Knowing how to start a fire is an important and useful survival skill. With these fire building basics, you’ll be able to build a fire quickly and easily.
Fires create warmth, cook meals and purify water. With fire, you can make tools and signal for help. They provide charcoal for water filters, writing materials, and first aid applications, as well as soot for camouflage (when needed). Not to mention the sheer comfort of a crackling fire and hot meal on a cold, dark night.
Even if you’re new to bushcrafting, with these few basic fire-building skills, you can create a fire wherever and whenever you need one.
How to Start a Fire: Basic Fire Building Requirements
A fire requires three things: fuel, ignition (an ember or a spark) and air. If you’re missing any one of these, it just won’t work.
Adding Fuel to The Fire
Fuel for a wood fire usually consists of tinder, kindling, a main fuel, and any larger fuel, if needed. Depending on your location, you may need to be a little creative with your fuel sources.
If you’re in the woods, the main fuel for most survival fires, especially cooking fires, will be (obviously) wood and dry branches.
If you find yourself in more open or dry areas, you may need to expand your options.
Are you stuck in a cow pasture or out on the open range? Then you may want to try the fuel that has been feeding fires for centuries (or longer). Yes, I’m referring to cow patties. Just make sure they are fully dry.
However, before you move onto the larger fuel, start your fire with smaller pieces of tinder and kindling.
Tinder consists of light, airy materials that are fine enough to catch a spark and ignite easily. Kindling consists of slightly larger fuel, usually sticks ranging from the size of toothpicks up to around the width of a finger. These are small enough to help the fire catch and grow to a larger blaze.
If you’re making a cooking fire or short-term campfire, you should only need larger sticks around the width of a wrist or larger and split logs. These should provide enough fuel to cook dinner and relax by the fire for an hour or two before going to bed.
If you need a fire to provide heat overnight or for a semi-permanent camp, larger logs will burn for longer periods of time
Before starting a fire, collect fuel. Look for the driest fuel that you can find. If you’re in a wet or damp area, look on the underside of tree branches for dead or dry limbs or in any other sheltered locations. Generally, if a limb bends instead of breaking, it will be harder to burn.
Make sure you have enough to get the fire started and continue to burn long enough to produce a bed of hot coals. The coals need to be large enough to sustain the fire.
In other words, collect at least twice as much as is needed and then collect some more, just in case.
That way, if the fire starts but the flame goes out, you will still have enough tinder to light any remaining embers without having to stop and gather more fuel before trying again.
Clearing the Way
When choosing a spot for a fire, keep safety in mind.
- Watch for any winds. On windy days, either find an area that is sheltered from the wind or build a windbreak or reflector to keep the fire localized.
- Make sure it’s not too close to your shelter. It won’t do you any good to burn down the shelter you’ve spent time creating. Also, you don’t need any unpleasant surprises in your sleep.
- Look up. Check for any branches overhead that could catch fire.
- Clear the ground down to dirt before building a fire, but don’t use your hands. Instead, use a boot heel or a branch to clear the space for the fire. You never know what may be hiding on the ground, waiting to bite or scratch you.
- Look around you. Always know what is underneath, above and around the fire. Avoid building a fire next to a fallen tree or log. A few stray sparks may create a larger fire than you had planned.
- Watch out for tree roots as well. Tree roots can catch fire and smolder under the ground, spreading and causing fires to start in unexpected places.
- In a grassy area, to leave the area without any traces, remove the turf first and set it aside. Replace the turf before leaving (after making sure the fire is out completely.)
How to Start a Fire: Basic Fire Building
Build a Platform
Once you’ve cleared the area, build a platform for the base of the fire. This is necessary for wet or damp ground. You just want to raise the fire off the bare earth.
You can build a simple flat platform from a layer of bark, tree branches or flat rocks. If you use rocks, make sure they are non-porous and not wet. Porous or wet rocks may explode when heated, spreading the fire and causing unexpected injuries.
Ignition – Getting That First Spark
Prepare your tinder and kindling. Start with a bundle of tinder at least the size of a grapefruit or larger. Use your ignition source to ignite the tinder. Matches and lighters are the easiest ignition sources, with friction fires being a bit more difficult, but anything that will provide a spark or ember will work.
When lighting with a spark or ember, get the spark or ember into the heart of the tinder and blow gently and steadily until you see a flame.
Fire likes to climb. Once you see the flame, turn the tinder gently to allow the flame to grow. Add more tinder as needed to get a small blaze burning.
Add kindling around the blaze in a cone shape. Keep the sticks far enough apart to allow the fire to burn freely through and around them.
Keep adding more sticks slowly until the fire has grown to a crackling blaze. Start with the smaller pieces of kindling first. As they start to burn, add in larger pieces.
Keep tending the fire and adding more fuel until it can burn by itself for around five minutes. At this point, the fire should be stable enough to add in larger fuel.
Add Main Fuel
Once the fire has a good bed of hot coals, you can add larger fuel such as larger sticks and split logs. Arrange the main fuel into the type of campfire desired.
Large Fuel – Logs
Logs and branches with larger diameters will create longer lasting fires. These are good for all night fires and semi-permanent camps.
Banking a Fire
You can also use a large log for banking a fire. Simply place a large log on top of the glowing embers of a fire. It should burn slowly on one side overnight and still have hot embers the next morning.
Putting Out the Fire
When dealing with any fire, always make sure to extinguish it completely before you leave. Brush out the coals with a stick or shovel to make sure nothing is left smoldering. Drench the fire in water if you have extra water available. Never leave a fire burning unattended.
When you’re learning how to start a fire, just follow these few short steps. Gather a supply of fuel and choose a safe area for the fire. Use a spark or ember to ignite the tinder and add kindling until the fire is stable. Then add larger fuel as needed.
Don’t be surprised if it seems harder than you would expect. Fire building skills, like any other skills, require practice.
Practice with different igniters, tinder, and fuel. Also, practice with damp as well as dry conditions. The key to being able to start a fire in an emergency is simply to practice as often as possible. Keep going until you feel confident that you are able to make a fire in just about any situation.