One of the biggest stresses facing someone in an outdoor situation is their ability (or not) to start a fire, as there is great importance placed on this one act. It not only provides light and heat, but it can cook your food, ward off intruders (animal or otherwise) and provide mental comfort in what could easily be somewhat of a survival situation. This is particularly true in situations when you weren’t planning to camp, and either because of unforeseen events in nature or car trouble, you’re left stranded in backcountry.
To make a fire we need three main ingredients: fuel, spark, and air. The fuel must be dry enough to light quickly and burn readily. If it doesn’t break with a snap when you bend it the wood is not dry enough. It must be arranged so the air can get to the flame easily and build a good draft so that the fire builds a good draft. The best way to do this is to leave an opening on the downwind side of your fire lay so that the wind will naturally blow into the fire as it burns. The flame is added to your tinder. Tinder is small, fluffy, burnable material that is natural like dry bark or cattail duff or it can be a homemade or commercially made firestarter as we described elsewhere in this issue. Your fire can come in the form of a lighter, matches, a ferrocerium rod and a knife, a blowtorch, or something as primitive as a piece of flint used with a striker.
The best way to build your fire is to do it like cooking from a recipe. You need to gather all of your materials first, before you actually start building your fire. Then assemble your materials as your fire lay. The last thing is to light your tinder with whatever source of flame you have to get it started. Then move your tinder into your fire lay if it isn’t already there and let it light the rest of your wood.
The key to a successful fire lay is to have enough of the different thicknesses of wood to build your fire. You need tinder, followed by kindling, which is then followed by the thicker sticks that actually fuel your roaring blaze.
Tinder should be very dry woody material that is no thin and fluffy. Good examples of tinder are cattail duff, milkweed puffs, dry cedar bark, pine tar or pitch, or pine needles. Whatever you use make sure to break it up to expose its inner fibers and make it fluffy. Your spark needs these fine fibers to start the fire. If you can’t find any of these and don’t have a firestarter with you can use your knife to shave off fine strips of dry wood. Digging into a dry dead log is another good place to find good tinder.
Kindling is the non-fluffy wood that will actually grow the fire. I like to think of it coming in two sizes. The first size you should use are the actual twigs at the end of a branch and the larger twigs that they grow out from. Moving even closer to the trunk are the next size of kindling, the pieces that are the size of a wooden match up to the size of a wooden pencil.
Actual firewood or fuelwood pieces are the next size up and should be around the thickness of your little finger going up to the size of your wrist in thickness. Add it starting with the smallest diameter pieces moving up to the thumb sized and then wrist sized pieces.
Once you have your fire going with medium sized sticks you can add even thicker wood, or quarter pieces from a tree if you want a fire that large. If you are lucky enough to find a dead tree that has fallen to the ground then you likely have each thickness of wood that you need for your fire. Just start with the twigs at the very end of each branch and work your way towards the trunk getting the increasingly larger pieces you need to build your fire.
The Right Wood
A fire gives you two main things; light and heat.
If light is your main goal, along with some heat, you want to use softwoods like aspen, poplar, or any of the evergreens. These are less dense woods so they light faster but they also burn faster so you need to feed more wood into it more frequently. The resin in evergreens also helps it burn and give off more light.
If a slower burn or more heat is what you desire then you should be using hardwoods like oak, maple, cherry, or hickory. These are denser woods so although they take more heat to ignite they will give off more heat and will burn longer than the softwoods will.
Different Designs for Different Desires
Different types of fire lays are best suited for different purposes.
There are many different ways to lay your fire. Each one has its own benefits for the conditions you are in and the way you will use your fire. The two main lays are the tipi and the log cabin and will meet the majority of your needs.
THE TIPI FIRE: The tipi fire lay is the simplest and probably the one you are most familiar with seeing. It lights quickly and burns quickly, especially if you have good air flow. Starting with softer wood for your kindling will make it easier to catch. You can add harder woods later if you want more heat or want the fire to last longer.
Since this design will focus the heat of the fire directly above it, this is the ideal fire lay when you want to boil water or cook something in a pot suspended above the fire. To build a tipi fire you should assemble your tinder bundle and place it on the ground in the middle of the fire ring you cleared. Next stick three pencil-sized kindling sticks into the ground to form a tripod over the tinder. This will be used as a framework to hold your kindling. Now you can start adding your kindling, smallest pieces first followed by the slightly larger kindling building the walls of the tipi. Continue this until you have kindling on all sides except for the downwind side. You want to keep an opening on the side where the wind/breeze will be blowing in to give your fire the air (oxygen) it needs to burn. This opening will also give you a place to add your match or fire starter to ignite your tinder.
THE LOG CABIN FIRE: The log cabin fire lay is best used when you want to get a bed of coals for cooking on or for use in making a warm bed of coals to cover with dirt and sleep on. It doesn’t concentrate its flame and heat in one place like the tipi fire lay does. It spreads the heat across the cabin framework and burns from the inside out. You can also use this fire lay to help dry out wood that is damp from rain by placing it along the outside of the cabin or on the top layers of the cabin.
To make the fire lay you once again put your tinder bundle in the center of your fire ring. Then place two pieces of your larger wood, a couple of fingers thick to wrist thick parallel to each other about six to twelve inches apart, depending on how big you want to make your fire. Then put two more pieces across the first two to form a square. This is the foundation of your log cabin. You now want to put a layer of small kindling across your foundation. On top of this layer add slightly thicker kindling. Continue this for a few more layers using thicker pieces each time. If you used thick enough pieces of fuel wood for your foundation you should be able to easily put your match in to light your tinder. If you don’t have a match and need to use a spark you can either use two shorter pieces of wood on the downwind end to leave a gap for you to put your lit tinder under the kindling or you can leave an opening in the first layer of kindling on the downwind side to push your tinder in.
Safety First, Second… and Last
As useful as a fire is, it can also be extremely dangerous. An unattended fire can grow outside of its fire ring and burn equipment in the campsite or turn into a forest fire. Sparks from too big of a fire or a poorly placed fire can land on shelters and equipment burning holes both large and small. So, locating and preparing the area around your fire is very important.
Before you start building your fire, or while others are collecting the materials to build the fire you need to pick a good location for it. A good location is one downwind of your camp so the wind won’t blow sparks or flame toward your shelters or equipment. It should be at least ten yards away for safety purposes. For this same reason, you should store your supply of firewood upwind of the fire too.
To prepare the area for the fire you want to clear an area large enough to hold all burnable materials. Then surround the campfire area with non-burnable materials like rocks to serve as a perimeter. You should also avoid crystalline rocks like quartz which can explode if they get too hot due to the moisture inside of them. Next, clear the ground of burnable materials for one or two yards around the fire ring to prevent the fire from spreading away from where you built it through a stray spark.
Now that you have the basics down on how make and use these two basic types of fire lay you can go on and use the variety of other types because they are all based on these two. A search of Google or YouTube on “different fire lays will show you a variety of different types, like the Dakota fire hole designed for use on the plains where there isn’t a lot of wood and you don’t necessarily want your fire to be seen.
Don’t expect reading this article or watching some videos is all you need to do in order to build your first fire when you really need one. Hit the woods this weekend and give each a try to see what the little details are in picking your tinder and kindling that only practical experience will give you.
Mother Nature can be a cruel mistress. It might turn out that the one time you really need to get a fire going quickly, that will be the same day that it has been raining for hours on end and you can’t find any dry sources of natural tinder. Therefore, it only makes sense to carry some ready-to-light tinder with you. Here are five different products we tested, along with one homemade selection.
Instafire—4-6 (6 is probably too small—use 4)
Cost: $1.88 per pouch, $69.99 per 4 gallon bucket
Instafire has been around since about 2008. Their fire starter consists of volcanic rock, wood pellets, and paraffin, with an appearance like cat litter. Very lightweight, each pouch comes with enough of the product to light approximately four fires yet weighs less than two ounces.
To use, a small quantity of Instafire Fire Starter is poured out and lit with either flame or spark. To keep our comparisons as fair as possible, our pile of Instafire was roughly the same size as the other fire starters in our test group. There were no issues lighting it at all.
In addition to being easy to light, Instafire is waterproof. In previous tests, I was able to light a pile of it in my hand, then, still burning, float it in a bucket of water. The downside, though, is that you won’t need the entire contents of one pouch to start a single fire so you’ll have to have another container for the leftover mix. However, you could get ahead of the game by dividing the contents of a pouch into a few different 35mm film canisters or other such containers before you hit the trail.
Cost: $7.99 for 6
Produced and sold by Self Reliance Outfitters, a division of The Pathfinder School, LLC, the Mini Inferno fire starter arrives in a small, circular tin. Inside the tin is a small stack of waxy, fibrous disks about two inches across.
The instructions are to peel open a disk, exposing the fibers inside. This was quite easy to do, actually, as the disk seems almost to have layers to it. We peeled it open about halfway, then lit it up. Within perhaps a single second, we had very hot flames reaching several inches high.
Each disk can be easily cut into smaller pieces, allowing for several more fires. The Mini Inferno fire starters are also waterproof, which is always a bonus when we’re talking about getting fires going in bad weather. With the resulting flames as high and hot as we had, there shouldn’t be any trouble getting kindling burning quickly.
Cost: $4.00 for 12
The SOL Tinder Quik product is found in many commercial survival kits as well as being available for purchase on their own. They are tightly woven bundles of fibers about an inch long and very lightweight.
Before lighting, you’re supposed to take one end of the Tinder Quik and pull the fibers apart and fluff them up a bit. This is easier said than done as there just isn’t much loose material to grip at first. We did okay but I could see it as being a real challenge if you were shivering and had numb fingers. The Tinder Quik did light immediately, though, without any trouble.
The Tinder Quik tabs work fairly well. They are easy to light and are so small they can fit just about anywhere in your various survival kits. But, because they are so small, they don’t burn very long and could be difficult to use with cold, trembling hands.
Cost: $9.00 for 8
Another survivalist mainstay, WetFire cubes have been around for quite some time. Each white cube is individually wrapped and measures roughly an inch on each side.
Once taken from the wrapper, you can light the cube as is or you can shave some of it into a small pile and just light that rather than use the entire cube. Again, in trying to keep the tinder comparisons consistent, we used one whole cube. It lit easily and burned with a very hot flame.
There is a lot of heat energy packed into these little cubes. The cubes can be cut into small pieces to use for more fires but you’ll need to have some sort of container for them.
Live Fire Sport—14-15
The Live Fire product comes in two sizes, Original and Sport. Both arrive in small metal tins with sliding covers. The Sport tin is about two inches long and an inch wide. Inside the tin, you find yellow fibers that are impregnated with flammable chemicals. The design of the tin, with the sliding top, is such that you could close it up once your fire is going, saving the rest of the Live Fire material to use later.
The instructions say to open the tin and fluff up the fibers, then light them with a flame or spark. I roughed up the fibers and set to work. Unfortunately, the Live Fire resisted every effort to start burning. In the end, I removed the cover completely and held the flame from a butane lighter directly on the fibers for several seconds before the fire starter finally lit. Once it took, though, it burned what seemed like forever with an extremely hot flame.
I was disappointed in the difficulty of lighting the Live Fire. I’ve read several reviews that rave about the product and the ease of lighting but that simply wasn’t my experience. It did, however, produce easily the hottest flame of our test products.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2015 print issue of Tread Magazine.