An Ultralight Backpacking Bellows

Not too long ago, I ran across an ad for a collapsible pocket bellows. “Huh. That’s interesting.” You see, some of my scouts have a gift for turning a decent fire lay into a smoking disaster. So from time to time, I find myself sticking my face in the fire trying to blow the flames back to life. In other words, a bellows could come in handy. I wasn’t thrilled by the cost, but it gave me an idea for a much lighter and cheaper version. An hour later, I had my own bellows, and it’s a winner. Here’s how to make it.

Why a Bellows?

A good fire requires three ingredients: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Inexperienced fire builders tend to forget the oxygen. They forget that the bigger the flame, the more it needs to breathe. Scouts, in particular, tend to pile wood onto any spot where they see flame, thinking more wood equals more fire. Except that the wood deprives the area of air flow and chokes the flames out.

How do you know when a fire isn’t getting enough oxygen? Easy … look for smoke. Smoke, we tend to think, is a natural byproduct of fire. But not true. If you’re getting good, hot combustion, your fire will produce almost no smoke. This is evidenced by my favorite fire lay, the upside down fire. But that’s the topic of another article.

Back to the bellows. When a fire has turned into a disaster of wood and smoke, you need to rearrange the wood so it can breathe better. And often you need to give it a good injection of oxygen to raise the heat and get the flames going strong again. Enter the bellows. The bellows has one job: deliver a steady stream of oxygen to a specific point. Hot embers feed off of the oxygen, burn even hotter, and start combusting the wood around them. In other words, a bellows jump-starts a dying fire.

The Epiphany Outdoor Gear Pocket Bellows

The Epiphany Outdoor Gear Pocket Bellows doesn’t look anything like a traditional bellows. In fact, I immediately thought, “This is just an oversized collapsible car antenna.” You know … the antennas cars and portable radios used to have:

And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what it is. So how do you justify calling it a bellows? Well, you blow in the big end and it concentrates your breath into a very specific point. So it serves exactly the same purpose.

They have a video of the Pocket Bellows stoking some impressive fires, even with wet wood. So the concept hooked me pretty fast. Still, the price tag gave me pause, especially for a tool that might only get used every two or three outings.

My Alternative to the Epiphany Pocket Bellows

Once I realized how simple the concept was — concentrate my breath into a tiny region while keeping my face away from the fire — I had my quest. I had to find a tube that was 1) long enough to reach into the fire easily, 2) fat on one end and skinny on the other, and 3) very light. Plastic wouldn’t work because it could melt. So I had to stick with metal. Aluminum was the obvious choice. And after a few minutes of thinking, I remembered an item I’d walked past a dozen times at the store: oversized aluminum knitting needles:

A quick trip to the store followed, and 30 minutes later I was back at home with a pair of needles. These were about 13″ long and 1cm in diameter.

I cut the back end off with a tube cutter, then nipped the point off with a Dremel. A little bit of de-burring and filing gave me exactly what I wanted: a tube long enough to reach into the fire while keeping my face outside the fire ring, a highly concentrated stream of air, and a weight that barely reached 0.5 ounces.

Tips for Using the Ultralight Bellows

Once you understand the concept of a bellows, the use becomes second-nature:

  • Blow into the base of the fire (embers), not the flames
  • Don’t start using it until you actually have embers
  • Blow gently on tiny embers or you could extinguish them
  • Long, sustained blowing is more effective than bursts

How Well Does the Backpacking Bellows Work?

It works like a champ. So much so that I keep one in my backyard fire kit too. With a single steady breath, it will take a bed of dying embers and stoke them back to life. It will raise a flame that can grab onto damp wood. It will turn a smoking log into a clean, dancing flame. In short, it does everything a good bellows should do. And it hardly even exists in my pack.

Now, it won’t turn a lousy fire lay into a productive one. Physics are physics. But once I rearrange an unproductive fire lay, this little champ will whip the flames back to life in one breath.

I call that $2 well spent.