Learning to Build a Fire Is the Key to Outdoor Survival

A fire is a source of warmth, a way to cook, a way to steady your soul and a way to survive. So you need to be sure that, when the time comes, you have what it takes to get a fire started.

Fire Making Survival Supplies

I have used bushcraft methods to get a fire going, but I would rather not depend upon them if I don’t have to, so on the top of the survival gear list should be some sort of fire starting aid.

There are commercially available fire starters found in many sporting goods stores or online. The ones I like are made of compressed paper impregnated with paraffin wax. They work extremely well and a small package of 15 or 20, depending upon the brand, will last you for a very long time.

One of my favorite homemade fire starters are cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly. I routinely light these with the sparks from a flint bar I carry and they will burn for around 5 minutes.

To make them put cotton balls in a zip close plastic bag, put in a bunch of petroleum jelly and then more or less work it into to the cotton. You do not need a lot of petroleum jelly to get the job done.

When you use them, pull the cotton ball apart a bit so there are thinner stands that will light up quickly.

Next you will need a way to light the fire starters and this is where matches in a waterproof container come in.

These should always be in your pack as part of the 10 essentials emergency kit, but you should also have others for everyday use. Your emergency kit is for emergencies and should only be used when they occur.

Having a lighter on hand is also a good idea, but a lighter is not a replacement for matches. So be safe and have both.

Finding Fire Wood

Perhaps the biggest mistake people make is in not having enough materials to really get the fire going, so collect a lot of wood before you even strike a match.

You need three kinds of burnable materials to get the fire started.

  • Tinder – You want thin wood, no thicker than a match stick. Dry birch bark is also great, but you will still need a supply of thin sticks for tinder. You can also use dead dry moss, an old bird’s nest or you can take a larger stick and whittle off fine pieces of wood to use.
  • In the north woods this type of material abounds when it is dry. Search the forest floor for small pieces of wood and if you find a birch tree, remove some of the dead, dry bark.
  • To find tinder when it is wet, look for low branches on trees and collect what some call “squaw wood”, the small dead twigs on the lower reaches of conifers.
  • Look for standing dead timber which will be littering the forest floor in remote areas. If it is upright the water drains off and will not wet the core of the wood.
  • Kindling – This is the middle stage used to truly getting a fire burning. Find wood ranging in size from pencil thick to the thickness of a finger. Then separate the wood in to piles based on thickness so you can add it as needed. Again, standing dead branches are a great source for this.

The final stage is just maintaining the fire and wood about 2 inches in diameter is perfect for providing a lot of heat without too big of a fire.

Building a Survival Fire

There are dozens of ways to stack the wood to start a fire from making a “teepee” of the wood to building a lattice work of sticks. Whichever way you decide to use, make sure you become an expert at starting a fire that way.

The first thing is to clear the area you are going to start your fire in of any combustibles. It is your responsibility to be safe when starting a fire, so you must take every step to be sure the fire will remain contained. And always make sure it is out when you leave and never leave a fire unattended.

If there is an existing fire pit, then use it so damage will be contained to a single area.

If you need to make a new fire pit, then remove the first few inches of soil by cutting it out in pieces that can be replaced when you are done. The reason a fire scars the earth is that the heat sterilizes the topsoil, so by moving it aside and replacing it you can help to minimize the damage.

Once you are ready, take two 1- to 2-inch thick sticks and lay them parallel to each other about 3 inches apart. Then take two or three thin sticks and put them so they form a bridge across the two larger pieces on the ground. This will give you a platform for your tinder and space underneath to put the fire starter.

Next begin building layers of the tinder alternating the direction on each layer to build a lattice work. By doing this, air will be able to get to the wood. You never want to smother the first stages of a fire. Once you have the tinder stacked an inch or two thick, you can then begin adding some of the thinnest kindling on top of this. Again, stack it with the layers going in alternating directions.

Using the Fire Starter

Now place your fire starter underneath the stack of tinder and kindling, and light it up. If you have done it correctly it will begin burning almost immediately. Feed the flames with the kindling, always working from thinnest to thickest. Once it is burning well, then you can begin to add larger pieces of fuel, but remember, you have to keep the fire under control, so do not get carried away.

Once you are done with the fire and it is cool, spread out the ashes and replace any soil you have removed. In a few months there will be no trace you were ever there.

Before you find your self in a bug out scenario, practice starting the fire near your home. This way when you need a fire, you will be all ready to go.