My backyard fire pit, assembled from stones I found around the property, isn’t pretty exactly, more of a Neanderthal DIY aesthetic, but it’s sure helped keep my family and I sane this year. In the lazy evenings of summer, the kids roasted marshmallows on long sticks around it. It perfumed autumn’s crisp days with the smell of birch smoke, and now, crucially, instead of us just sitting inside cooped up doomscrolling, we can spend time outdoors, occasionally even in the company of friends and neighbours, safely and warmly.
In the time of COVID-19, the humble fire pit has gone from cozy amenity to something resembling a lifeline for people across the country. Calgary’s Winter Fire Pits Program, a winter initiative that encourages citizens to book public fire pits in parks around the city, proved so popular when it first launched bookings that it had to be temporarily paused when the hotline became overwhelmed with requests. “It was pretty intense,” says Jenn Thompson, the city’s acting manager of Arts and Culture. “We had over 1,500 requests for our fire pits over about two weeks.” Bookings are open again and the city is in the process of adding 70 more bookable fire pits to the 33 it already offers.
Thompson and her colleagues worked closely with Alberta Health Services and city council in fashioning the program: “They were adamant about the fact that getting people outside is the best medicine, from a mental health perspective, right now,” she says.
Businesses are also finding access to fire pits a major draw. “Our fire pits have been a major source of outdoor warmth and enjoyment for both our guests and our staff this year,” Jennifer Houghton, Langdon Hall Country House Hotel and Spa’s gallery director says. Prior to this most recent lockdown, the Ontario hotel doubled the number of fire pits around its 75-acre property and transformed the previously named Summer House, basically an open-air pavilion, into a Winter House by creating several seating areas around propane-fired tables. “There must be some deep, ritualistic need in all of us that has made the transition to outdoor gathering so natural and easy,” Houghton says.
Indeed, so strong was the need to congregate around fire this year that, like flour and toilet paper before it, fire pits and outdoor heaters of all kinds were nearly impossible to come by in the fall. While home improvement stores have largely restocked the shelves now, those interested in the hottest, so to speak, most in-demand pits are still looking at significant wait times.
The trendy Solo Stoves, for example, are back ordered for a month. They’re built from stainless steel with a double wall design that lets air flow under the bottom of the pit and between the walls, allowing the fire to burn efficiently and with very little smoke – basically the Tesla of fire pits.
Acquiring one of the ultimate statement pits, however, is even more complex. Created by Swiss sculptor Andreas Reichlin and shipped directly from the factory in Küssnacht, the elegant, handmade Feuerring fire bowls blur the line between fire pit and artwork. Resembling inverted UFOs, and ranging in price from $5,000 to $15,000, the smallest versions weigh 100 kilograms and are considered “portable,” while the massive Tulip 80 model is a whopping 250 kg and features a wide edge that also doubles as a cooking surface.
Finding a place to light your colossal Feuerring or sleek Solo is the next challenge for most city-dwelling Canadians. While wood-burning fire pits and open-air burns are illegal in most urban centers, TSAA-certified propane or natural-gas fired pits are generally fine to use. Vancouver-based DreamCast Design and Production hand-builds an array of stylish, natural-gas or propane-fuelled fire bowls, fire pits and one-off custom projects. Some models, such as their Phantom 72 with its linear flame, can produce up to 250,000 BTUs.
If that’s still not enough to keep you toasty, San Francisco based fabrication studio Galanter & Jones makes heated outdoor furniture that’s as stylish as it is warm. Sitting in one of their chairs, formed from a smooth, cast stone surface, is described as being like relaxing in a Jacuzzi, just without the water. Prices range from around $1,100 for their Apollo armchair to $10,000 for a four-person lounger.
True fire-pit fashionistas eschew heated furniture and find warmth in their garments. Forget flashy Moncler and Canada Goose parkas, this season’s freshest look is the wearable sleeping bag. Gucci’s collaboration with The North Face includes sleeping bag skirts, overalls and a full suit, bringing the look real couture bona fides. Resembling a sort of padded, puffy Slanket, some, like those offered by Sportneer and Poler, only have zippered openings for your feet and arms to stick out of while more involved models, like the Selk’bag Nomad, are fully articulated with built-in pants and sleeves for maximum mobility.
Maybe the best thing about staying warm outside around a fire this winter is, whether you’re in a haute sleeping bag or last year’s parka and sitting by a sculptural Swiss design pit or vaguely circular pile of rocks, the fire pit doesn’t discriminate.