Fuel. Oxygen. Ignition. The three things you need in order to light a fire.
There have been times when I’ve been in the woods and the ability to start a fire has turned a bad situation into a comfortable one. I’ve been starting campfires a long time now, and like anyone who’s done something for awhile, I’ve developed a favorite way of doing it. If you live in a different climate such as the desert your technique might be different from mine because you’ll have different materials to work with; however, the basic concepts remain the same.
The most important thing you can have when it comes to making a fire is… knowledge! Let’s look at the individual components that make up a fire.
For the sake of the post let’s get to the knowledge part first. When creating a fire the first thing you need is some good tinder. Tinder is anything that will light easily. This will burn very quick and you should have enough to light the larger kindling that is the next step. There are many forms of tinder available in the woods depending on where you live. Here in the northeast I usually keep my eyes out for birch bark off a paper birch tree. On top of that I’ll put some dead pine branches – the very ends of the branches make excellent fire starter. With this combination and a match I can have a fire going in seconds.
If you want to bring in some tinder with you newspaper is an excellent source. Again, there are many different types of tinder you can use, but I prefer whatever can be found in nature and that way I’m not dependent on carrying extra stuff with me.
If you’re going to use a fire steel you need to find something that will catch very quickly. Some people like charcloth, which you can make yourself. In nature I usually try to find dead grass and then rub it between my hands until it’s very coarse. Then I shape it into a “birds nest” and strike the fire steel into the depression until one of the sparks catch. Blow on it gently until you get a good flame then start adding the kindling.
This is probably the hardest phase of lighting a fire and it’s crucial that you have all your materials at hand. If you light your tinder and don’t have any kindling standing by and you go running for it, by the time you get back your tinder will probably have burned out.
Kindling is dry wood that will catch fire easily. It’s usually smaller pieces of wood or a piece of firewood that’s been chopped into very small slivers – usually about the thickness of your pinky finger. Add this slowly to the tinder. I usually use the tipi technique, but there are different ways out there. Basically you have your tinder blazing underneath and on top of that you put your kindling in a tipi shape. This will cause the kindling to start burning and once you have that burning nicely you can start adding in some larger sticks (fuel) in the same manner.
The next step is the regular size fuel, but again, start with the smaller stuff until you have a good solid fire going. In the beginning stages of your fire you have to pay very close attention so that it doesn’t go out. Once it’s built up a little you can relax. Once you have a good bed of coals going it’s usually a pretty safe bet that you’ve got a good fire and to put it out will take water or burying it with dirt.
It’s possible to start a fire in the rain, but it’s a lot more challenging. The first thing is to find a spot where the rain isn’t falling directly on your fire. This can be under a rock overhang or under the roots of a tree that’s been blown over or even by creating a small shelter out of your poncho. The one thing you’ll have to remember is that a fire is smoky and can drive you out with a sudden shift of the wind. Make sure your fire is small and close to the edge of your tarp. DO NOT build a fire directly underneath as it will melt your poncho.
Next, is finding some dry tinder to light the fire with. Usually at this point it’s best to use the fire starter in your kit because finding something dry enough to light from a spark is going to be a real chore. Otzi the Iceman carried tinder with him and that was 5000 years ago. If it was good enough for our ancestors it’s good enough for me.
Now you need to find some dry kindling. The way I like to do this is to use my survival saw to cut a piece of wood and then using my knife I baton (split) it open and then cut wood from the inside in very small slivers. This is where it’s important to keep the wood out of the wind and rain. Once you have enough wood split and some more standing by go ahead and light your fire starter. I like to take melted paraffin wax and dump it into an egg carton with dryer lint and then let it cool. When it’s dry I just tear a section of the crate off and throw it in my pack. You need a sustained light to start it – you can’t do it with just a fire steel, but once lit it’ll burn good and solid for three to five minutes giving you ample time to get your fire going.
The next thing to do is get out your pot and brew yourself a hot cup of coffee because you deserve it. You’re a survivor!
I made a video showing how to light a fire. This is new software for me and I’m working without a script, so it might seem a little unpolished. (But that’s how I am! Unpolished!)
Anyway, let me know what you think. It’s just a little over four minutes long and I hope to make more videos on various outdoor survival related topics and would appreciate any feedback. Suggestions like, “Aim the camera higher,” are cool. Things like, “Damn, your haircut is ugly,” are not. (I’m a former Jarhead. What do you want?)
Ok, enough stalling. Here’s the embedded vid (youtube link):