Susan F. Craft
Historical Fiction Author
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Campfires & Trail Signs


Below is a list of the most common woods for burning, there are more. It is worth remembering that ALL wood will burn better if split.

  • Alder: Poor in heat and does not last,
  • Apple: Splendid/ It bums slowly and steadily when dry, with little flame, but good heat. The scent is pleasing.
  • Ash: Best burning wood; has both flame and heat, and will bum when green, though naturally not as well as when dry.
  • Beech: A rival to ash, though not a close one, and only fair when green. If it has a fault, it is apt to shoot embers a long way.
  • Birch: The heat is good but it burns quickly. The smell is pleasant.
  • Cedar: Good when dry. Full of crackle and snap. It gives little flame but much heat, and the scent is beautiful.
  • Cherry: Burns slowly, with good heat. Another wood with the advantage of scent Chestnut. Mediocre. Apt to shoot embers. Small flame and heating power. Douglas Fir. Poor. Little flame and heat.
  • Chestnut: Mediocre. Apt to shoot embers. Small flame and heating power.
  • Douglas Fir: Poor. Little flame or heat.
  • Elder: Mediocre. Very smoky. Quick burner, with not much heat.
  • Elm: Commonly offered for sale. To bum well it needs to be kept for two years. Even then it will smoke. Vary variable fuel.
  • Hazel: Good.
  • Holly: Good, will burn when green, but best when kept a season.
  • Hornbeam: Almost as good as beech.
  • Laburnum: Totally poisonous tree, acrid smoke, taints food and best never used.
  • Larch: Crackly, scented, and fairly good for heat.
  • Laurel: Has brilliant flame.
  • Lime: Poor. Burns with dull flame.
  • Maple: Good.
  • Oak: The novelist's 'blazing fire of oaken logs' is fanciful, Oak is sparse in flame and the smoke is acrid, but dry old oak is excellent for heat, burning slowly and steadily until whole log collapses into cigar-like ash.
  • Pear: A good heat and a good scent.
  • Pine: Bums with a splendid flame, but apt to spit. The resinous Weymouth pine has a lovely scent and a cheerful blue flame.
  • Plane: Burns pleasantly, but is apt to throw sparks if very dry. Plum. Good heat and scent.
  • Plum: Good heat and aromatic.
  • Poplar: Truly awful.
  • Rhododendron: The thick old stems, being very tough, burn well.
  • Robinia (Acacia): Burns slowly, with good heat, but with acrid smoke.
  • Spruce: Burns too quickly and with too many sparks.
  • Sycamore: Burns with a good flame, with moderate heat. Useless green.
  • Thorn: Quite one of the best woods. Burns slowly, with great heat and little smoke. Walnut. Good, so is the scent.
  • Walnut: Good, and so is the scent. Aromatic wood.
  • Willow: Poor. It must be dry to use, and then it burns slowly, with little flame. Apt to spark.
  • Yew: Last but among the best. Burns slowly, with fierce heat, and the scent is pleasant.

Trail Signs (by Ernest Thompson Seton)

First among the trail signs that are used by Woodcrafters, Indians, and white hunters, and most likely to be of use to the traveler, are axe blazes on tree trunks. Among these some may vary greatly with locality, but there is one that I have found everywhere in use with scarcely any variation. That is the simple white spot meaning, "Here is the trail."

The Indian in making it may nick off an infinitesimal speck of bark with his knife, the trapper with his hatchet may make it as big as a dollar, or the settler with his heavy axe may slab off half the tree-side; but the sign is the same in principle and in meaning, on trunk, log, or branch from Atlantic to Pacific and from Hudson Strait to Rio Grande. "This is your trail," it clearly says in the universal language of the woods.

There are two ways of employing it: one when it appears on back and front of the trunk, so that the trail can be run both ways; the other when it appears on but one side of each tree, making a blind trail, which can be run one way only, the blind trail is often used by trappers and prospectors, who do not wish any one to follow their back track. But there are treeless regions where the trail must be marked; regions of sage brush and sand, regions of rock, stretches of stone, and level wastes of grass or sedge. Here other methods must be employed.

A well-known Indian device, in the brush, is to break a twig and leave it hanging.

Among stones and rocks the recognized sign is one stone set on top of another and in places where there is nothing but grass the custom is to twist a tussock into a knot. These signs also are used in the whole country from Maine to California.

Surveyors often three simple spots and a stripe to mean, "There is a stake close at hand," while a similar blaze on another tree near by means that the sake is on a line between.

Stone Signs

These signs done into stone-talk would be as in the top line of the cut. These are much used in the Rockies where the trail goes over stony places or along stretches of slide-rock.

Grass and Twig Signs

In grass or sedge the top of the tuft is made to show the direction to be followed; if it is a point of great importance three tufts are tied, their tops straight if the trail goes straight on; otherwise the tops are turned in the direction toward which le course turns.

The Ojibways and other woodland tribes use twigs for a great many of these signs. The hanging broken twig like the simple blaze means "This is the trail." The twig clean broken off and laid on the ground across the line of march means, "Here break from your straight course and go in the line of the butt end," and when an especial warning is meant, the butt is pointed toward the one following the trail and raised somewhat, in a forked twig. If the butt of the twig were raised and pointing to the left, it would mean "Look out, camp, or ourselves, or the enemy, or the game we have killed is out that way." With some, the elevation of the butt is made to show the distance of the object; if low the object is near, if raised very high the object is a long way off.

These are the principal signs of the trail used by Woodcrafters, Indians, and hunters in most parts of America. These are the standards--the ones sure to be seen by those who camp in the wilderness.

Smoke Signals

There is in addition a useful kind of sign that has been mentioned already in these papers--that is, the Smoke Signal. These were used chiefly by the Plains Indians, but the Ojibways seem to have employed them at times.

A clear hot fire was made, then covered with green stuff or rotten wood so that it sent up a solid column of black smoke. By spreading and lifting a blanket over this smudge the column could be cut up into pieces long or short, and by a preconcerted code these could be made to convey tidings.

But the simplest of all smoke codes and the one of chief use to the Western traveler:
  • One steady smoke--"Here is camp."
  • Two steady smokes--" I am lost, come and help me."
  • Three smokes in a row--" Good news."
  • Four smokes in a row--"All are summoned to council."

Signal by Shots

The old buffalo hunters had an established signal that is yet used by the mountain guides. It is as follows:

Two shots in rapid succession, an interval of five seconds by the watch, then one shot; this means, "where are you?" The answer given at once and exactly the same means "Here I am; what do you want?" The reply to this may be one shot, which means, "All right; I only wanted to know where you were." But if the reply repeats the first it means, "I am in serious trouble; come as fast as you can."

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