Fire building is an irreplaceable skill for a woodsman, and it can be one of the simplest yet most challenging activities if conditions are less than ideal. We can learn the finer points of building a fire in poor conditions by working with mentors, watching someone else do it, or reading about it.
One short story, “To Build a Fire,” by Jack London, contains extensive information on how to build a fire when your life depends on it. Articles like this one here can help you build your knowledge and skill base, too.
However, I have to remind you that you always have to challenge what you read and learn out in the field. Building a fire is a skill that requires hours upon hours of experience in the field while constantly challenging yourself. Sure, it would be easy to pull out your Bic lighter and ignite the tinder you managed to find lying around, but things may not always work as planned.
Three essentials of building a fire
Every fire you build requires three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. You need heat to start it, fuel to burn, and oxygen to feed the flame. If even one of these elements is missing, you won’t achieve fire, despite tireless efforts.
The heat or flame can stem from various sources. You can get a flame from an existing fire, a match, or a lighter. A spark can be obtained using a flint and a steel striker, a knife, a ferrocerium rod, or the sparking wheel of a lighter.
Fuel is any organic material, normally dry wood, that you can find outdoors. If you need to make a fire in an urban environment, it will be more difficult, but there will usually be plenty of wood furniture, construction materials, or packing/shipping materials available.
In a pinch, you just might have to break something apart to burn it, but the plus is that it will generally be dry enough to burn easily.
Oxygen isn’t a worry as it’s all around us. You must, however, make sure that air can easily get to the burning fire. There must be an open path to allow sufficient draft to get oxygen to the flame. Without adequate oxygen, the flame will weaken and eventually die out.
Types of Fuel
You’ll need three different kinds of fuel: tinder, kindling, and fuel pieces.
Tinder is the smallest in size yet the most important. Tinder catches the spark or flame and instigates the burning process. Tinder must be thin and very dry with lots of surface area to catch a spark or flame. Look for organic material that’s about as wide as pencil lead.
Cattails or brushes that can be broken apart work well. Tinder pieces should be approximately 6 inches long. Collect enough to fill both hands, a bundle about 3-4 inches in diameter.
Kindling is what grows the smoldering and burning tinder into an actual fire.
Kindling should be about the size of your fingers, starting with your little finger and moving up to thumb width. For length, you want it to stretch from your elbow to your fingertips. Collect a generous armload, about 18-24 inches in diameter.
The fuel-sized pieces are what build a fire and produce substantial heat. These also let the fire burn without constantly adding more kindling. Look for limbs that are about as big around as your wrist. You want the pieces to be about the same length as your kindling or up to 6 inches longer. Collect a knee-high pile of this wood.
When I taught my nephews how to make a fire for the first time, I showed them the trick of using dead branches from a dead fallen tree. Working from the end of the branch back towards the trunk, you’ll find:
- Tinder-sized twigs at the very end of each branch;
- Kindling-sized branches along the main branch or as growths off of the main branch;
- Small- to medium-sized fuel pieces as you get closer to where the trunk is or was;
- and larger-sized pieces to get the fire really going hot as you get to the trunk.
Along each branch, you can find everything you need to build your fire. You might need to use a few branches to get enough of each size, though.
Fuels for building a fire
Understand that you don’t have to restrict your combustibles gathering to pieces of wood. Many types of fibrous organic materials can be used to start or stoke a fire. The fluffy tops of cattail stalks, found in marshes or along stream and river banks, burn well when dry.
Chaga, also called tinder fungus, is a chunky black mushroom that’s highly flammable. It comes in various levels of quality, with the best being yellow to orange to brown in color on the inside. You can find it in cooler northern forests, often on birch trees. It is a parasite and can often be found where a tree was injured.
Once lit by a spark or flame, it will smolder for hours and can be used to transport an ember if you need to change your location and don’t want to build another fire from scratch. If you can produce an open flame, like with a match or lighter, you can hold the chaga to the flame, and it will start to burn. If you can only produce a spark, you can scrape the chaga to produce a powder to which you can direct a spark, causing it to burn.
Cow patties (you know what I am talking about) are dried organic materials that are great for starting and fueling a fire. In environments where there are few trees, such as in the mountains above treeline or on the prairie, native peoples have used these little bricks of organic material for centuries as a wood substitute for their fires.
Pine tar or other conifer resins won’t help you to start a fire as tinder will, but you can use it to fuel an existing fire. Once lit, it will burn hot for a long time.
Collect the sap on a sharp stick, then mix it together with pine needles, cattail fluff, and the inner bark of a dead conifer to make an excellent tinder ball. It will light with just a spark and burn hot and long. Once started, you can add hardened resin nodes to the fire to help it burn even hotter and longer.
Practice makes perfect
Experience is the best teacher, so don’t just read or watch videos about starting and maintaining a fire, get out and do it. This is how you learn the finer points of what truly dry wood sounds and feels like, how different types of wood burn, and where you can consistently find dry wood in your area.
Practice your fire-building skills every time you go outdoors: on a hike, at a picnic, when camping, or any time you need fire. Doing so keeps your skills sharp and helps you learn how to build a fire in different situations.
Try new and different things, too. For example, learn how to make different fire lays and determine their benefits and downfalls.
For example, trench or long fires are good for putting heat into a shelter. A log cabin-fire lay will burn well for a long time. A teepee-fire lay—often learned before the others—is easy to make.
A trapper’s fire, with the fire built in between two thick logs, is great for cooking since you can achieve a nice bed of coals, and the thick logs give you a platform for your pots and pans.
How about if you need to build a fire in damp places? In that case, you will need to build a fire on a platform, which will probably be built from available wood you find in your area. And to prevent that wood from burning, you will need to have a protective base layer. Dusting sand or dirt will prevent the fire from reaching the platform.
You can build all sorts of campfire setups, and it pays off experimenting with each of these designs.
Having some basic tools will help to build a fire and will make your job a lot easier. A strong fixed-blade knife for making fuzz sticks and batoning big pieces into smaller pieces. A hatchet or tomahawk for chopping small- to medium-sized branches to length or splitting them to reach the dry interior wood. And a saw for cutting larger branches and pieces of wood into usable sizes that you can then process further.
Finally, practice with your tools: saw, hatchet, and fixed-blade knife. Skills like making a feather stick for tinder and splitting wood with a sheath knife take some time to develop and continued practice to maintain.
Keep in mind that building a fire isn’t rocket science, but it does require some skill. As long as you have your three essential components of heat, oxygen, and fuel, you can make fire. Practice until you can do it in any condition, and take the time and effort to learn about different types of fire lays and where to find dry fuel in a variety of weather conditions. It could save your life one day.