In the wilderness, fire can be vitally important, even a matter of life or death. In Jack Nicholson’s famous short story “To Build a Fire,” a logger out on an isolated trail in Alaska finds himself unable to build a fire when the temperature is 75 degrees below zero. Naturally, he freezes to death. Most people will never find themselves in such extreme circumstances. Still, if you are going to hike and camp in the wild, making fire is an essential skill. A good campfire provides warmth, comfort, and heat for cooking. Besides, after a hard day of hiking, curling up in warm glow of a fire is supremely satisfying.
If you’ve never tried to build a fire before, it probably seems like a simple task. Under optimal conditions, even a child can start a fire. However, nature doesn’t always provide us with optimal conditions. Matches and lighters can get wet or lost, and too much wind, rain or snow can make it difficult to get anything to catch on fire. However, with enough fuel and the proper techniques, it is possible to make a fire in most circumstances.
There are many different ways to start a fire, some more practical than others. However, they all begin with some common elements:
- Tinder- Small pieces of a material that will ignite quickly. Tinder can be made of many things: thin strips of bark, paper, dryer lint, or even certain types of fungus.
- Kindling- Thin sticks, 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide.
- Fuel-Thicker sticks and logs
- A spark, small flame, or a source of heat intense enough to catch the tinder on fire.
Whichever method you choose, the first step is to gather these components. Tiny twigs that are brittle enough to break work fine for tinder. However, if you are fortunate enough to live in an area where white birch is plentiful, the thin sheets of outer bark are even better. Please, don’t damage a living tree by stripping its bark-take it from a dead branch instead. Dried grass, leaves or pine needles are great to use as tinder, too. Also, there are very few situations where it’s acceptable to cut down living trees for fuel, especially since green wood is hard to burn. Look for dead wood or standing dead trees instead. Make sure to get enough fuel-the general rule is to gather at least twice what you think you’ll need. If you are staying the night, it’s best to gather enough tinder, kindling, and fuel for the morning, as well.
Once you have an adequate supply of fuel, use one of the methods below to start your fire. These techniques are listed in order according to how likely you are to actually use them while hiking or backpacking. The first methods are the most practical, the ones you will use on a regular basis in the woods.
Using matches or a lighter
For most people, starting a fire without matches or a lighter is difficult, time-consuming, and likely to fail. Do not go out in the woods harboring fantasies of rubbing two sticks together to create a roaring blaze like Robinson Crusoe. That technique is useful to know, but it’s much easier and more reliable to use modern fire-producing tools.
To start a fire using matches and a lighter, use the following technique: Select a stick about 3 inches around, and lay it down in the fire ring. Place tinder next to the stick. If there is any wind, make sure that you place the tinder on the side of the stick that the wind is blowing from. Now, place some of your kindling over the tinder, resting the small sticks on top of the larger base stick. This arrangement makes the wind, if there is any, into your ally-it blows the flame from the tinder into the kindling. Use a lighter or a match to catch the tinder on fire. The flames from the tinder should catch the kindling. If the wood is wet, however, it may take several tries and a lot of tinder before the larger twigs get dry enough to catch.
Once the kindling is burning, add more kindling, and then start adding larger sticks. Add wood gradually, and don’t start adding larger pieces until you have the smaller size sticks going strong. There are several different ways to build a fire-you can make a teepee of sticks, for example, or a “log cabin.” Simply laying sticks and logs across the fire is fine, though-just make sure you lay them across each other instead of side-by-side. As long as you arrange the fuel so that the fire can breathe and doesn’t collapse, you’ll be fine.
Using a flint and steel or flint and magnesium
The most reliable “old-school” method of starting a fire is by using flint and steel. Basically, when the flint and steel are rubbed together, the friction causes tiny bits of white-hot steel to flake off and become sparks. In order to succeed using flint and steel, you need to have very flammable tinder available to catch the sparks. The best tinder for flint and steel is called char cloth. This is cloth made from a natural fabric that has been heated until it is charred black like charcoal. You can use char cloth with other types of tinder-just place the char cloth on top of the pile of tinder. It will catch the spark and ignite the rest of the pile.
To make a fire using flint and steel, first make a pile of tinder about the size of an egg, with a piece of char cloth on top. Stack kindling on top of a larger stick as described above, but don’t put the tinder underneath the kindling just yet. Next, take the steel in your left hand and the flint in your right hand. Hold the steel close to the char cloth so that sparks will be as hot as possible when they land on it. Strike the steel with the flint at a 20-30 degree angle, so that the sparks fall onto the char cloth. The char cloth should begin to smolder, at which point you will pick up the pile of tinder and begin to blow on it. To blow properly, take a deep breath and let it out slowly and steadily. When the rest of the tinder catches fire, place it under the kindling so that the kindling catches.
An easier and more reliable way to get a fire using flint and steel is to get a flint and magnesium kit. In addition to the flint and magnesium in the kit, you will also need a high-quality steel pocketknife. Use the knife to shave off pieces of the magnesium, and push them together into a small pile. Next, use your knife to strike the flint as described above, so that the sparks from the steel blade fall into the magnesium shavings. Magnesium is extremely flammable, ignites readily even when it’s soaking wet, and burns hot enough to easily catch tinder and kindling.
If the weather is wet or snowy, having a firestarter on hand can mean the difference between success and failure. Basically, a homemade firestarter can be made of anything that will catch on fire easily and burn for a few minutes. Some easy suggestions include: cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, wood chips soaked in wax, or a small votive candle. There are also commercial versions available, but cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly are so easy, cheap and reliable that the commercial versions are almost redundant. Carry them in empty plastic film canisters until they are needed. To use, set up your tinder and kindling as described in method #1, but place the firestarter underneath the tinder. Light the firestarter, and the tinder and kindling should catch within a few minutes.
Starting a fire with Glasses
If you are out in the woods without a working match, lighter, or flint and steel, you may still be able to start a fire quickly and easily. If you are lucky, you or someone with you wears glasses. If it’s sunny out, you can use eyeglasses just like a magnifying glass to focus the energy of the sun and create flame.
To make a fire using a pair of glasses, take your glasses off and hold them up so that they catch the sunlight. You should see a beam of sunlight shining through the glasses. Move the glasses around, aiming the beam so that it lands on your pile of tinder. The smaller the beam of light, the more focused the energy from the sun is and the hotter the tinder will get. Experiment by moving your glasses around until you’ve found the best possible angle, and then wait until the tinder starts to smolder. Gently blow on the burning tinder to create flame.
Using an Empty Lighter
You should always check and make sure that your lighter has fluid before starting out on a hike. However, if you forget and find yourself with only an empty lighter, you may still be able to use it to get a fire going. How can an empty lighter possibly produce flame? It won’t, of course, but it can provide sparks. Basically, you’ll follow the same procedure described for the flint and steel method, except that you’ll be using the flint and steel in the lighter to throw sparks. Use very dry tinder shaved into very thin pieces, or a homemade firestarter, and you just might be able to get an ember going.
Rubbing Two Sticks Together
This method is listed near the bottom because it so difficult and time-consuming. Sure, in the movies it looks easy-just rub two sticks together fast enough and all the sudden you’ll have a fire, right? Wrong. The first step is to find one straight stick, and one flat piece of bark or wood. Since most of the wood in the forest is in the form of a log, you will probably have to shape the flat piece. Also, carve a groove into the center of the flat piece of wood. Place your straight stick in the groove so that it is standing straight up. Now, start spinning it between your palms. Spin the stick in groove as fast as you can to create friction. Keep spinning…
If you’re lucky or especially skilled, the heat produced by the friction between the two sticks will create an ember, which you can then transfer to your ball of tinder. If you’re not lucky, you arms will become very, very tired and you will have nothing to show for it except for some blisters on your palms.
How to S
tart a Fire with a Chocolate Bar and a Soda Can
Surely this is a joke, right? Well, actually it’s not. If you have a discarded soda can, a chocolate bar, and sunlight, you have the tools to start a fire. Use a small piece of chocolate and the chocolate bar wrapper to polish the bottom of the can until you can clearly see your reflection. Chocolate is only slightly abrasive, so this make take a couple of hours. Do not eat the chocolate afterwards, as this process will contaminate it with aluminum. Once you have a smooth, mirrored finish, you can use the can to reflect and focus sunlight onto your tinder. You may waste a couple of hours of your life and a perfectly good chocolate bar, but you will have fire.
Anytime you head out into the woods, make sure you are prepared to start a fire. It’s always better to have matches or lighters with you than to have to rely on one of the other methods. Remember-be prepared before you leave your house! Otherwise, you could very easily end up eating a cold supper, spending a cold night on the trail, or worse.