Being able to start a fire is a critical survival skill to know in the wilderness. Fire can warm you up and prevent the onset of hypothermia. Fire can cook food. Fire can boil water, purifying it from any harmful bacteria. And fire can serve as an affective signaling method to alert rescuers to your position.
And while fire can be a life-saver, it can also be a life-threatening hazard if you’re not careful. A windy day and a dry environment can spread fire quickly endangering yourself, wildlife, and others. Don’t be hasty in setting a signal fire. Take the time to assess your need for the fire and plan its location to safely suit your needs.
There are three basic ingredients that you’ll need to start a fire: heat, oxygen, & fuel.
- Heat: It’s always a good idea to have a pack of matches in a waterproof container for your survival kit. It’s also good to have a backup plan such as a flint or magnifying glass…just in case. See below for more information on good fire-starting tools.
- Oxygen: The best way to keep a nice source of oxygen for your fire is through the use of dry tinder and wood. The pores of wet or moist wood are filled with water, whereas the dry wood has pockets of air. This is why dry material burns better than wet material. You’ll also want to have a fire pit that gets enough air flow, but not so much (wind) that you can’t even light a match. Heat reflector walls are useful for directing heat and cutting down on wind (see below).
- Fuel: The hardest part of starting a fire is often getting that first spark to ignite your kindling. Dry timber is the key to being able to start a fire on the first match! Once the timber is ignited, the small kindling will have a better chance of following suit. And the kindling will be able to ignite the larger sticks and logs. Try to find some dry straw, grass, leaves, sawdust, or even pocket lint as your timber. Remember: It all starts with dry timber!
The Campfire Cone
Before you rush to start a fire, gather the materials that you’ll need to build it. A ring of rocks is helpful to keep the heat in and prevent the surrounding brush from catching fire. In addition to the tinder described above, make a small pile of kindling, and a larger pile of dry branches and logs. The kindling should be smaller in diameter than a pencil and one to two feet long. Start by stacking the kindling to make a teepee or cone shape. Inside of the cone, place your bed of timbers. For the second layer of the cone, place the larger sticks – but just a few to start off with. Light the match inside of the cone and place on your bed of timbers. Leave enough space between the kindling for some air flow.
As the kindling catches fire and ignites the larger sticks, gradually add larger logs keep the fire going. A good fire for cooking and boiling is when the coals are red hot and the flames are low. Try to keep your fire from getting high, leaping flames, as this could pose more of a threat than help. If you want to start a fire for signaling purposes, keep the fire cone shape going and monitor the size of the fire to keep it under control.
A Reflective Wall
If you are in a cold climate and want to direct the fire’s heat to your bed, a small reflective wall can be very useful. If wood is plentiful, using vertical stakes and stack long branches as cross members to direct the heat towards your bunk. If wood is scarce, preserve it for the fire’s fuel and use rocks. You can use this wall as a wind break, also, but be careful when lying down on the windward side of the fire as smoke inhalation can be extremely dangerous.
Tools to Start a Fire
- Matches: Very effective, if dry. Take the time to prepare your fire and timber bed, so that one match = ignition!
- Lighter: This can also be extremely handy in a survival situation, but gets far less handy when it runs out of fuel?! Remember to conserve fuel when you light the fire and don’t discard it after it runs out of fuel. The flint and steel lighting wheel can still produce sparks to start a fire!
- Flint: A small flint can come in handy if your matches are wet or expended. Using a knife or other piece of steel, strike the flint in the direction of the grass, straw, or other timbers. The small sparks should ignite dry material. If you don’t have a flint, try a hard stone.
- Convex Lens: A magnifying glass, watch lens, camera lens, binocular eyepiece, or a compass sight lens can all be used to light a fire. Using the lens, focus the sun’s rays onto your timber pile. This can be tedious and tricky. Try to keep your hand still and make the sun’s reflection as small or as close to a dot as you can. Also, try to use dark-colored timber such as dry leaves. The lighter timber will reflect the heat and take longer to ignite.
- The Bow & Drill:
This should be a last resort as a tool to start a fire, as it’s slow, very tedious, and it will take precious mental and physical energy to accomplish. But all that being said, if you need to start a fire and you don’t have any of the tools above…there is another way. There’s no magic involved with this method…it’s just friction. Grab a show-lace or strand of cloth and look for a curved piece of wood (bow), a straight piece of wood (drill) and flat piece of softwood (surface), and a block-sized piece of wood (cap). Tie the shoelace to your bow as pictured below with enough slack to loop your drill in the middle. Carve a notch in your cap for the top of the drill and a notch in the softwood for the end of the drill. Taper the end of the drill to fit nicely into the soft wood. Place your timbers around the drill and have your dry kindling ready. Place a firm amount of pressure downward on the cap and using a sawing motion, over the bow back & forth. As the end of the drill smokes, guide the timbers to the heat and gently ventilate (blow lightly). This will take several iterations and several minutes! Be patient and persistent.
Knowing multiple ways to start a fire in the woods can be helpful, as you never know what situation you might be in to survive. If you’re looking for something to entertain your scouts or campers, try some of the methods above at your next outdoor outing or campout. The practice will build confidence and proficiency and it may just be a lesson that they’ll remember for life!