How To Start A Fire (Extensive Guide)

One of the most important and difficult survival techniques is starting a fire.  Learning how to start a fire in the wild helps you cook food, purify water, keep predators and insects at bay, and maintain body temperature.

Fire is also great for boosting morale.  There is nothing I enjoy more than sitting around a roaring fire after a long day of tromping through the woods.

Do you know what materials to gather, how much of each you need, and how to use them?  Do you know how to get the fire started and keep it going? Let’s discuss exactly what you need to know to accomplish all of these things.

Fire-starting Principles

The basic principle behind starting a fire is simple.  Any successful fire needs the proper fuel, an ignition source, and a good supply of oxygen.  However, getting the right balance of these items can be difficult.

Ignition Source

The most common ignition sources are matches and lighters.  In normal conditions these are the easiest options, but in wet or cold conditions they lose their effectiveness.  They are also a temporary solution as you will eventually run out of matches or fuel.

You can start a fire using the sparks from a ferro rod, the heat from a lens, or the friction from rubbing two sticks together.  Friction fire-starters include the bow drill, hand drill, fire plough and pump drill.  You can get a flame out of chemical reactions and electricity, or you can create an ember using air pressure.

All of these ignitions sources have pros and cons.  Some only work in certain conditions, some require more skill, and some are only good for a certain number of fires.  My suggestion is to have multiple options available.

You can supplement these ignition sources with accelerants such as gasoline, lighter fluid, or alcohol.  You can also aide the fire-starting process with items designed to catch a spark such as char cloth, fire cubes, or cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly.

Tinder

Tinder is in many ways the most important of any supplies you will gather.  It needs to be bone dry and have a great deal of surface area.  It’s what I like to call the ‘fluffy stuff’ such as dried grass, dead leaves, or the seed pod of cattails.

There are also materials such as birch bark and pine resin that will burn even when wet.  If possible, you want to mold your tinder into the shape of a bird’s nest so it can catch the spark or ember and hold it in place.

Kindling

Kindling is going to be sticks that are too thick to start on its own, but thick enough to burn for a while once you get it going. Pencil thickness is a good size to shoot for, and you need a bundle several inches across.

Fuel Wood

This is the big stuff and can range anywhere from one to six inches thick.  Smaller fuel will catch quicker, but larger logs will stay lit longer. I suggest a pile about knee high.  It will surprise you have fast the wood goes.

Other Considerations

There are other variables that affect your ability to get a fire going and keep it burning safely.  Strong winds can make it more difficult to start the fire and can also make it unsafe.  Try to find a site for your fire that is partially protected from wind.

Wet weather is a challenge, but you can find dry materials by splitting open logs to get to the dry inner wood or pulling sticks from the interior of evergreen trees. You can also pull leaves and other debris from a cave or rock overhang.  Lay down dry materials and build your fire on top.

Cold weather can affect your fire as well.  When wood burns it is actually releasing a gas that is flammable.  Cold weather restricts that process, plus it’s hard to start a fire when your hands are numb.

Properly starting a fire can be frustrating and time consuming. The best advice I can give is to practice, practice, practice.

Pro-tip: Be sure to leave yourself plenty of time.  I recall times I lit a fire in seconds and times I tried for several hours and gave up. 

How to Build and Start a Fire

There are several ways to build a roaring fire, but for this section I will go through step by step instructions on how to build a teepee fire.  This is the design that is the most widely used.

Step 1 – Gather materials.  You need to have all of your tinder, kindling, and fuel wood gathered before you get started.

Step 2 – Find a site.  Ideally you want to work on flat ground.  Try to get out of the wind, and make sure all flammable materials are cleared away.  You may want to dig a pit or make a ring of rocks to keep the fire contained.

Step 3 – Arrange your materials.  The structure of your fire needs to allow plenty of air into your fire.  Lean small sticks against each other to form a teepee shape.  Gradually increase the girth of the sticks you arrange and leave a small gap in which you can put your tinder bundle.

Step 4 – Light your tinder bundle. Use whatever ignition source you have to get it lit.  If you are working with a spark or ember, gently place it in the center of the nest and lightly blow on it to supply oxygen.

Step 5 – Get your kindling lit.  Carefully place your lit tinder bundle inside your teepee.  You may need to continue blowing on the fire to increase the size of the flames.

Step 6 – Continue adding wood.

Pro-tip: Be careful with this last step.  If you go too big too fast with the wood you add, it will put out the fire.  Also, think about how much larger wood you will need and double it.  Most people underestimate how much they need to get through the night..

If you follow these steps, you should be able to start your fire and keep it going as long as you like.

Fire-starting Without Matches

If you find yourself in need of fire and do not have any matches or a lighter, you can use friction fire, striking, lenses, chemical, electrical, and air pressure to start a fire.

Friction fire rubs sticks together causing sawdust to build up and ignite.  The two keys to this process are finding dry wood and finding the right type of wood.

Striking tools would include ferro rods, flint and steel, and even banging two rocks together. Striking a ferro rod with high carbon steel creates sparks.

Lenses catch sunlight and focus it on a specific point to create heat.  Pro-tip: You can also create a lens using ice, water, or the bottom of an aluminum can. Don’t bother trying on a cloudy day.

Potassium Permanganate can be added to glycerin or you can add brake fluid and chlorine to get a flame.

Electrical fires heat a filament by passing a current through it, most commonly using a battery and steel wool.

Pro-tip: You can also stretch a metallic gum wrapper across the poles. The current should produce a small flame within seconds.

A piston starter will light a piece of tinder using the air pressure created by slamming the piston down.

As you can see, there are dozens of ways to get a fire going if you do not have matches with you.  In most cases you will not get it right the first time, so take the time to learn and practice these methods.

Dealing with Wet Conditions

I recall a situation last winter where it had recently rained and we had a cold snap.  We expected sub-zero temperatures, and a fire was not optional.  I only gave myself an hour of daylight to get it done, and it did not happen. I was forced to hike to safety in the dark.

Starting fire in wet conditions is the most frustrating survival situation I have dealt with.  However, there are some tips and tricks I have learned that help.

First, find the driest wood you can.

Pro-tip: Look for dead branches in trees and peel off the bark. It contains most of the moisture. Split open logs and just use the dry interior wood.

Dry tinder is the most important ingredient.  If you can find a bird’s nest, cattails, or debris that has blown into a cave then you are in business. You can also normally find dry cloth on the interior of your clothing such as pockets or draw strings.

Accelerants are always a good idea in wet conditions.  Gasoline, alcohol, or lighter fluid helps.  There are also flammable chemicals in birch bark and pine sap that will light when wet.

If the only tinder you can find is wet, wring it out and use a combination of heat, air, and friction to dry it.  You can blow on it, wave it in the air, and rub it on your arm to accomplish

Ferro rods are the most reliable ignition sources for wet weather.  They often come with magnesium that you can shave into your tinder.

Build your fire on top of dry materials and shelter your wood from any rain that is still coming down.  Add wood slowly so it dries as you add it.  Also build a rack to dry more wood over your fire.

If you can follow these tips and get your fire going, typically you will be able to keep it going from that point.  Take your time and be careful with each step and you will succeed.

The All-night Fire

Many times you will need your fire to stay lit until morning.  Maybe it is cold and you need it for warmth.  Perhaps you are afraid that you will not be able to light it again if it goes out. Perhaps you are limited on wood and want what you add to last all night.

The obvious solution is to keep adding wood all night, but that means no sleep.  If you have somebody with you, you can take shifts.  This is still not an ideal strategy.

These are some approaches you can take to keep the fire going all night.

The upside down fire puts your large logs next to each other on the bottom.  Then add layers of wood decreasing in thickness until you have six layers.  Sand or dirt fills in the gaps limiting oxygen.  Then a teepee is built on top, and it will burn slowly from the top down.

The self-feeding fire automatically feeds wood to your fire.  Use poles to build two ramps facing each other to form a ‘V’.  Stack one layer of logs going up each ramp.  Build a small teepee on the two bottom logs. As the logs burn through the next logs roll down in their place.

The two log fire burns slowly and lasts all night, but does not produce much heat.  Using stakes or nails you stabilize one large log on top of another.  Stuff the gap with tinder and kindling and light it in several places along the logs.

The key to all of these methods is to use hard wood and to focus on large logs.  If you do not remember these points, you may wake up shivering.

Fire Control and Safety

When working with fire, always make safety your biggest priority.  Careless actions can leave you with severe burns, destroy your shelter, or start a wildfire.  There are a few common sense points that will help you stay safe.

The first step when building any fire should be to make sure there is water close by.  If a fire gets out of control, you will not have time to go looking for water.

Try to avoid windy days.  A strong wind can blow embers into dry areas you weren’t even aware of.  This is how many wildfires get started.  If you can’t avoid a windy day, then at least try to find an area that is mostly sheltered from the wind.

Clear all flammable materials out of the area.  This includes dry leaves and grass, accelerants, and low hanging overhead branches.  If you do not plan to burn it, get it out of the area.

Digging a fire pit or a ring of rocks will help contain the fire.  If you are at a camp site, use the provided fire ring or grill.

If you have handled flammable liquids, wash your hand thoroughly before starting the fire. Also be aware of the type of clothing you are wearing.  Certain materials with burn up in a flash.

When you are done with your fire, be thorough about putting it out.  Douse it with water, stir the ashes with a stick, and repeat until there is no smoke or steam rising from the area.  Never leave a lit fire unattended, even if it is just coals.

If you are careful when working with fire and you treat it with respect, there is nothing to worry about.  A safe fire can be a huge asset in a survival situation, but an unsafe fire is a huge liability.

Possibly no other survival skill is quite as vital as fire-starting.  In addition to making your evening more pleasant, it can save your life in several ways.  Unfortunately, most people underestimate its difficulty. Only through practical application will you overcome the challenge and learn to provide fire in any situation.

Many people have relied on matches or lighters for most of their lives.  Please take the time to practice some of these techniques and let us know how it goes.  I would appreciate it if you would comment on the information provided and share it with your family and friends. Did you find our tutorial helpful?

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