How To Start a Fire in an Emergency (Or Impress Your Friends While Camping)

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Welcome to Erik's Survival Guide. Today's topic is how to build a good, tenable fire in an outdoors setting, with a minimum of preparation, time, or equipment. The first step is knowing how a good fire is made. Like a building, it needs construction. Remember the fire triangle whenever you need to build a flame. A 'fire triangle' is the three things that a fire needs- fuel, air, and heat. Without even one of these, any fire is doomed to fail.

First, you need to select a place for the fire to go. This may be different from the location that you start the fire at, if you are a hardcore SOB who starts his fires over here and moves them over there*. Mostly you do this when you've had enough practice at it that you can set up all your fuels in a certain way so they take much more quickly, as opposed to having to spoon feed the flame. For now, we'll do this the simple way.

Location, Location, Location

Anyway, pick a spot. It shouldn't be too close to trees, dried grass, or any location where a spark could jump and light something on fire that you don't want burning. Keep it at least 15 feet from your shelter and 20 feet from any source of water. Clear the area of debris such as twigs, sticks, rocks, and other objects as best you can to approximately twice your body length (about 12 feet) in diameter. If you have a tool to do so, dig a very shallow curved pit between 6-12 inches deep and about 3 feet (1 meter) in width. You can make it deeper if you don't want the fire to be easily visible. Line the edges of the pit with rocks between a double fist and head sized, making a good circle to reflect the heat inwards. This is your fire pit. Having it dug deep will give the ash somewhere to settle, as well as reflect most of the heat back at the fire to make it even hotter. It really works, honest.


Now, for fuels. A big rookie mistake is to start building your fire, then go running off for wood midway through the process. Gather at least four or five good double-armloads of fuel before you even get started, storing it somewhere dry and slightly elevated at least ten feet from where you want the fire to be. Fuel needs to run from 'starter tinder' in size to tinder to grass to twigs to sticks to branches to logs, in that order. Have a double handful of starter tinder and regular tinder on hand before you do anything else.


You'll want to start with tinder. Starter tinder is fine. Not 'Denise Richards' fine, but more in terms of texture and volume per weight. Think 'human hair' in size and you're getting on track. For the science geeks out there, the reason for this is that a pound of say, cotton fluff has hundreds of times more igniteable square surface space than, say, a one pound piece of wood. There is more air and more access to the air, as well.

You need a ball of tinder about the size of a double fist, as a bare minimum. Like a pillow, fluff it up to absolutely maximize the airflow through it. Put your spark in the middle of this sucker and give it air, blowing very, very gently. Don't rush to smother it if you see smoke. Wait until you see a good, steady lick of flame before you do anything else. Now, add in more starter tinder if need be, the slower the better, followed by your secondary tinder. Secondary tinder is things like dried grass or pine needles, not as easy to ignite but ready to catch fire. Gradually, a bit at a time, add in twigs no larger than a pencil. A good rule to use is the arm method for graduation of fuel size- pinkie finger, handspan, fingertip to wrist, wrist to elbow, and so on, with nothing larger than an inch in diameter. Don't put on more than one fuel size every fifteen seconds, and upgrade fuel sizes about once every 90 seconds, if the fire's growing fairly steadily. Patience is definately a virtue in this case. Once you get a good, fairly steady flame, you can build up to sticks about a foot in length and several inches thick, and from there it's cake. If fuel is going to be a problem, don't overfeed the fire- it doesn't need to be a raging inferno.

Now, WATCH THE FIRE. Try to at least keep a small flame going, or embers, if you can. The smaller the flame gets, the harder it will be to get it going again. Fortunately, because you dug a pit, there will be plenty of hot coals at the bottom to play with. You may need to set up shifts with your buddies to cover it and make sure it doesn't go out at night, or just wake yourself up every hour or so and throw another log on. Aren't you glad you gathered wood before you went to sleep?

Of course, this now begs the question of what are you going to do without a lighter?

We'll begin with the most basic and primitive of methods- the friction start.

Starting a Fire from Scratch

Trying to start a fire without matches or a striking flint is difficult at best. This is the good old Boy Scout method that you always see in the movies. You'll want two fairly hard pieces of wood, preferably ash or oak. One of the pieces needs to be a stick as straight as you can find, smooth, no more than an inch in diameter. You should be able to briskly roll it back and forth between your palms. The other needs to be a slightly softer bowl-shaped piece about a foot in diameter. The interior part of a piece of dried tree bark works wonders in this case. Put a -very- dry, soft, and fine piece of tinder between them and begin briskly grinding the two pieces together, like making a snake from a piece of clay. This is going to take quite a while to do, so stick with it. Once you get some smoke continue to rub, gently adding in more oxygen to get it hot. Don't stop once you get a spark, wait until you get some good red coloration and wisps of smoke. Now, while blowing steadily but not too hard, add in the ultra fine tinder. Once it takes, begin adding the next size up, then the next. Once you get a steady flame, transfer the affair over to where you want the fire to actually be and save your striking surface for later use. Gradually build the fire up with larger and larger twigs, then sticks and branches. The slower, the better in this case. Rushing the fire can easily put it out. Try to use fairly dry wood, and the finer, the better for the earlier stages.

Now for the Fun

Ok, now on to easier and more fun ways to do it. One of the most tried and true methods is with a magnesium firestarter, standard issue in almost every survival bag that you may go down with. It's a simple metal block with a thin strip of magnesium atop it. Slice along the magnesium strip with a good knife and watch the sparks fly. The main trick is to get it as close to your tinder as humanly possible. Don't worry about getting singed.

Other nifty tricks include using the lens from a thick pair of glasses or windshield to focus the light. This may take a while, and in some cases you can't get a good enough refraction index to make it work. The best bet is to do it with a very thickly curved piece of glass at high sun during the day. One of our own field researchers claims that sugar and potassium maganate, along with a few drops of water, can produce a good little flame with a minimum effort. An alternative method is to stretch a thick coil of steel wool over the terminals of a pair of good-sized batteries. It'll get hot enough to light tinder, easily. A similar and much more dangerous method is next.


The other and best way to start a fire is to use accelerants. When one say accelerants, one means of course anything petrol. Do NOT use anything that is a flammable vapour, such as gasoline or aerosol spray. This researcher once watched two guys pour five gallons of gasoline on a bonfire to light it, and when they did it instantly became about a 200lb bomb. If these are your ONLY options, than use only a few drops in a single spot and throw the match at it, just to ignite the gasoline enough for a flame.

One of the best tricks is to soak Vaseline into cotton swabs. These will burn for a good five minutes at a nice temperature, no matter what weather conditions, and is more than enough to get a small fire going. Other options are JP-4 jet fuel, vegetable oil, what have you. There are a wide number of combustible products out there on the shelves for very cheap, designed specifically for emergency firestarting situations.

Well, that should about do it. Here are some helpful links to look at in terms of fire building. There's a lot of duplicate material on here, or so it seems. Everyone's got their own methodology. This reasearcher has met people who couldn't light a cigarette with a blowtorch and met folks who were able to light a wet newspaper in a snowstorm with a soggy matchbook.

A799383 - Making a Tepee Fire

A784091 - The Bow Drill - Fire Without Matches! - This link is one of the best and most effective methods of of starting a fire sans igniter equipment, and is extremely well put together.

*As a quick reference to the pre-fire buildup, this is a somewhat more advanced trick. It's possible to set up all of your fuels before the fire even starts. Drop a pile of pencil-sized sticks into a circle about a handspan in diameter and a few inches high. Over these, put down secondary tinder such as pine needles or dried grasses. Atop that, (later), you will put down your tinder, presumably afire as you're a hardcore kinda guy who plays with fire away from the pit. Now, take your forearm sized logs and stack them around and above -but not on! -the starter base. You can either create a log cabin (no bigger than a 12" square) or a tepee shape, again, no more than 8" above the starting flame. This will light up like a flare when it takes and is a great way to impress the neighbors, or give someone a job to do while you're doing the cool 'I'm f***ing MacGuyver and can make fire!' trick. Once the tepee or log cabin is built, put your tinder down on the starter pile and watch it fly.

**Take a starter battery from your car or airplane. Secure a piece of wire to the negative lead on the battery, and place the wire in the center of your mass of tinder. Making very certain not to touch the first wire, secure a second wire to the positive lead. Using some kind of insulation to hold the positive wire, (it gets hot) gently brush it over the negative wire and try to encourage a spark. If you have wires with frayed ends, use them, because the more arcs you get the better chance of ignition there is. Be careful as the metal can get VERY hot VERY quickly because of the amperage of the battery. This is NOT A FIRST RESORT METHOD. You can try it only if and after everything else fails.

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