Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

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SierraStrider
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Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Mon Jan 27, 2020 8:31 am

I've always heard about "Dakota Fireholes" in the context of bushcraft, but never really tried one. Being determined to spend the night out in period kit soon, I decided that any experiments that could improve the effectiveness of a fire would be good to try.

For those who might not be familiar, the concept behind a Dakota Firehole is that you dig two holes adjacent to one another, then dig a tunnel connecting them beneath the surface. A fire is then built in one of the holes. A fire built in this way burns better than one built in the open on the surface since the walls of the hole reflect the heat back in on the fire, and convection draws air down through the empty hole to "supercharge" the other hole.

Doing this with period kit could be challenging. Digging the holes requires a proper tool, and while one could dig with a sturdy knife it wouldn't be good for it. A small trowel or hori-type knife would certainly be a plausible thing to find in Middle-earth, but would a traveler carry such a thing?

Logistics of construction aside, the hole worked...pretty amazingly in practice. I've heard some people advocate for filling the 'fire' side of the pit with fuel completely before ignition, then lighting it from the top. The idea is that having the flame at the top of the fuel stack will reduce smoke by fully combusting it as it exits, while the draft of convection will draw the fire downward through the fuel. This seems like a sound enough concept for those wary of foes in the wilderness...but I was just practicing so I built my fire in a more usual way, igniting at the bottom and adding fuel above.

The fire did seem to burn far more reliably than one built in the open. When fuel was added, the flames were quick to light and burned strongly until the fuel was reduced to coals. It was at this point that the real benefit for ranger trekking came to light, by my estimation.

With nothing but hot coals in the hole, being supercharged by convection and well-contained, I was put in mind of the Japanese kotatsu table. These days they're electric, but in the past they were heated by a small firebox filled with charcoal set into the floor. I moved forward and sat over the hole, with my cloak tented around my torso.

Oh. My. It was warm in a way that seemed almost magical. What could be warmer than a campfire inside your cloak? With my legs on either side of the hole, the plume of heat was coming up right between my femoral arteries. My feet, quite damp and chilled from dewy grass, suddenly felt very warm despite not even being under the cloak as the hot blood suffused my toes. My chest and arms were likewise warmed, while the cloak kept the plume of hot exhaust from stinging my eyes or throat, as I let it vent out the side. For anyone who tries this, do remember that carbon monoxide is a byproduct of which to be wary, though the ready supply of oxygen in this situation means that more complete combustion will likely minimize that hazard.

Pros:
Astoundingly comfortable when burned to coals and used in conjunction with a cloak
Much more discreet than a fire in the open
More complete combustion of fuel
Easy to conceal once ready to move on (from orcs or Leave-No-Trace sticklers)
Probably QUITE good to cook over

Cons:
Difficult to construct without dedicated tools
Until burnt down and ready to sit over, it seems less warm to sit beside.
Heat output diminished rather quickly as the coals burned away

If one had the time to build up a lot of coals in the hole and/or a supply of charcoal (Like an old campfire) I suspect that this or a similar method could be used to keep warm for a longer period.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Iodo » Mon Jan 27, 2020 5:59 pm

I'd never heard of this before and it sounds like such a good idea that I want to try it, I'm guessing you used a modern camp shovel to dig the holes and tunnel, maybe a period equivalent exists somewhere?
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Mon Jan 27, 2020 8:17 pm

Iodo wrote:I'm guessing you used a modern camp shovel to dig the holes and tunnel, maybe a period equivalent exists somewhere?


A small hand tool for digging has to be one of the oldest types of tool, right? I don't know what construction techniques might've been used in medieval Europe, let alone Middle-earth, but the hori knife I used to dig this could almost pass for a tool of that vintage. One with a less obviously modern blade could likely be had without much trouble, too.

Would a wanderer carry such a thing? Perhaps if it were sufficiently multi-purpose, or if they dug a lot. The blade is not very sharp--and if sharpened, would soon be blunted by digging. However, it seems like one could find use for an edge that's not too keen. This hori looks to have only one edge that's sharp; I could definitely see using this to baton wood, meaning it could potentially replace my current big knife. This one, like most others I've seen, has one serrated edge, which would make it kind of useless for batoning but probably passable at gathering grasses and cutting green boughs?

In terms of just digging...I can think of several reasons you might want to dig a hole in the wild, over and above this fire setup. Perhaps this summer I'll try to harvest some tubers from the various lilies that grow in my forests. Lots of foraging could be aided by a sturdy tool for digging and rough cutting. Additionally...there's the usual reason to take a trowel camping: cat holes. While this might be less necessitated by courtesy for wanderers in more sparsely-populated settings, it could be an important precaution for a patroller who's playing cat-and-mouse with keen-nosed foes.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Peter Remling » Tue Jan 28, 2020 12:16 am

Try taking two sticks roughly 30" long and at least 2" in diameter. Whittle 1 end of each down on both sides leaving you two sticks with a flatten spatula like end.
Then make a small scoring midway around each stick. Take a thong, cord or shoelace and lash the two sticks together at the scoring mark, leaving a little slack.

You now have a small scale post holer to make the holes. Once you have the twin holes dug, take apart the post holer, break one on the sticks in half and you have a tool to connect the two holes.

Once you connected the holes and started your fire, burn the remains of your tools. Nothing wasted.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Tue Jan 28, 2020 12:23 am

I'll have to give that a try.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Elleth » Tue Jan 28, 2020 12:40 pm

SS - thank you SO much for doing this and talking about how it went!

I've heard of tricks like this and meant to give it a try forever, and to my shame have never once tried it. Thank you!

The problem of digging tools though, ugh. I so don't want to carry another thing.

If memory serves, the modern hiking community went through a bit of a tussle a few years back on "digging with your walking stick is good enough" and "no, ultra-light trowels are much better." Which is grand if you've got titanium and only need to dig a shallow cathole I suppose, but doesn't seem to help much with our end of the hobby.

Back in the day, I know it was rare for people to travel alone, and tools were spread about the party. As one man had the big cookpot and another a full-size axe, I imagine a third might have a spade.

I have seen period iron-shod wooden shovels, and have long meant to get one for fall camp at least. Perhaps a ranging party might have a smaller version of the same?

merf-ash-iron-shovel.jpg
merf-ash-iron-shovel.jpg (159.41 KiB) Viewed 2015 times

https://medievalcraft.eu/index.php?p509,shovel-type-i

That's less useful for folks travelling fast and light on their own though. I recall hearing stories of soldiers digging with bayonets, but... ugh. That sounds like a moment-of-desperation thing - or at least an era where they didn't actually expect to have to use those blades for guarding their skins with. I know I don't want to go stabbing any knife of mine into gravelly New England dirt, but I suppose one would do what one must.

I've always thought a solution in the direction of Peter's makes sense, provided one has time and is in a place where the materials are at hand.
On the other hand, if you're in a position where you're trying to hide your fire, you probably also don't want to be thwacking at wood with a hatchet for all to hear either.

So I dunno. :/

For a person alone... I'd think either an impromptu carved digging stick or (ugh) one's longknife was the go-to option.
I think we hobbyists and our toy-kits don't often appreciate how such tools are simply another consumable to those with bigger concerns than a fun jaunt in the woods.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Iodo » Tue Jan 28, 2020 4:37 pm

Just a thought but; wouldn't a small piece of broken steel plate armor, maybe a part of a shoulder pauldron or similar (the kind of thing someone might take from the body of a slain orc as a trophy) with a piece of wood riveted over one edge to make it comfortable to hold, be basically the same as a modern camp-trowel :?: I know it's an extra thing to carry but it wouldn't need to be big or heavy and could have an interesting story behind it
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Tue Jan 28, 2020 5:13 pm

Elleth wrote:Which is grand if you've got titanium


I had a titanium trowel at one point. Bent it. The lighter, aluminum trowel was a lot sturdier. Turns out, design matters substantially more than material.

Elleth wrote:I'd think either an impromptu carved digging stick or (ugh) one's longknife was the go-to option


While I am as horrified at the prospect as you of using an actual knife to dig, I think that hori is a pretty good option. I'd think of it less as a knife you dig with and more a trowel you can baton with. I think that that, coupled with a small, razor-sharp by-knife, could cover most of the cutting tasks my current big knife does at a roughly equivalent weight and bulk.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Greg » Wed Jan 29, 2020 2:59 am

Udwin carries a deer scapula (bone) for digging catholes and the like. Couldn't be hard to find one, given how much roadkill I see a week!
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Wed Jan 29, 2020 5:01 am

Greg wrote:Udwin carries a deer scapula (bone) for digging catholes and the like.


Great thought! I've got plenty of sheep scapulae around. a little smaller, but the perfect shape.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Thu Jan 30, 2020 12:10 am

I decided to get a little more use out of my firehole. I wanted to try cooking over it, as well as testing the kit I've assembled so far "in action."
Image
I doffed my travel gear and started a fire.
Image
I then set up a little...what would you call this? A spit? A crane?...whatever, a stick, supported by two forks, designed to span the fire hole, on which I could hang my cook pot. A very nice aspect of the firehole is the ability to easily suspend a pot over it without setting the hanging aparatus on fire, or needing a suspension system with a very wide span to straddle a standard campfire.
Image
If I were using a different fire setup, here's another use ofthat toggle rope I made.
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Once the water had reached a healthy boil, I prepared my lunch--red lentils.
Image
To the best of my knowledge, the only seasonings mentioned in the literature are sage, thyme, parsley(?) and bay. I may be stretching a little, but my preferred spice kit is basil, salt, pepper, and hot paprika. Peppers could've arrived in Middle-earth along with nicotiana, right?...well, in any case, that's what I've seasoned my lentils with (minus the basil).
Image
And here's the finished soup! It was surprisingly tasty, given that I didn't add any fat or bullion--just lentils and seasoning. You can also see my favorite bushcraft knife, which has scales made from a composite of space-age epoxy and canvas which, sadly, is cotton, and therefore not canon. If only I had sourced linen micarta...
Image

All in all, I was very pleased with this. It makes me all the more enthusiastic about the firehole setup, and it was the first time I did anything in my full gear other than just running. I learned that I don't really like wearing my chest harness while sitting around camp. That means I probably want a separate belt for my need wallet and by-knife. I also learned that I need some utensils...just a spoon would do nicely. Also, I DEFINITELY need a snapsack or similar. I really want to do stuff like this somewhere other than just my back yard.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Iodo » Thu Jan 30, 2020 7:01 am

Awesome test :P

what are the approximate sizes of the holes (diameter, depth, distance between etc..)
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Manveruon » Thu Jan 30, 2020 7:08 pm

That’s awesome! Thanks for sharing your results! Looks like your kit is really coming together too! I’ve been really enjoying these recent posts! Keep it up!

(And yes, definitely grab a snapsack if you can - they are SO handy!)
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby SierraStrider » Thu Jan 30, 2020 11:32 pm

Iodo wrote:What are the approximate sizes of the holes (diameter, depth, distance between etc..)


I would say between a foot and a foot and a half deep (30-45cm), 6-8 inches wide (15-20cm), with about the same distance between them. You can also dig in obliquely for the intake hole, rather than straight down then over. You could also probably scale everything up, but this seemed like a good size.

I took Greg's advice and made myself a little trowel out of a scapula. Might be a little small and/or delicate, depending on the soil, but we'll see.
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Re: Dakota Firehole Experiment Results

Postby Iodo » Fri Jan 31, 2020 6:58 am

SierraStrider wrote:I would say between a foot and a foot and a half deep (30-45cm), 6-8 inches wide (15-20cm), with about the same distance between them. You can also dig in obliquely for the intake hole, rather than straight down then over. You could also probably scale everything up, but this seemed like a good size.

Thanks for the info, for some reason I expected it to be wider than 6-8"
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