Raw Survival Skills – How to Light a Fire When TSHTF

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!

-Jarhead Survivor

24 comments… add one
  • GA October 24, 2012, 7:19 am

    Love the fire building articles…can never have enough! Thanks

    • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 12:46 pm

      It’s an important skill – no doubt about it.

    • Odd Questioner October 24, 2012, 6:05 pm

      I agree.

      Even as a dirty old (and might I add unrepentant?) smoker with ready access to a lighter, I think that it is a paramount skill.

      You just never know when you’re going to need warmth…

  • D'ja'c October 24, 2012, 8:28 am

    Good stuff! I generally use the small to big method, Jarhead. There is also a counter intuitive way I learned from a magazine article a while back. It is suggested for wood stoves because it makes a draft quickly and you don’t have to keep opening the stove. It also works at a campfire. Put the main fire wood fuel on the bottom in a tee pee or log cabin, lay the kindling on top of that, then place the tinder on top of everything. Apply the spark and viola. Give it a try. When I read it, it just sounded wrong but it works. Makes it a quick fire in the morning if you prepare it at night too. Kind of like filling the coffee maker or perk before you hit the sack ;-D

    • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 12:48 pm

      I’ve seen that method as well, but haven’t tried it yet. Next time I’m out I’ll give it a try and see how it works.

      • smokechecktim October 25, 2012, 11:42 am

        you’re right it sound all wrong….probably give it a try this weekend.

  • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 24, 2012, 8:45 am

    I got in the habit of carrying a small bottle of alcohol based hand cleanser in EDC (small children created that habit) and its a good fire accellerant in the woods. My fires seem to burn easier with ‘teepee’ construction, open on bottom, top ends joined at top for oxygen and wind.

    I agree with wet wood – it is more challenging by a long shot. Way down here, we don’t have the same challenges you folks do up North – building a fire in the snow must be REALLY challenging!

    • D'ja'c October 24, 2012, 9:08 am

      Challenging and REWARDING!

    • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 12:49 pm

      You know, I don’t find building a fire in the snow all that tough. Just dig a hole where you want your fire and start it up. It’s not that big a deal. Starting a fire in the rain is much more challenging.

      • j.r. guerra in s. tx. October 24, 2012, 1:38 pm

        How hard is it FINDING wood under snow fall – that was what I was thinking of. No experience with that down here – the closest we get is chipping off the freezer condensation around the walls . . . 8^)

        • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 6:39 pm

          Good question. I only go after the standing dead in the winter. If it’s under the snow it’s much harder to harvest.

        • Jarhead Survivor October 25, 2012, 8:33 am

          You gave me a good idea for a post though, j.r. This winter during one of my campouts I’ll make a short vid on how to make a fire in the snow.

  • Spook45 October 24, 2012, 10:03 am

    This is one that I am particularly adept at. I can build a fire in a mud puddle:) Tha only method I have not been real successful at and I havnt tried it in a while, is the friction method. This is a very difficult way to start a fire especially in adverse conditions. I have however, been successful in making a fire piston and making it work. One of my favorite toys is the small kit that goes in an airmans survival vest. It has small lil bundles of tinder that you fluff up sort of like cotton or steal wool, and a sparker that ignites it. IT bruns real hot and doesnt go out easily so you have time to birds nest it. I also like char clothe or char rope as it ignites very easily with just a good spark and you can build off of it. IT is also good for redundancy because it is needed in several different fire building methods. When its real wet, I use a platform model, its harder to get it to breath right but its portable and allows you a dry surface to work off of. I also like self contained systems that you carry along(I know, thats cheating a lil) my favorite is the penny stove, it produces a lot of heat fast with the ability for light discipline and when you can readily uild a good fire, its both a good starter and an alternitive. Compact, light , cheap and fuel is cheap and easy to aquire.

    • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 12:50 pm

      I agree Spook. Using friction is very difficult on a good day, much less in the rain.

      It’s always a good idea to carry some dry tinder with you too.

  • Yoda October 24, 2012, 12:36 pm

    Practical and informative Jarhead – thank you.
    “Yoda’s Little Known Tactics To Avoid Being A Target:

  • Waterboy October 24, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Nice video Jarhead. Reinforces a precept that we tend to forget: practice, practice, practice. Keep up the good work.

    • Jarhead Survivor October 24, 2012, 12:51 pm

      That’s right, Waterboy. Every time I go out in the woods I view it as a test of some kind. What can I learn? What have I forgotten? What skills can I polish while I’m out there?

      And thanks!

  • T.R. October 24, 2012, 2:21 pm

    I always carry a small pocket size plastic squeeze bottle That I put Ronsonol lighter fluid in . I always liked the smell of zippo lighters , its the same stuff.

  • Leon October 25, 2012, 11:02 am

    I’d substitute cotton balls for dryer lint. Here’s why: http://www.survivalcommonsense.com/lint-firestarterfeed/
    It’s a lot harder to start a fire in the rain than in deep snow!

  • smokechecktim October 25, 2012, 11:45 am

    In addition to firesteel, lighters and matches in an altoid can, I also carry a 10 minute highway flare wrapped in saran wrap. You can usually get even wet wood to start.

  • Watchdog October 26, 2012, 3:00 am

    Greetings Jarhead,

    Funny that you should decide to run a post on fire starting 101 today. I’ve just got home from a practice session of my own! Every now and then I get this incredible urge to start a fire. No, I’m not a pyro. Lol. But it is a skill that needs to be honed on a regular basis especially under various conditions.

    This evening, my killer dog Tiki (actually a chicken sh*t hound) and I set off into the woods to test my skills. It has rained on and off for a few days here in Southern Ontario so I decided to use strips of birch bark for initial kindling. My first choice for ignition is the fool proof cottonball/petrolium jelly/firesteel method. After carefully seeking out small dry twigs from the lower branches of evergreen trees and scrapes of dry bark I had a fire going in about four or five minutes.

    This method is essential if you need to start a fire under snowy conditions ( normal up here in winter). Usually no fuel found under snow will ignite easily. You must secure fuel above the snow level for faster ignition (see method above). First clear the snow away until you reach frozen ground if possible. Then lay down a bed of
    foot long sticks as a base. (This is an important stage to ensure that your burning kindling doesn’t become wet from the melting snow). Then proceed as you would when starting a fire on dry ground. If high enough , the wall of snow around your fire pit will act as a wind break. If you have tin foil in your kit, place the foil against the opposit wall of the pit. This will reflect more heat from the fire back to you.

    Winter camping/survival can be challenging but if you know what you’re doing it can be very satisfying.

    Hope this helps.

    • D'ja'c October 27, 2012, 8:05 am

      Always keep the tin foil handy. Never know when you might need a hat {:-D

  • Jason October 27, 2012, 11:27 am

    Jarhead, I really like these videos you make – it takes things from theory to practical application. Also, taking the time to do it is very cool of you as it takes a lot of your time. Thank you very, very much – they are really helpful.

  • Joe (PreppingToSurvive) October 29, 2012, 3:09 pm

    Couldn’t agree more, Jarhead. Being able to start a fire in most any condition ranks highly on skills to develop.



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