Fire is among the most important skills to have in a survival scenario. It can be utilized for warmth in the bitter cold, it can disinfect water, it can cook food, and it can even be used to cure meats into jerky to prevent spoilage. It can be utilized to signal search and rescue teams and to help them locate you. It provides light at night, and even has a calming effect that is excellent in a stressful environment.
First the Basics
There is a seemingly un-ending list of uses for fire. Becoming a master at fire-building is a skill set that requires patience and practice. Ignition can prove to be the most difficult in a survival situation, and there are several different approaches. I will go into great detail about the various methods of fire ignition, but this post will focus on explaining how to maintain and build up a fire once ignition has already been established.
It is a common tendency of campers to light a fire with the use of paper, and sometimes even lighter fluid. I would encourage you not to. This takes the challenge out of building a fire and reduces the chances you will be able to build a fire when you really need it, when you may not have such amenities. As your skills increase, challenge yourself by reducing the aids you allow yourself to use. First move to utilizing only the materials you can find on-site, even on a rainy & wet day. Once you have mastered that, further increase the challenge by using only alternative forms of ignition such as flint sparkers , magnifying lens, etc. You will find that fire-building can be a fun and challenging skill to learn and master.
The key to fire-building is good preparation and to start very small. As the fire grows, progressively increase the size of the firewood. The various sizes of firewood are typically categorized as: Tinder , Kindling , & Fuel .
Tinder – is extremely small and dry materials that are capable of producing flame from a spark. Examples are the fluffy seed pods of plants, such as the inner portion at the top of cattails and dandelion pods. Extremely dry dead leaves and grass, pine needles and some types of bark may also work. It is important to know how to find tinder, but it is also wise to pack some in a tinderbox, or water-tight pill capsule, so that you will already have some with you in an emergency.
Kindling – is the very small twigs or very finely split wood. If you are collecting twigs, they should snap with very little bending to indicate they are nice and dry. You will want to collect form sizes ranging from the thickness of a matchstick all the way up to stuff as big around as your thumb.
Fuel – is the firewood and other combustibles that are actually used to provide the heat and maintain the fire once it has been well established. It can range from the diameter of your arm up to very large logs. Very large logs will generally need to be split and quartered to allow easier burning. There are a surprising number of alternate fuels, beside wood that can be used that include Peat, Coal, Shales, Animal Droppings and more. A good reference on where to find these and how to use them is here.
Before any fire is lit, proper placement is very important. An ideal spot is an area that is flat and away from other combustibles. Any underbrush, leaves, plants should be scraped away leaving a dirt surface in a clear circle at least 6 feet wide. Larger depending on the size of the fire you intend to build. If the surface is covered in snow, swampy, or extremely wet, it is beneficial to build a platform from green logs, and spread a 2-3 inch layer of soil onto that. This technique is called a Temple Fire. Another technique for cooking is to dig a trench and lighting the fire in one end. Later, coals can be moved into the rest of the trench and used to cook with.
Water or buckets of dirt should be located nearby, so that they can be used to extinguish the fire quickly or if a floating ember accidentally lights a nearby combustible on a hot dry day.
It is important to collect plenty of materials for your fire before you begin the ignition process. It is extremely frustrating to finally get a flame, only to have it go out because you had not collected enough kindling to feed it. It is also recommended that you always keep a good look out for good fire-building materials throughout your day. This will make collecting them much easier when it is time to build your fire.
Building the Fire
One of the easiest fires to build up quickly is a Teepee Style fire. Several sticks of kindling are leaned against each other in an upright structure. It is usually easiest to begin by forcing a forked stick into the ground and then leaning additional pieces into the fork. To start out with you only want to have a very sparse structure of light weight kindling with wide openings. You should have enough room that you can place your burning tinder inside of it once you have ignition. Building it up too dense before the fire has been lit will not allow enough airflow to the fire. Once the Kindling begins to burn, slowly add more and progressively larger sticks. Continue leaning additional pieces of fuel against the Teepee structure until the fire is burning well and the size you desire.
Another style of fire is the Log Cabin Style fire. For this technique you place two medium pieces of fuel parallel with each other on the ground about 12 inches apart. You then stack two more similarly sized pieces in a log cabin fashion so that it makes a square. You place your burning tinder in the center, and lay the small pieces of kindling across the structure above that. As the fire begins to grow you can continue to add fuel logs to the structure in the same log cabin stacking process. This style of fire will generally burn longer and slower than the Teepee style. It is useful for building a fire that you want to burn throughout the night.
Lighting the Fire
Gather your tinder into a sparse ball or nest. Place it near your smallest kindling twigs so that once you have a flame you can begin to feed it. If you are new to fire building, try to light your fire with a single match. If you are unsuccessful after several attempts, it is okay to use paper in addition to your tinder, but you should practice until this is no longer necessary. Once using a single match has become easy, move onto learning to light a fire with a flint sparker, magnifying lens, and a hand fire drill.
Once your tinder has produced a flame, do not rush the process or you will likely smother the fire. Let it slowly heat the Kindling and it will progressively grow as each piece of woods heats up to the point that it too will ignite. The key is to start very small and slowly work up to progressively larger pieces. Gentle blowing can help as well, but you need to be careful not to overdo it or you will end up cooling the burning wood to the point it goes out. Once several decent pieces of tinder are burning, it is safe to start adding the smaller pieces of fuel to the fire. After the wood starts crackling and popping you can begin fanning the flames as well to help provide oxygen and grow the fire.