One more post about starting a fire. Can you tell that I think this is an important skill to have in the wilderness? This one covers the basics of what is needed in order to successfully start your fire and keep it going.
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 fires 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 than mine because you’ll have different materials to work with; however, the basic concept remains the same.
In the video I show how to light a fire in the rain using a wax firestarter. I posted this video awhile back, but it fell in line with today’s post, so I’m reposting it for those who haven’t seen it yet.
The most important thing you can have when it comes to making a fire is… knowledge!
While it’s true that a match will go a long way toward building a fire, what happens if your matches get wet? I was hiking in the woods near my house last winter with my son (actually, I was carrying him through the snow) and decided to stop and make a quick fire. While he played in the snow I laid out the tinder, kindling and fuel and reached into my coat pocket for the matches I always keep there. I found a rock that didn’t have snow on it and struck the match and it lit, but before I could get the match down to the tinder it went out. Ouch. I then tried to light the next fifteen or twenty matches in my pocket and not one of them would light. They’d gotten a little damp and were useless. The two lessons I learned were: always keep your matches in something dry and treat every single flame as if it’s the last one you’ll have.
I didn’t have my pack with me and I was out of matches, so that was it. No fire. Now, I did have a knife and some paracord and if I was really desperate I know how to make a firebow and start a friction fire, but for me that’s exceptionally difficult on a good day. I’d be willing to bet very few people have actually made fire using this method, although this being a survivalist’s blog, some of you probably have. With my son being there with me and it not being a real survival situation I didn’t bother trying, but it was a sobering moment for me.
Now let’s talk about making a fire. First you need some kind of spark, friction, or lighter, then you need some tinder, then kindling, and finally you need your bigger fuel.
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 firestarter. With this combination and a match I can have a fire going in seconds.
If you want to bring in tinder with you newspaper is an excellent source. Again, there are many different types you can use, but I prefer to use 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 firesteel 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 firesteel into the depression until one of the sparks catch. Another favorite is cattail fluff. This catches a spark very well, but it burns very quick. 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 and smaller. 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.
Types of Wood
Softwood burns quick, hot, and fast. If there’s pine around I’ll usually start the fire with that then switch over to oak or maple if it’s available. Pine also has the tendency to snap and pop, which means if you have clothing that will burn easy (like polypro) you’ll need to be careful not to get a hot coal shot onto you or it’ll melt.
Hardwood, like oak, burns slower but leaves an excellent bed of coals for cooking. It’s also heavier and a little more difficult to saw through, but if I had a choice of one or the other I’d take hard wood for a sustained camp fire.
One last note about your wood: standing dead wood or a tree laying down across other trees and off the forest floor is probably your best shot at getting dry wood. The bark should peel of easily and leave a smooth dry surface underneath.
If you grab a tree or branch lying on the forest floor and it feels spongy or punky you might as well keep going as it won’t burn very well at all.
Starting a Fire In the Rain
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. 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.
Next, is finding some dry tinder to light the fire with. Usually at this point it’s best to use the firestarter 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, so I think if a successful bronze-age man (he was 45 when he died – old for the time) carried fire making materials it’s a good idea that we do the same.
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 firestarter. I like to take melted paraffin wax and dump it into an egg carton with dryer lint and then let it cool. (This is what I use in the video.) 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 firesteel, (actually – I did use a firesteel to light one once) but once it’s lit it’ll burn good and solid for five to ten 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!
Do you have any fire starting tips or tricks? Sound off below!