Fire-making is one of the most fundamental wilderness skills. A fire can fulfill several needs. It can keep you warm and dry. You can use it to cook food, purify water and to sterilize bandages. It can scare away dangerous animals and its smoke can keep flying insects at bay. It is an important way to signal for help. It is also a great psychological comfort.
To know how to build a fire, you have to understand that there are three components ( the fire triangle) needed for any fire to be successful:
The correct ratio of these components is crucial for a fire to burn at its greatest capability. The more air (oxygen), the more fiercely the fire burns.
(Ahem), now to begin…
Before you can begin to build your fire, select your fire location. Select it with care, a good fire location is important. First choose a site that is sheltered and protected from the wind and has a supply of wood or other fuel available. There should be nothing nearby that could catch fire, such as dry vegetation. Make sure your fire doesn’t get out of control. Safety is an essential consideration.
Clear any debris away and start the fire on solid ground or on a layer of stones or on a flat shale rock. This will eliminate the possibility of a ground fire and leave no trace of the fire on the ground, except soot stones. If wind is a problem, dig a small pit.
This pit helps protect your fire from wind. An alternative to a pit is to make a ring of stones to surround your fire, which will insulate it and retain heat. To get more heat from your fire, build a fire wall using logs or rocks to reflect the fire’s heat.
If the ground is wet or covered with snow, the campfire must be built on a platform. ( Around here, this happens a lot!) For instance, make the platform from a layer of green logs that are wrist size and break or cut them into 2 feet (0.5 m) lengths, or longer if you for some reason need a larger platform. Cover the platform with a layer of earth or layer of stones. Don’t use wet or porous stones, especially not rocks from a river bank, as they will crack and explode when heated.
To make a fire, you need to build it up gradually, beginning with small pieces of wood, then progressing to larger pieces as the fire gets going. You can grade your fire material into tinder, kindling, and fuel.
You will need some material that ignites very easily to start a fire. Good tinder is material that takes only a spark to ignite. The tinder must be absolutely dry. There are a number of things you can use for tinder: cotton balls, charcloth (more on this in a later post), paper, leaves, grass, bark, cattail fluff, or resin. You will find resin in spruce and pine trees. Resin will burn even if it is wet.
Use your knife to turn dry sticks and pieces of bark into powdery tinder. Tinder is the most important part of your fire, so prepare it well. If you have found resin, rub it on small twigs and sticks. Have plenty of tinder on hand so your fire will not go out. Collect tinder before you need it. Put tinder in your pocket or backpack, so you always have it handy.
Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Small dry twigs and sticks are best. They should easily light when placed on a small flame. The dead branches on the undersides of trees provide excellent kindling, and they are usually dry, even if it has rained for weeks.
Once your fire is established, you can add larger pieces of firewood. Make sure your firewood is as dry as possible. Look for dead trees, they are usually a good source of dry firewood.
Never leave a campfire unattended. Make sure your fire is completely out before leaving camp. Check it at least twice. It only takes a spark to start a wildfire.
Types of Fires
Your next step is to decide what type of campfire you are going to build. There are many different types of fires to construct. Some are more suited for cooking, burning overnight or for warmth. Your situation and the material available in the area will determine what the most practical fire type is for your needs. However, most needs can be met with either the star, teepee or pyramid fire. In some situations, you may find that a log fire or an underground fireplace will be most suitable.
The Star Fire
Start a fire and make sure the fire is established. Place logs around the fire. Push the logs inwards and the fire, and heat, will increase. Pull the logs out- wards to decrease the heat. The star fire is a simple and easily controlled fire.
The Teepee Fire
To make this fire, arrange the tinder and a few sticks of kindling in the shape of a teepee or cone. The teepee does not need to be big, keep it small. Build up the teepee gradually. Put your tinder inside the finished teepee. Allow enough room for air circulation in and between the logs. As the teepee burns, the outside logs will fall inward, feeding the fire. Add more fuel to your fire.
The Pyramid (Upside-Down) Fire
To lay the pyramid fire, place two logs or branches parallel on the ground. Place a solid layer of small logs across the parallel logs. Continue building your pyramid by adding three or four more layers of logs or branches, with each added layer running perpendicular to the preceding one. Place tinder and smaller twigs and branches at the top of the pyramid and light it. The pyramid fire will burn downward, providing plenty of heat that will last a long time, requiring no attention during the night. The pyramid fire can also form the basis of a signal fire.
The Long Log fire
For warmth, a perfect fire is the “long log fire”. Make your fire in between two long thick logs. Add kindling and firewood so the fire will burn fiercely, and you get a bed of ember. Add a third long log on top of the other two. I also recommend that you build a reflector on the other side of the fire to get the full benefit of the warmth. To build a reflector, use logs, stones or any material that will reflect heat.
How to Start a Fire
There are many different fire-starting techniques, but they all fall into two categories: modern methods and primitive methods. Modern starting methods include matches, artificial flint strikers, butane lighters or convex lenses. Primitive fire starting methods include flint & steel, a fire plow and a bow & drill. These methods require a lot of practice to ensure success.
Three different techniques are described below. First, starting a fire with matches, it sounds obvious, and it is. However, practice this technique, it’s not always easy. Use only one match. Second, is how to use an artificial flint striker. This lets you save your matches for emergency situations. Third is the”bow & drill” method, which is probably the easiest primitive fire starting method to learn. I say easiest, not easy. All primitive fire starting methods require a lot of practice to manage.
Start a Fire With Matches
Always carry waterproof matches with you. Matches are one of your most valuable physical assets in the wilderness. Every match you have is like gold. Do not waste them. Try to use one match for one fire!
If you prepare and plan carefully, your campfire will ignite quickly and safely. A good idea is to save your matches to light a candle.
- Make sure you have gathered together all the materials you need before lighting the fire.
- Always light your campfire from the upwind side, shield your fire area with your body or make a windshield with your jacket or other gear before lighting your fire.
- Carefully light the tinder. When the tinder start to burn, use the same match and try to light the tinder on the opposite side.
- Add more tinder slowly, then kindling, and build your fire up gradually.
Flint Striker (Ferro-rod)
An effective fire starter is an artificial flint striker. There are a number of different shapes and designs available on the market. To use it, you scrape hard to produce a shower of sparks to catch your fire.
First, you will need some tinder to start your fire. The tinder must be absolutely dry and fluffed very well. The finer and dryer the material used, the better. It should only take a spark to ignite!
There are a number of things you can use for tinder, for instance, dry leaves, fine dry grass and bark, cloth fibers, paper or any other flammable material. Use your knife to turn dry sticks and pieces of bark into powdery tinder. Prepare your tinder carefully; it’s crucial to the success of the fire making process.
Then…ignite…place the sparking stick close to the tinder. Use a knife or the attached edged tool (if provided) and draw it slowly downwards over the sparking stick. Hot sparks are produced. If you have prepared you tinder appropriately it will catch fire. Shield your fire area.
When the fire is becoming established, slowly add more tinder, then add thin sticks of wood. Build your fire up gradually.
If you are not used to a flint striker, I recommend you first test it with fluffy paper. Dry fluffy paper is very easy to ignite. If you practice with easily ignitable things like fluffy paper, you will improve your skills. Trust me, to ignite a fire with an artificial flint striker, you need some practice. Don’t give up, you will succeed.
Personally, I almost always use a flint striker to start my fires. The flint striker doesn’t get bad if it gets wet, and it will keep for years. Make sure you have a flint striker in your backpack and can manage to start a fire with it.
The Bow Drill Method
The bow drill is probably the most common primitive fire making method. The bow drill uses friction to create a fire. As it is a primitive fire making method, it requires practice to master. In a true survival situation, a beginner should use this method only when matches start to run out and no other options are available.
The basic principle is rotating a hard wooden stick on a hollowed piece of softwood, to create a small heap of smoldering wood powder. Dry tinder is added and by blowing on the ember, a flame is produced. Moisture is a common problem to overcome when using the bow drill method, as it’s based on using dry wood to provide the fuel for the ignition.
You probably have heard about the hand-drill method, which mean you use the same concept as described above, except that you use a drill-stick between the palms of your hand. This may, however, be hard work and your hands will become red and sore fairly quickly.
The Fire board, The Drill, The Bow, and The Socket:
The fire board: Find a flat dry board of soft wood. It can be any length, but 1 foot (30 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm) by a minimum of 1 inch (2 cm) thick is ideal. Cut a V-shaped notch about 1 inch (2 cm) wide on one edge.
The drill: Find a straight stick of harder wood, about 1 foot (30 cm) long and 1 inch (2 cm) thick. Use your knife and smooth the stick. Round the drilling end and point and smooth the top end.
The bow: Find a suitable stick about 2 feet (60 cm) long and 0.5 – 1 inch (1-2 cm) thick. Again, use your knife and smooth the stick. Tie a cord loosely between the two ends. Twist a loop in the cord and slip it over the drill.
The socket: It holds the drill in place and provides downward pressure. Use a small bit of wood that fits well in your hand. Make an indentation into which the drill end fits.
Light Your Fire
- Prepare your fire as usual: Collect dry tinder, kindling and firewood. Absolutely dry and fluffy tinder is key to success. To prepare your tinder, collect dead branches, loose bark (birch or cedar) and dry grass. Make sure your tinder is compact, so you can drop the ember into the tinder nest.
- Place the fire board over the tinder. Kneel on your right knee and place your left foot on the fire board to hold it in place.
- Fit the drill into the notch of the fire board. While pressing gently down on the socket, move the bow back and forth in the same direction the baseboard is pointing. Start slowly at first, until the stick “beds in”. Once it is bedded, the drill has to be rotated very quickly.
- Sooner or later, depending on your skill and the conditions, a lot of smoke will be produced. Work the drill vigorously. When there has been a lot of smoke for a while, stop drilling.
- Pick up the tinder with the ember carefully and blow gently. Close the tinder around it and keep on blowing until the tinder ignites. Quickly put it on the fire.
Be patient! This is a skill that takes some time to learn.
Apply some Vaseline, soap or animal fat into the hole of the socket, to reduce friction.
If the drill stick cuts too quickly through the fire board, reduce the pressure on the socket and the drill.
Keep the bow about 4 inches (10 cm) above the ground.
If the cord starts to slip on the drill, shorten the cord by re-tying the knot.
If the hole in the fire board, or the drill, takes on a hard smooth glaze, roughen them both up, use your knife, or a stone, because without good friction no ember can be created.