Fire is very important for us as a species. Even our ancestors knew how important fire was to life. Evidence suggests that fire was used by humans in Eastern Africa over 790,000 years ago. In fact, tools and fire are two of the most important technologies that impacted the development of human life.
So, if you don’t know how to start a fire when you’re in the outdoors, chances are you are not going to survive in an emergency situation.
But fire is easy to start, right? All you need are matches and fuel such as wood and twigs. At home, lighting a fire simply means turning on the stove. But when you’re outdoors, knowing how to make fire is very important. As stated above, it is essential if you want to survive in the wilderness. So, let’s see a few tips and tricks everyone should know by heart.
How To Make A Fire
Before starting a fire in a campsite or wilderness, you need to think about your safety and the safety of other campers.
You don’t want to be the guy who accidentally started a forest fire because of carelessness. If the campsite has a designated cooking area, light the fire there. If not, pay attention to the following steps.
The Fire Bed
If you’re in a rugged area, you will have to build your own designated fire area. Pick out an area that is away from bushes, trees and other plants. The area should also be clear from grass especially dead grass.
If you can’t find an area like this, dig and clear away the area until you’re sure that you have space where there are no bushes, plants and grass. Now that you have a clear area, you can start making your fire bed.
A fire bed is just a fancy term for a slightly elevated area where your fire will be located. Gather dirt and place it in the center of your area. There should be enough dirt so that you have an elevated platform (made of dirt) around 3-4 inches high. The elevation will make it harder for the fire to spread in case accidents happen. You are now ready to gather wood.
Wood is essential when making a fire. Wood or fuel is what keeps your fire going. When you’re camping in the wilderness, it can sometimes be challenging to find seasoned or dry firewood especially if the weather is not cooperating. Some of the best places to find dry firewood or kindling are underneath fallen leaves and branches.
The forest floor is full of fallen dead leaves and debris. Underneath it all may be small pieces of wood and kindling that escaped the rain and may be dry enough to use as fuel for your fire.
You need to gather 3 types of fuel for your fire.
- Tinder which catches fire and burns easily is needed to start your fire. Look for leaves, dry bark or dry dead grass.
- Next, you also need kindling which also burns fast but it will keep your fire going long enough to burn wood. Try to find small twigs and branches with the thickness of a standard pencil.
- Lastly, look for wood good for fuel. Wood that is easy to break and snap with your own hands means that it is dry and seasoned.
You don’t need logs to learn how to make a fire in the wilderness. As a general rule, wood about the size of your wrist is good enough. Logs take too long to burn and might smother your fire. Dry wood that snaps easily is best because dry or “green” wood (those that don’t snap) are wet and are harder to burn. It’s okay if it won’t snap. The fire will dry out your green wood, although it usually takes longer to catch fire. Also, collect lots of tinder and kindling. They burn really fast, so you can go through a lot when starting a fire.
Basic Fire Starting Techniques
Now that you have everything you need and a fire bed in a clear spot set up, you are ready to learn how to make a fire. Here are some easy basic fire starting techniques.
Teepee Fire Lay
Put some tinder in the middle of your fire bed. Using your kindling, make a teepee around your tinder. Create an opening in your tinder teepee on the side where the wind is coming from. This will ensure that air will enter your teepee and blow air into the kindling to keep the fire going.
Make a bigger teepee around your kindling teepee out of your fuel wood. Light a match against your kindling. The teepee will draw the fire upwards because of the layout and the flame should rise from your tinder to the kindling teepee and then your fuel wood teepee. The entire teepee will eventually fall and you can now add more wood into it.
Lean-To Fire Lay
Another way how to start a fire is the lean-to fire lay. This layout has a smaller piece of fuel wood supported by kindling on both sides and then tinder at the bottom. Stick a long piece of tinder on the ground at a 30-degree angle. Place tinder and small kindling underneath the stick.
Lay pieces of tinder against the main stick that’s stuck on the ground. Light your match and let the tinder and kindling burn. Add small pieces of fuel wood going bigger as the fire gets hotter. If you can’t angle the long piece of kindling properly of if you can’t stick it on the ground, you can find a large rock and lean one end of the stick against it. Remove the rock once the fire gets going.
Log Cabin Fire Lay
This is a combination of the teepee fire lay and playing with Lincoln logs. First make a teepee fire lay with your kindle and tinder.
Get large pieces of fuel wood and lay them around the tinder teepee like you would when you’re playing Lincoln logs to create a square. Light up your teepee and watch your Lincoln logs catch fire as the teepee burns.
How To Make Fire Without A Match
Making fire if you have a pack of matches is easy. But what happens if you’ve run out of matches or you if you forgot them at home? Learning how to build a fire without matches is important if you’re camping or want to survive in the wilderness.
We all know that a magnifying glass can start a fire but people don’t usually carry magnifying glasses in the wilderness or when camping. Here are some great examples of how to start a fire without matches.
Before lighting your fire, you should have gathered the appropriate amount of tinder, kindling and wood to be used as fuel for your fire. They should be nearby so that you can transfer your fire from tinder to kindling easily. Some of these methods require lots of work so it’s better to prepare the fuel beforehand. Also see our tips on how to make a smokeless fire for more information.
Flint was most probably the fire starter your ancestors used to cook their meat and stay warm during winter. Any good outdoorsman would have a piece of flint with him or her in the case of emergency or if they just don’t like using matches.
In camping and outdoor survival stores, flint fire starters with pieces of steel can be bought for a small amount of money. For our example, we will be using a piece of flint rock but the principles are the same.
Strike the knife against your flint as you would when using a match. Do this near your tinder so that the sparks will ignite it. Once the tinder ignites from the spark, slowly blow the tinder so that the flames will grow bigger. Once it is stable, transfer the fire from the tinder to your kindle while blowing on the flame to ensure that it does not go out. Add bigger pieces of wood to your tinder once you have a small fire going.
Batteries and Steel Wool
For this method, a 9V battery works best. This is usually found in many camping lanterns and flashlights. This method is very easy and has been used by many campers and outdoorsmen who wanted to start a fire. Locate the terminals of your 9V battery.
Next, take your steel wool and rub it against the terminals continuously. For best and faster results, use a fine quality steel wool. Continue to create friction until the wires of the steel wool ignite and catch fire.
Once the steel wool starts to glow, blow on the wool to ignite it. Blowing will help nurture your small fire and cause it to spread. Once you have a small fire going on your steel wool, transfer the fire from the wool to your tinder while blowing continuously. Gradually add kindling and then smaller pieces of wood to encourage the fire to grow.
This method only works when the weather is favorable. During cloudy or rainy days, it would probably better if you know other techniques to make a fire. However, let us assume that it is a sunny day in the wilderness. If you don’t have a magnifying glass, you can use eye glass lenses or binocular lenses.
Start by tilting your magnifying glass until the lens creates a small focused point of light against your tinder.
Try out different angles until you get the most focused light. Hold the magnifying glass in place until the tinder begins to smoke. Blow lightly on the tinder to encourage the flame. Once you have a small flame, add more pieces of tinder until you move up to pieces of kindle and small wood. Adding fuel gradually will help you nurture you fire.
This requires lots of patience especially if it’s your first time. This is how prehistoric humans made fire before they discovered flint. Start by looking for a flat piece of wood which will serve as your fire board. Cut out a small circle-shaped notch against your fire board using a knife.
You will rub your hand drill against this piece of wood to create friction. Next, find a long piece of wood with the thickness of a pencil. This will be your hand drill. Gather some tinder and lay them near your fire board.
Start placing your hand drill straight with one end against your notch. Hold hand drill between your palms and roll the stick back and forth while pushing it down firmly against the board. Continue to turn quickly until an ember is formed on your board.
Blow on the ember lightly while holding your tinder near so that the flame will slowly transfer from the board to the kindling. Continue to blow and add tinder until you are confident enough to add kindling and then small pieces of wood.
For tips on how to choose the best fire starters you can use, see our article on this to find out more.
Putting Out Your Fire
Now that you know how to start a fire and have some basic fire starting knowledge, it is time to learn how to put out your fire. In the USA, Smokey the Bear has always reminded about the dangers of forest fires. So once you’re done cooking and if you’re leaving camp to go hunting or exploring or going home, you should know how to put out your fire properly so as not to endanger other campers, the wildlife and the wilderness. Here are some tips to follow:
- Always have a pail of water near your fire bed. This will serve as your fire extinguisher. Good alternatives are sand or dirt.
- You might be tempted to make a roaring fire but it’s always best to keep your fire small so that it is more manageable. Don’t make it bigger than what is necessary for you or your group.
- Do not burn glass, plastics or pressurized aerosol. They don’t really burn but are dangerous when heated up.
If you know that you’re going to put out your fire, start early. Putting out a fire takes longer than you would think. If you’re going to bed, leaving or going out to explore or hunt start putting out your fire 20 minutes before your activity.
Sprinkle your water rather than dump it into the fire. Dumping the pail of water into your fire will cause it to become flooded. You will have a hard time starting a fire later. Sprinkle as much water as needed to put out embers.
Stir the charcoal and embers as you sprinkle the water. This will allow embers and flame underneath to get wet too continue to Sprinkle and stir until you don’t hear any hissing going on. This is a good sign that your fire is nearly dead.
Lastly, do the palm test. Hold up the palm of your hand near the ashes. If it is still hot, continue stirring and sprinkling. You can stop when it feels cold.
If you’re in a campsite and leaving for home, gather up the ashes of your campfire and dispose of accordingly. You want to leave camp the same way as you found it for other campers. If you built your own fire bed, replace the dug up soil and patch up the grass as much as you can.
Do not bury the ashes as they could still be hot enough to ignite roots of trees and start a forest fire. Instead of burying, spread the ashes around the campsite. For a list of hiking must-haves you must take with you, see our earlier piece on this.
Fire is essential for wilderness survival. It keeps wild animals away, keep you warm at night and give you clean water to heat and drink. Knowing how to start a fire and put it properly is essential for every outdoorsman and camper. Now, we can survive like Bear Grylls and toast marshmallows around the fire we made by ourselves.
Daniel is a gear freak when it comes to hiking, climbing and camping. He went to REI Outdoor School to meet new people and learn best practices. Don’t even try to argue with him about the latest backpack or ice axe, he tried most of them. Daniel’s dream is to climb Mount Everest.