Back when I was in Scouts, everyone loved throwing wood on the campfire. There were only benefits to doing that: more flames to stare at, more warmth, and if fuel ever ran short, more chances to use bladed tools on wood. To discourage that, the Scoutmaster used to say “The white man makes a big fire and sits far; the Indian makes a small fire and sits close”. Of course, that adage is useless when the fire pit is already made, 3 feet across and with big rocks — sitting close was a physical impossibility.
I still thought of it every time I made a campfire; I was always bothered by the fact that that I had never actually been given instructions on how to make a small fire that could self-sustain.
In July of 2009, I discovered how. (I got the idea from a Jim Jarmusch film).
The secret to the tiny fire is the stones. In a normal fire pit, the stones are there to contain the logs and flames. In my fire, the stones are there to keep the wood off the ground — one stick for every pair of stones, all touching in the center of the circle. Since the sticks are so far apart outside the center of the circle, you don’t have to worry about the fire “escaping”.
As the sticks burn, you push them closer together. This fire burned steadily until I put it out after an hour or so — it was as easy as pulling the sticks apart, since the ends don’t get hot!
With a fire as small as this, there’s not much of a footprint left behind. If you build it on a flat rock, you won’t leave a trace!