How To Build A Fire

Fire is, no doubt, on of the most satisfying and comforting signs of life and civilization that humankind has come to know. We are drawn to it much like moths are even if we don’t need the warmth. This, however, may not impress upon us the full value of fire and the desperate need to start one at times. I try to give credit to those whom I’ve gotten ideas from and this philosophical view of fire comes from reading an article by Field and Stream Magazine’s rifles editor David Petzal. A gentleman with a stoic monotone voice and, both a literary as well as practical knowledge of the outdoors, it’s no surprise that he often recommends books to his readers. The story that he mentioned in an article discussing extreme cold weather was Jack London’s To Build a Fire. I have to agree with Mr. Petzal that this short story puts cold and fire into a much more prophetic frame than most of us who have never lived or died by the strike of that last match we had with us. You can and should read this short story. I found it online Here.

Why Should I Worry About Building Fires?

Some answers seem obvious to almost all of us. To cook. To stay warm. To fend off animals. But, have we ever considered the true importance that creating a fire could have for us in a survival situation? For the man in the short story by London, it meant the difference between life and death. While it’s hard for many of us to imagine our fire starting kit having that much importance, we should consider a few things. Our bodies are designed to maintain about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If our body temperature drops just 3.6 degrees to 95, we begin to become hypothermic and experience confusion and disorientation that can further limit our ability to start a fire or find warmth. This can happen to us even in moderate climates if we find ourselves wet with sweat or water and the temperature drops down to as much as the 70’s. While food preparation, water purification, and predator defense are all good reasons to be skilled in fire building, the realization of just how fragile we can be in the wilderness when faced with even moderate cold should prompt us to take notice of the craft of fire starting. If you haven’t considered this or some of the other basic prepper needs, read my blog post here.

Fire Materials

Without the proper material to start and maintain a fire, we are likely to be left without the ability to ignite or keep a fire going. Lets look at the things we should carry or gather for fire building.

Tinder: No not the dating app!!! Tinder is the smallest and most flammable of our materials and is used to get the fire started. It is also something that we should provide for ourselves in our bug out bags and survival caches as well as being able to scavenge in the wild. Tinder can be small shreds of wood (especially heart pine), paper, animal nests, cardboard, wax, petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls, cloth, or commercial fire starters. Even magnesium flakes will ignite and burn to help start a fire. We should make sure we have all of our fire materials ready before lighting our tinder since it burns fast and is used up quickly. Click the picture below for some fire starters you can keep in your pack.

Kindling: Kindling is the next step in the fire building process. It is larger than the scraps used as tinder but not so much bigger that its hard to light. Ideally kindling should be anywhere from 1/8 to 1/2 inch diameter and can be sticks and twigs or small pieces of wood shaved or split from larger sticks or logs. If you are camping or have room in your caches, click the picture below to get some kindling that is ready to go.

Firewood: Now that the kindling has taken the flame, it’s time to arrange it to light the larger firewood. While firewood can mean split pieces of wood 3 to 5 inches thick up to whole logs, we have to remember that building a fire is a stepping process and we have to introduce only slightly larger pieces of wood each time until we have a roaring fire that can begin to feed off larger logs.

Types Of Fire Starters

All of the tinder, kindling, and wood in the world is of little use if we cant get that first spark going. This, like many preparedness skills, is a reminder of the rule that two is one and one is none. If we only have one means to start a fire, we might find we have no means to start a fire if it fails or is lost. Carrying multiple fire starters in different places ups our chances of starting a blaze whenever we need it. A lost pack is bad, but if all of our fire starters are in the bag, it can be so much worse.

Matches: The volatile tips of wooden matches have been lighting fires for over 200 years in the form of which we are familiar and as far back as the late 14th century in a much more rudimentary form. Today we have the choice of safety matches and “strike anywhere” matches. The “strike anywhere” is preferable in survival situations because it doesn’t require a specific striking surface to work. Matches are a handy part of a survival kit, but need to be kept in a dry container. You can get some made specifically for survival situation by clicking the picture below.

Friction: I think, as kids, most of the people my age have seen the use of a bow drill or a flint striker to start a fire in movies or history books about the Native American tribes. I’ll not deny my appreciation of a person’s effort who learns to rub two sticks to make fire, but its a time consuming practice and requires finding the proper woods to work with. If I have to carry fire starting tools with me, they are going to be much easier to use than a bow drill. On the other hand, friction fire starters that rely on striking a spark off of a hard surface are much easier to use. We still need dry and finely crushed tinder or something impregnated with a flammable chemical, but the sparks come much easier. I’m posting a link in the picture below to one such ferro rod style fire starter that should serve you well.

Solar: Solar fire starting is using the sun to start a fire by focusing the rays through a Fresnel lens or magnifying glass. It works well if we have a clear view of the sun, however hilly or mountainous terrain can make getting a clear view of the sun difficult even in the middle of the day. Another issue with anything solar powered is the limited angles that we have to get direct sunlight the farther we get north or south of the equator. While it’s far from the most reliable method because of the weather and terrain, it can be a handy tool for us to keep on hand. You can get one to try by clicking the picture below.

Lighters: The cigarette lighter is probably one of the most common and functional pieces of fire starting hardware we have available and is sold in cheap disposable forms such as common “Bic” lighters, Tried and true reusables such as Zippo brand lighters, and also in torch style lighters that blow a pressurized flame out of the tip. I personally carry several of the Bic lighters in my pack, truck, and pocket. They are cheap and handy, however they can freeze up in extreme cold. The Zippo style fluid lighters seem to work in more varied circumstances and can be refilled with liquid fuels that are more readily available. Again, we have to remember that having not only multiple starters, but multiple types of fire starters is key to raising our likelihood of getting an emergency fire started. Clicking the link below will take you to one of many quality survival lighters you can add to your gear.

Hybrid Match/Strikers: These are not actually matches but sort of a lighter with a wick on a handle that can be pulled out and struck. You can get one free by joining my mailing list. Just click on the banner below!

Types Of Outdoor Fires

As this blog is a learning experience for me as well as some who read it, I have to research several of the topics to make sure I am offering sound advice. In spite of the poor publicity that it has received of late, The Boy Scouts of America has long been an organization at the forefront of wilderness education. With that in mind I will draw my terms and definitions from the Boy Scout Handbook, however I will consolidate them somewhat for this post. The following photos are from The blog post I sourced them from can be found Here.

The Fireplace Fire: This fire is laid to cook over with pots or pans and is set up to support them. If you reference a Scout Handbook, you can get much more detail, but the basic layout is a fire built with rocks or logs used to cradle the fire and support the pan or pots creating somewhat of a stove eye setup. Remember that there must be openings in the supports for air to flow easily into the center where the fire and coals are burning. If we need more than one pot’s worth of cooking space, we can use parallel logs, rock stacks, or even a trench to build a fire and support numerous pots in a row.

The Log Cabin Fire: As the name indicates, the log cabin fire is prepared by cross laying logs and sticks as if we were building a log cabin that tapers into a pyramid as it grows taller. The logs or sticks on the bottom will be the largest in diameter and length and subsequent layers will decrease in size as the structure gets taller. The fire will be started with the upper levels and as it burns, coals will drop and gradually catch the lower levels and it burns down. This fire plan creates a traditional campfire for several people to gather around for warmth.

The Reflector Fire: This fire is set up to reflect heat. building a reflector fire facing a shelter opening can have a warming effect that is difficult to provide otherwise. The heat reflecting from the log wall towards the shelter can reflect against the inside walls and surround the occupants with more heat than other types of fires where the heat tends to radiate up and out instead of one direction.

The Vigil Fire: The vigil fire is designed to allow a slow continuous burn for several hours without any maintenance. By rolling two larger logs against the fire, the coals build and slowly burn into the larger logs which protect the coal bed in the center. If we don’t require the directed heat of a reflector fire to keep us warm in our shelter, we can turn almost any of our camp fires into a vigil fire before bedding down for the night and we should have a smoldering hot pile of coals left burning in the morning to restart our cooking or camp fire with.

Outdoor Fire Safety

As I write this article in the fall of 2020, The western United States, are burning with wildfires. There have been many lives lost and billions of dollars in damage. Regardless of the specific nature of each fire, we should all take them as a warning that fire can be just as dangerous to life as the absence of it was to the poor soul in London’s story. Always clear the area of plants and debris that might catch on fire and be very cautious of the wind speed and direction. Small embers float easily on a light breeze and can be deposited in a field of dead grass or dry pine straw yards away from the fire site. Whenever possible, we should also gather enough water to douse the fire or put out a small blaze that pops up from a drifting spark or ember. The final step of building a campfire is to always make sure its completely out by wetting and stirring the ashes until there is no smoke or steam remaining and then covering with dirt.

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