Build a fire. Sounds simple enough, right? We can all agree that the skill of building a fire is an important one. Whether it is to provide light and heat during a wilderness survival situation or just getting the fireplace going for a romantic evening at the house, everyone should be able to start a fire. This subject came to mind when I was looking at all the “cheater” options for getting a fire going. Modern technology makes getting a fire going entirely too easy. You can douse your firewood with lighter fluid or if that is too complicated, you can just light the paper bag containing a log made of compressed sawdust and an accelerant. Maybe we could go old school and pile up some sticks and logs then pour on some diesel fuel. Any of these methods should get a fire going, but are we cheating ourselves out of a skill that could save out lives if we are in a true survival situation and need fire to keep from freezing? I’ve been guilty of this myself too many times. I’ll want to get a fire going for any number of reasons, but I want it going now. Out comes the petroleum products and a lighter. Instant fire! When I was younger, I could put together a nice little fire with a little piece of charred cloth and a flint and steel. That’s not a skill I’ve practiced in many years, so I’m not sure if I could still do it. That is something I need to refresh on. In the meantime, it’s handy that I smoke, because I always have a Bic lighter with me. It’s part of my EDC, all day every day. Even having a lighter doesn’t mean that someone can build a good fire. It still takes skill to turn that small ignition source into a fire that can sustain itself. We’ll look at the skill of starting a fire, but this article is just as much a “Can You?” as it is a “How To.” Each of us should honestly evaluate our ability for firecraft. If you find yourself lacking, then practice now so that the skill is available if you truly need it. I know I need to improve my skills quite a bit.
I’ll cover some basics and explain how I go about starting a fire. There are as many ways to set up for building a fire as there are people. Some are no doubt better than others, so if my way conflicts with a method you already use just go with what works best for you.
The first thing I like to do is figure out where I want to build my fire. Once it’s lit, a fire is pretty difficult to pick up and move. Select an area that is safe above all considerations. Lighting fires under low hanging tree branches or on grass in the middle of a prairie are both really bad ideas. Keeping your fire from getting out of control is a major responsibility. I like to find an area close to where I need fire that is already as free from vegetation as possible. Before I do anything else, I remove anything from the site that can catch fire. I push or scrape back leaves and grass. If possible, I’ll dig a shallow hole to help contain the fire. Adding a ring of rocks can add some additional safety. Just be careful if you use rocks from a river. They can contain water that will boil and can cause the rock to explode. I thought this was a myth until I had a rock blow up rather violently. Once I’ve got my spot prepared, I start gathering my fuel for the fire.
There are three types of combustible materials used in starting a fire. They are tinder, kindling, and finally the main fuel source (usually logs). Tinder can be any material that takes a flame easily and burns rapidly. Dry grass is a favorite, but you can use any number of materials. If need be, you can take larger sticks and use a knife to shave off very thin slivers to create tinder. I figure out how much tinder I think I need, then collect about twice that amount. Next we move on to gathering up kindling. Kindling is simply small twigs and sticks. These sticks should range in size from very thin to sticks about the thickness of a finger. When I’m laying out my kindling, I sort it from smallest to largest. This makes it easy for me to grab it in appropriate order once I have a flame going. Now I start to gather larger pieces of wood to use as my main fuel source. These range from the diameter of my thumb up to as large as I can find. I lay these out the same way as my kindling. Having everything at arms length and ready to go makes starting a fire much easier.
There are several methods of laying out the materials to start the fire. Most common methods have names that are self explanatory such as the “Teepee” and the “Log Cabin”. I prefer to start out with a log cabin design then move over to a teepee once the fire is well established. With some experimentation, you will find what works best for you.
I start with a big handful of tinder and fluff it up a little to allow airflow. Once the tinder is ready, I lay it out and put some of the smallest kindling on it. When I’m first starting the fire, I don’t add anything bigger than the diameter of my pinky finger. I have larger pieces of kindling within easy reach to add as the fire starts to grow so I don’t have to move from my position.
Light It Up!
Now that everything is laid out and I have my tinder and small kindling ready, it’s time to break out the ignition source. Like I said earlier, I prefer Bic lighters, but matches work wonderfully. Fire steels also work well if you are proficient in getting a good stream of sparks from one. I try to light my tinder on two different sides as quickly as possible. Once the tinder catches, you should see the small kindling start to catch pretty soon after. As it catches, carefully place more kindling on the fire. As the new material catches, start adding the larger pieces. Within a couple of minutes you should be adding some of the largest kindling if your fire is healthy. At this point, the fire should be burning pretty well without having to constantly add material to it. Once I get to this point, I start laying pieces the diameter of my thumb and larger in that teepee design. Now it usually looks like a pretty good fire. Through the whole process, I add progressively larger pieces of wood until I’m using material from my main pile. At this point, it is easy to adjust the size of the fire normally by adding wood as it needs it.
A lot of fire safety is basic common sense. First and foremost, touching the fire is a bad idea. Don’t do that under any circumstances. It might seem obvious to us, but make sure any children around are well supervised. This is one lesson kids don’t need to learn the hard way. Also, be aware that metal is a great conductor of heat, so if you are using coat hangers or metal skewers to cook hot dogs, they will heat up. No need to turn a hot dog roast into an exercise in cattle branding.
If you cheat and decide to use an accelerant, please be careful. Vapors can be explosive and any spilled liquid can combust easily. Pour the liquid then light it rather than pouring flammable liquids on a fire that is already burning.
Control that fire! By starting a fire you assume full responsibility to control it. In most places, you even assume legal responsibility for any damage resulting from your fire. Before starting a fire, be sure you have a way to extinguish the fire. If winds start to pick up, monitor any blowing embers to make sure they can’t start another fire. When in doubt, just put it out.