served their purpose well.  However, I will admit that they didn’t get near as much usage the first half of their life versus the second half.  As Mary and I became more interested in hiking and geocaching, a good pair of boots became increasingly necessary.  And the more I used  my hiking boots, the more I started to realize what they were good for and what improvements I would look for in a new pair.  The old pair has a tough sole and an all leather top.  The leather made these boots very tough.  When I decided to go cross-country through a forest or climb on bluffs, the boots withstood the ruggedness.  I only had a few problems with them.  The first was that some of the stitching came unraveled.  This was not a huge problem though.  A local shoe repair guy fixed that for about $1.  Another problem was that they were not as waterproof as I wanted them to be.  I water-proofed them a couple of times, but they still soaked my socks after medium exposure to water.  Comfort was another issue with these boots.  Over the years, it seemed like the shoe stretched.  I actually have several in-soles in the boots for comfort and to keep them snug on my feet.  And finally, weight was a big factor with my old boots.  I never thought this would really be an issue, but recently I hiked 7 miles in them and by the end my feet and legs were so sore I could barely walk.  I learned that heavy works just fine for short distances, but not long ones.

Boots 2The New – It did not take me long to find a pair of boots that would suit me well.  I had already been keeping an eye on a pair at REI.  As soon as they went on sale, we bought them… I mean, my wife bought them (seeing as they were a gift for me).  My new hiking boots are a pair of Keen Targhee II Mid.  The first noticeable difference is the material.  It is not as durable as leather, but at the same time I do not foresee anything tearing after I walk through my first thorn bush.  While the construction is durable, it is also much lighter than my old boots.  I did a weight comparison and the Keens are half the weight of the Lands’ End boots.  The in-sole is a lot more comfortable as well.  It seems to cradle my foot rather than just cushion it.  They feel like a better fit overall.  The new boots are also waterproof and breathable.  Breathability has never been much of an issue for me, but it is nice to know my feet won’t get too overheated.  The waterproof is a big factor for me.  As soon as the snow melts and spring sets in, everything is very wet.  It will be nice not to have to worry too much about large puddles on the trail (and no you can’t always walk around them).

One of the things I never really considered before I got these new boots was matching a pair with my activity level.  While browsing for a new pair, an employee at REI asked what kind of hiking I did.  After explaining to her what we like to do outdoors she suggested a smaller lighter boot than the ones I was looking at.  She explained that the boots I was looking at were more for rockier terrain.  Since we mostly do trail hiking, it made sense to go with the lighter boot.  Something to consider when you get your next pair.

Boots 4Boots 3Mary also upgraded.  She loved the fit of her Columbia boots, but they weren’t waterproof.  Her socks would get wet at the slightest puddle.  Her new ones are a pair of Vasque Briza GTX boots.  These are breathable and waterproof like mine, but the most important thing for Mary was how well they fit.  She was looking for extra support around the ankles and most of what we found was mid level or lower, until we found this pair.

As time goes on, we will see if the new hiking boots meet our expectations.  I am interested to know if anyone else has a pair of hiking boots that they have been very impressed with.  If you do, let us know what kind and what you like about them.

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The Snowshoe Project, Part 1

The snow has arrived!  Just last week a blizzard covered the green grass with more than a foot of snow.  Looks like it is going to be a white Christmas afterall.  Now that the snow is here, I have been more motivated to begin the snowshoe project.  As I began to research this project it was a little overwelming.  I had no idea that there were so many different styles and techniques of making snowshoes.  After doing some searching on the internet, I determined that the first series of questions I had to answer were the following:

What is my skill level and how much time do I have to dedicate to this project? These questions are important to ask to assess your timeframe for finishing the project and how long it will take you.  I work a full-time job, so that limits my available time greatly.  Given that I would like to be able to use these snowshoes this winter, I would like to get them done by the end of January at the latest.  This is a brand new project for me, so my skill level is on the lower end.  That means I need to choose an easier project that I could finish with several weekends of dedication.

What is my access to resources? If you have your own work shop with plenty of space and tools, you will, more than likely, take on a larger project than if you only have limited space with limited tools.  I have the latter.  However, another thing to consider is who you know that can help you with this project.  If you know someone with access to tools, supplies, and space, that may be just as good as having your own shop (that is assuming they are willing to let you borrow them).  In my case, I currently do not have enough resources for the job, but I know my Dad does.  So pretty soon, he’ll be getting a call from me to see when I can come over next to get this project started (thanks Dad!).

What style of snowshoe will I make? As much as I would love to make a set of big wooden snowshoes that are woven and cool looking, I realize that a project like that doesn’t really coinside with my answers above.  So I decided to take on a lighterweight project and go with some PVC snowshoes.  Theses will still require quite a bit of work, but the skill level required is a better match for my beginning status and timeframe.

What’s the next step? After reviewing several different plans for PVC snowshoes, I have found a website that gives more detailed information which will be very helpful for my first time.  With  most plans for PVC snowshoes, it appears the first step is to make a mold out of wood.   So that will be the first thing I will be working on.

As this project starts to take shape, I will post some more updates, including detailed information pertaining to how the building process goes and the quality of the shoes once I am done.  If you have ever tried to make snowshoes and have any tips or resources that may be helpful, please feel free to post them in the comments section.

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5 Camping Gift Ideas under $20

The holidays are fast approaching!  Here are a few last minute gift ideas for the camping/outdoors enthusiast.  Keep in mind that the prices listed here should be used as an estimate (I used amazon.com to price them).  If you purchase these online, you may have to pay extra for shipping.

Grandpa’s Fire Fork

This a unique idea in the camping world.  It is a wire curled up into a fork shape that can be put on a stick.  This is very convenient because it’s small and versitile.  You don’t have to lug around a three foot fork anymore because the pole you would use is found anywhere in nature.  Listed is a set of four, but they can also be purchased individually.

PVC Double Wash Basin

We have one of these and it has been very useful.  It needs to be tied up (between two trees for example), but it makes a great washing center for your campsite.  It also folds and collapses which is convenient for storage.  The plastic is strong, but be careful when washing sharp knives!

Midland HH50 Pocket Weather Radio

A weather radio is a great gift for a camper.  It is important to know when severe weather is on its way, especially when spending time outdoors.

Swedish Firesteel

This is a handy, lightweight, and reliable way to start fires.  To read my review, click on this post .

Columbia Falmouth Hiker Socks

I know what you are thinking, “Socks?!? As a good gift?!”  I have a couple of pairs of these socks and love them!  Even on long hikes, they keep my feet comfortable, dry, and at a good temperature.  I definitely recommend them!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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Review: The Best in Tent Camping – Wisconsin

Today I will be reviewing the book,  “The Best in Tent Camping Wisconsin – A guide for car campers who hate RVs, concrete slabs, and loud portable stereos”.  A few years back my wife and I came across this book in a outdoor gear store and decided to buy it.  We don’t normally buy books we know nothing about, but at that point, we knew we wanted to get out camping more and this seemed like the perfect guide for us.  To this day, it still remains just that.  What caught our eye about this book was not so much that it was a guide to good campsites in Wisconsin, it was a guide for good campsites for people just like us!  Car campers who get outdoors to escape the noises of everyday life and enjoy nature.

The book reviews 50 of Wisconsin’s best tent campgrounds.  A convenient map of the state is located at the beginning of the book so you get an idea of where all these campgrounds are located.  The campgrounds consist mostly of state parks, but also include some county parks and state/national forests.  The introduction informs you that this book was a project by the author (Johnny Molloy) to explore some of Wisconsin’s best campsites.  He went from site to site with his laptop exploring what Wisconsin had to offer.

The reviews for each campground are brief, yet thorough.  They give you just enough information to get you interested.  Anything more than that (like a detailed map of the park, hiking trails, surrounding area, etc.) would require you to contact the park or search the internet.  Each review gives information about some history on the area, activities that are available, fees, and contact information.  The description usually includes an analysis of the sites themselves.  For instance, Johnny will state what site he stayed at and then explain what the other sites look like and which sites he recommends.

Each campground review is based on a five-star rating scale in six different categories: beauty, site privacy, site spaciousness, quiet, security, and cleanliness/upkeep.  Beauty – natural features that make a campsite attractive.  Avoiding too many reminders of civilization is a plus.  Site Privacy – natural borders that enclose each campsite.  How much do the sites create their own personal space for each individual.  Site Spaciousness – space available for tents, fire ring, and other gear.  Quiet – For this category I quote from the book, “The music of the lakes, rivers, and all the land between–the singing birds, rushing streams, waves lapping against the shoreline, wind whooshing through the trees–includes the kinds of noises tent campers associate with being in Wisconsin.  In concert, they camouflage the sounds you don’t want to hear–autos coming and going, loud neighbors, and so on.”  Security – how safe you feel leaving your gear at your site.  Some campsites have locked gates so as to only allow campers or members admittance.  Cleanliness/Upkeep – how well maintained the campground is and how well trash is cleaned up.

In our experience, the selection of campgrounds that were chosen is very good.  So far, we have visited 13 of the 50 campgrounds suggested in this book and only had one disappointment, Blackhawk Memorial Park.  The description of Blackhawk suggests that it is a quiet place to go even on a holiday weekend, but when we spent a night there on Memorial Day weekend we were kept up by people setting off fireworks and some rednecks doing donuts in the mud with their trucks.  However, the other 12 successes that we have had with this book well outweigh the one failure.  I recognize that the author cannot predict when rowdy people will be camping at a site.

Overall, I find this book surprisingly helpful.  In a day when everything seems to be reviewed on the internet, to find a book with camping reviews that still holds value is saying something.  The descriptions and brief history of the areas give you a reason to visit the location and the rating system gives you a good idea of what to expect.  As Mary and I continue to plan our future camping endeavors in Wisconsin we will keep using this book until we have visited all 50 campgrounds.

Note:  Author Johnny Molloy has an impressive resume of experience in outdoor activities throughout the United States.  He has written many books that review camping, hiking and other outdoor activities in other states.  To learn more about the author, feel free to visit his website: www.johnnymolloy.com

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The Campfire

One of my favorite things about camping is the campfire.  When I am away from the luxuries of a modern-day home, I am often reminded of the importance that fire has had in human history.  Okay, maybe I don’t think about it that much.  However, I do recognize that having a campfire when at a park or campsite makes spending time outdoors that much more fun.  I should specify that in this post, I am referring to campfires that are in fire rings placed at well marked campsites.  When out in the wilderness, fires should be reconsidered because of their long lasting effects on the surrounding environment.  Let’s take a look at what makes the campfire so great.

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First, it’s a good source of light.  I can’t think of anything else that puts out enough light to light up a whole campsite that doesn’t burn out your corneas if you stare right into it.  Actually, I find it quite mesmerizing to stare into fire.  It is constantly moving and changes as it burns.   Eventually, it dies off with the night leaving glowing coals.

Second, it’s a good source of heat.  Even during the warmer months, it can still get quite cold once the sun goes down.  It feels even colder once you wake up and your blood hasn’t started circulating yet.  A campfire is the perfect source to stay warm.  In Wisconsin, early spring is cold and late fall is cold.  I have been camping in both.  From my experience, the camping trip was so much more enjoyable if it was easy to keep a fire going and stay warm.  The first campout that my wife and I went on together was in the late fall.  I had made the mistake of forgetting to bring any tinder and the wood I had brought was too green to burn easily.  Needless to say, it was very difficult to get a fire going.  I wouldn’t say it was a miserable trip, because we still had a good time, but it certainly was more of a challenge to stay warm.  That, and it took us about three hours to cook breakfast one morning.  I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two since then.

Third, it’s the perfect setting for conversations.  You might think of the campfire as an ancient version of the television.  Only, it doesn’t have loud and obnoxious commercials and actually very little sound at all.  Okay, so a campfire is not like a TV.  My point is that in todays world, furniture is usually pointed at the TV.  At a campsite, the chairs are usually pointed at the campfire.  For me, when we are sitting around a campfire with only its crackle to listen to, I can’t help but think about things.  It is like I actually take time to pay attention to what I am thinking about rather than my mind constantly being distracted by all the many things that go on at home and work.  What better time is there to verbalize those thoughts and carry on lengthy conversations with those you are camping with!

Breakfast

For breakfast: french toast, bacon, and hot chocolate. Mmm!

Fourth and finally, it is a fun way to cook food.  Have you ever tried to microwave a marshmallow?  It just cannot compete with a lightly toasted marshmallow cooked over a fire.  I am not sure what all the science is behind it, but in my experience, food just taste better when it is cooked over a wood-burning fire.  There are some dishes that I have come to really enjoy cooking when we are camping that I just cannot mimic at home.  It is also fun to experiment with cooking over a fire.  There are many different ways to cook over a fire, here are a few:  over a grill, on a stick, in a Dutch oven, in a pie iron and on a spit.  It all depends on what you want to try to cook over a fire.

As you light your fires, please remember to be careful.  I consider myself lucky to live in a part of the country where forest fires are not a big problem.  If you are camping in an area that prohibits campfires, do not start one.  The signs are there for a reason.  The carelessness of one person and his fire can cause a mess for many other people.  It is true that one can go camping without a campfire, but few of us have any other opportunity in this age of technology to experience its heat, light, and comfort.  Next time you are camping take some time to appreciate just how great the campfire is.

“One can enjoy a wood fire worthily only when he warms his thoughts by it as well as his hands and feet.”  ~Odell Shepherd


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Camping Recipes: The Breakfast Rito

For my very first recipe, I am going to reveal our very favorite camping dish, The Breakfast Rito (pronounced – reedoh).

History

This creation came about after some experimentation with breakfast foods and a pie iron.  The original idea for this recipe stems from a dish we ate at Perkins Restaurant.  It was called the Country Sausage Scrambler and it combined scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes,  and sausage covered in country gravy, cheese, and tomatoes.  We loved the combination and tried to put something similar together in a pie iron sandwich.  This was only a minor success.  Good, but not great.  Later on, we attempted to create grilled stuffed burritos in our pie iron and they turned out wonderfully!  We then decided to try a flour tortilla for the breakfast sandwich instead of bread.  The tortilla provided a lightly toasted crispy pocket that encased a wonderful mix of flavors!  And so the Breakfast Rito was born.  “Rito” is short for “burrito”.

Ingredients/Supplies

  • DSC02034pie iron
  • cooking spray (if the pie iron is not well seasoned)
  • burrito size flour tortillas (they should be nice and soft – we use La Banderita)
  • eggs (about 1.5 eggs per rito)
  • sausage links (we use Banquette Brown ‘n Serve – lite original)
  • shredded cheese (our favorite is the 4 cheese mexican blend)
  • country gravy (we use McCormick packets)

Preparation

The key to making cooking easy while camping is to do all the preparation at home.  So, at home, scramble the eggs, cook the sausages, and mix the gravy.  Cut the sausage links into pieces.  Salt and pepper the eggs to taste.  Store each ingredient in a Ziploc bag.  You will find that the bags don’t take up much room in your cooler and they are very easy to use and dispose of.  So whenever you are ready to eat, get out all of your bags, spray a little cooking spray on the inside of your pie iron and you are ready to construct your rito.

Directions

Lay one tortilla open on a plate.  Scoop scrambled eggs onto the middle of the tortilla.  The amount of scrambled eggs should not be any larger than the palm of your hand minus the fingers.

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Next add the sausage, gravy, and cheese.  These three combined should either match the amount of eggs that you have or be less.

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Now it is time to fold it up.  Wrap one side over the middle and then the opposite side on top of that one.  Then turn the plate 90 degrees and fold the other two sides to the middle.  Turn it upside down so the folds are on the bottom.  The end result should be a square shaped pocket.

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Place the pocket of goodness into the pie iron.  Tuck the sides in so the whole thing fits inside.  If it doesn’t seem to fit well, unfold and remove some of the fillings.  If the tortilla rips a little, the melted cheese does a good job of sealing it while it cooks.  CAUTION:  If the pie iron is hot while you are placing the rito in it, do it with care so as to not get burned on the hot metal.

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Now it is time to cook it over the fire.  It is hard to give an exact time to cook because every fire is different, but if it is cooked in a very hot fire, the outside will burn and the inside will be luke warm , or worse yet, cold.  Find a good spot over the fire and cook on each side for about 5 minutes.  Feel free to open the pie iron and check the color of the tortilla once in a while.  You are looking for an even golden brown.  Once it reaches that color, you are all done.  Pick it up and eat it like a Hot Pocket.  Careful, the first couple of bites can be really hot!

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ENJOY!

Feel free to try your own variation on this recipe and use different ingredients.  We have tried several different combinations, however, this one continues to be our favorite.  Also, a suggestion on the pie iron.  When possible, use a cast iron pie iron that has a good seal when it is shut.  The aluminum versions of these just don’t match up, especially when trying to make this dish.  And lastly, the first rito you make will take a little bit longer as you have to heat up the iron.  After the first one, the rest will not take as long to cook.

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Camping Gear Essentials: Firesteel

After posting the video about the petroleum jelly ball fire starters, I heard back from several people asking what I used to start the fire.  This was timed well because I had been planning to write about this anyway as part of my camping gear essentials series.  It is called a firesteel.  This is a great tool that can be used for all types of camping.  I wouldn’t say it is more convenient than using a match, but in some cases it can be more reliable.  I got my firesteel about a year ago mainly because I wanted to become more skilled in fire starting.  With some practice and the right firestarters, this may just become your “lighter” of choice as it did for me.

What is a firesteel?

DSC02548A fire steel consists of two parts: a steel scraper and a magnesium rod.  The steel scraper can be several different things.  The one I have is about a two inch flat piece of steel with a straight edge.  The newer firesteels have small notches in the steel where you would strike the rod.  You can also use a knife instead of the steel to get the same effect.  The magnesium rod is what the steel is struck against to create a shower of sparks.  Sometimes it will come with a small handle on it for ease of use.

How do you use one?

Firesteels are quite easy to use.  The rod is placed near the tinder.  Then place the steel scraper at the top of the rod.  Push the scraper down the the rod with force.  The more pressure there is between the two, the more sparks there will be.

Hold the firesteel on or above the tinder (in this case dryer lint).

Hold the firesteel on or above the tinder (in this case dryer lint).

Put pressure on the scraper and push it down the rod.

Put pressure on the scraper and push it down the rod.

How effective are they?

Very.  I’m not saying you could start a wet stick with one, but with the right tinder, you should be able to get a fire going relatively quick.  The spark that is produced from the firesteel is said to be at 3,000 degrees Celsius.  It works great in dry conditions, but will also work just fine if it gets wet.

My take on firesteels

If you enjoy learning survival skills, knowing how to use a firesteel is a good one to have.  The key is to know how to light fires with different kinds of tinder.  I would venture a guess that someone who just picked up a firesteel for the first time is not going to be able to light a dead leaf.  It takes a little practice and skill to find what works best.

Tinder suggestions

I have tried lighting wood shavings, broken up dried leaves, and paper, but not had much success.  From my experience, the firesteel works better with tinder that has small fibers.  Here are some things that the firesteel lights well:

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