Best Ways to Start Fire
In a survival situation, fire is one of your greatest tools. I will never forget my very first survival challenge and the role that fire played. It was late September and the days were unseasonably warm. I found a shady spot to build my shelter and started construction. There were storms in the forecast for that first night, so I knew I had to build a waterproof roof. This would be more difficult than I expected. It took me nearly all day to get the shelter assembled before I could think about fire. I was exhausted and my hands were cramping from the tedious work of thatching the roof.
As the sun fell behind the hills, I got more and more frustrated. I had gathered some tinder and kindling, but it was not ideal. My only fire starter for this challenge was a ferro rod, and the dry grasses I gathered were not taking a spark. It was now pitch black and the only source of light was the glow of the sparks as I struck the ferro rod. Temperatures would be dropping into the 40’s and I knew I would be in trouble if I got wet with no fire. At this point, I was losing my ferro rod every time I set it down to work with the tinder.
Finally, out of desperation I ripped off the sleeve of my cotton t-shirt. I am highly allergic to poison ivy and had brought an alcohol-based medicine for treating the rash if I was exposed. I put several drops of the medicine on the cloth and shot sparks off of my ferro rod onto the fabric. It instantly flared up, and I was able to start adding natural materials to the fire. I was so grateful that I had remembered the medicine in my bag.
That night we had 30mph winds blowing the rain in sideways. Despite a decent shelter, I was soaked and stayed by the fire all night. At one point, the flames died down as I slept near the coals. I woke up to the sounds of coyotes moving in on my camp, so I went off to get more fire wood. It seemed like I never had enough wood to keep the fire going consistently. I learned several lessons about fire on that trip, and I still remember those lessons every time I go into the wilderness.
Why is Fire Important?
Fire is one of the most diverse commodities one can have in the wild. The obvious use is to keep warm in cold or wet weather. It is commonly said that exposure to the elements can kill you in three hours making it the fastest way to die in the wild. Protection from exposure can be achieved though shelter or warm clothing, but fire is the only way that provides you with an independent heat source. You can use it to dry your wet clothes, or you can heat rocks or water bottles and bring them into your shelter with you. I have even seen people bury the coals from their fire and sleep on top. The heat from the coals radiates up through the ground giving you warmth all night.
Fire can provide so much more than just warmth. If you do not have a flashlight, fire is likely your only source of light. We do not think about the importance of this in our daily lives. All we have to do is flip a light switch, but in the wild it is hard to function without light. Dehydration is the second fastest way to die in the wild, and most fresh water is contaminated in some way until it is purified. Boiling water over a fire kills most of the harmful pathogens that would normally make you sick.
As I learned from our coyotes, fire will keep predators away from your camp. It also deters the mosquitoes that most certainly would have eaten me alive. The smoke from your fire can be used to preserve meat or fish, and can be used in place of water for bathing and killing bacteria. The flames or coals can be used to cook your food making it safe to eat.
However, the most important benefit of building a fire is the boost in morale it provides. Even in warm climates where a fire might not be needed, it is still a good idea. At the end of the day, there is no greater sense of accomplishment than sitting by your fire knowing that it was your creation.
Prepping your Fire
One of the greatest mistakes people make when building a fire is not having plenty of materials gathered in advance. It is quite common to get your tinder bundle lit but then not have enough kindling to keep it going. Then you have to leave your fire to go look for kindling, and it could very likely go out by the time you get back.
When gathering your supplies, always start with a good tinder bundle. This needs to be fine, super dry materials that will preferably take a spark. For natural materials you can use dry grass, cattail fluff, or feathers. If you can find a bird’s nest, it is almost always an ideal tinder bundle. Bringing tinder from home may give you a powerful advantage. You can bring dryer lint or you can make char cloth to help get your fire going. There are also fire assistance products such as Wetfire that you can use to get a fire started in any conditions. All together your tinder bundle should be big enough to fit both hands around it.
Kindling is the medium thickness sticks that will be used to keep the flames going long enough to light larger fuel. These sticks can be anywhere from pencil thickness to the thickness of your thumb. Ideally, you want to find these dead branches still attached to the tree. If they are on the ground, they are more likely to soak up moisture making them harder to light. You generally want to gather enough kindling to wrap both arms around the bundle.
Larger fuel is your last step and can be difficult to find. Often these larger pieces have fallen on the ground, so you may have to split them open to get to the dry wood in the center. You can also strip off the bark to eliminate some of the moisture. As was with the kindling, finding larger fuel up off the ground is your best bet. You want a stack of thick wood that is roughly knee high.
As a general rule you should over-prepare for your fire. The one statement I hear over and over again by experienced woodsmen is to collect however much wood you think you need, and then double it. Trying to find fire wood in the middle of the night is not an ideal situation, and you do not want your fire to go out at the coldest time of night.
There are several different ways you can assemble your fire. As long as the flames get oxygen and plenty of dry wood, you should be fine. However, different designs function in different ways. The teepee design is the one most often used. You simply build a teepee frame with your kindling by leaning the sticks against one another in a circle. Leave one end open so you can place your lit tinder bundle inside. Then keep adding wood to the teepee gradually getting thicker with your pieces. Eventually your large fuel should be lit and your fire is good to go.
You can also build an upside down fire to reduce the amount of wood you have to add. To do this, start with a layer of your largest logs on the bottom. Fill in any gaps or spaces with dirt or sand. Then add a second layer of logs perpendicular to the first. You should have seven or eight layers when you are finished, with no air getting through. Then just build your teepee on top. By controlling the air, your fire will slowly burn through the layers lasting several hours. This design can be used to make a body-length fire as well. You would just need two or three teepees to get the logs evenly burning.
A self-feeding fire is actually designed to last all night. Poles are used to build two ramps facing each other creating a ‘V’ shape in the center. Smooth, round logs are placed on the ramps with two logs at the base and then the remaining logs evenly distributed on both sides. Then one or two teepees are added to the bottom tow logs so they will evenly burn through. As two logs burn through, the next two logs roll into place to keep the fire going.
A Dakota fire pit is designed to hide your flames and smoke if you are on the run. Dig two holes under a tree with thick foliage. Each hole should be about two feet deep, and they should be about six inches apart. Next, tunnel between the two holes at the base. Build a teepee fire in the bottom of one hole and it will draw air from the other hole. As the smoke rises through the foliage of the tree, it will break up the column of smoke. Your flames should stay hidden from view below the ground.
When heading into the wild, it is vital that you have several means by which to light a fire. Each fire starter has its advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to have a few choices. Here are some factors to consider when choosing a fire starter:
- Ease of use – Some fire starters are as easy to use as pressing a button, while others require a good amount of skill.
- Waterproof – Fire starters have varying degrees of waterproofing. Some will not work at all after getting wet, some will work after being dried out, and some will work even while still wet.
- Windproof – Wind is a major issue when lighting a fire in the wild. Any fire starter that works in strong wind is a major advantage.
- Number of fires – Most fire starters have a limited amount of fuel while others can keep lighting fires indefinitely. The ability to refill fuel falls into this category as well.
- Tinder versatility – While some fire starters will work with any tinder, others have to have very high quality tinder. Keep this in mind when considering your options.
- Cost – The range of costs on fire starters can range anywhere from a few cents to around $50.
These lighters are one of my favorite options, and I almost always have one in my pack. Zippos hold a windproof flame, and they do not require you to hold down a button. You can actually light a zippo and then set it down allowing you to keep your hands free. They are average in price and can be refueled with several different flammable liquids. This makes it an ideal survival tool. If it gets waterlogged, you can also dry it out and keep using it. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
The main benefit of this type of lighter is that it projects a flame out away from the lighter. This can be incredibly helpful when you are working on the ground trying to get your tinder lit. However, it must be refilled with a specific type of fuel. They are windproof, but are not waterproof. Torch lighters are average in cost. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
These lighters are very inexpensive and surprisingly reliable. Bics are so inexpensive that you can easily throw two or three of them in your pack. In college, I had a friend that would buy 50 at a time and scatter them around his apartment so he knew he would always have one. They do project their flame a bit, but they are not windproof or waterproof. They also cannot be refilled. Here is a quality example of some available for purchase:
These electric lighters have just become popular in the last few years. Most arc lighters project two electrical arcs between two electrodes. This means that the lighter is completely windproof, but is not waterproof at all. It does not require any fuel, and can be charged with a USB cord. This is great for those of us that keep battery packs with us, but not so great if you have no way to charge it. One unique aspect of this lighter is that it is not affected by elevation. Other lighters may not be functional if you are hiking up and down the Rocky Mountains. They are towards the top of our price range. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
These are basically a poor man’s Zippo. They use the same type of fuel, but you pull out a metal post with a flint and strike it like a match. The post only holds a small amount of fuel, so it will not stay lit very long. They are waterproof as the device is completely sealed once the post is screwed back in place. It is somewhat windproof and can use alternative fuels if needed. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
These are one of the most affordable options available. They are simply matches that are coated in wax so moisture does not affect them. They are not windproof and are one of the most limited options as far as the number of fires you can light. Here is a quality example of some available for purchase:
These handy little tools are a must have in my kit. Simply by running a striker or a high carbon steel blade across the rod, you will shoot sparks at your tinder bundle. Ferro rods are waterproof and windproof. They are average in cost, but will light thousands of fires before having to be replaced. It takes a little practice to get the hang of using a ferro rod, but the key is finding the right tinder. I like to bring tinder with me if I plan to use a ferro rod. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
A fire lens is an inexpensive, waterproof, and windproof option. However, they only work with bright, direct sunlight. If there are clouds or trees blocking the sunlight, you will not have high enough temperatures for ignition. It takes some practice to get the light focused on a small enough point. You also may have to try a few different types of tinder to get an ember. I like using char cloth with lenses if possible. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
Instead of gathering light through a lens and directing it on a small point, reflectors catch light using a reflective surface and focus it on a small point. The nice part about these fire starters is that there is a wire holder for your tinder. You know that tinder placed in the holder will be in an ideal spot for combustion. Again, you must have direct sunlight for this device to work. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
These devices use air compression to create an ember. The piston has a hollow chamber in the end where you place your tinder. The piston is then fed back into the chamber and slammed down until flush. Then once the piston is removed you should have a lit ember at the end that can be added to a larger tinder bundle. This device is windproof, but it is not waterproof. However, it can light thousands of fires if kept dry. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
Friction Fire Kits
While most people using friction fire kits build them out of necessity, you can also buy them. However, friction fire is one of the most difficult ways you can start a fire. It is not waterproof, and any moisture will ruin your kit. Buying a kit can be expensive, but finding wood in the wild with the right hardness can be tough. The only real benefit to this method is that you can use entirely found materials to start a fire, whereas every other method requires you to bring something from home. Here is a quality example of one available for purchase:
There are two main points that must be emphasized when selecting fire starters. The first is that more options is always better. I can honestly say that right now I have a zippo, a bic lighter, waterproof matches, a ferro rod, and a lens all in my bug out bag. That is five methods by which I can start a fire, plus I can always build a friction fire. It is always better to have more than you need versus needing more than you have.
The second point is to practice, practice, and practice more. Whichever fire starters you plan to rely upon, you should use them as often as possible. Remember that the conditions you deal with can drastically affect your ability to start a fire. Rain, cold, clouds, and wind can all change your strategy for starting a fire. The only way to learn to adapt and overcome is practice. If you have the right gear and put in the time to learn how to use it, successfully building a fire should always be a given.