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How To Start a Fire in The Woods

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

Fire is one of the  pillars of civilized life. It warms us and dries our clothes, it cooks our food and it provides us with light.  It powers machines and allows us to change materials from one form into another. No doubt because its proven to be so useful over millenia fire also comforts us.  A night in the woods is more bearable, even enjoyable, because of fire.

In our everyday modern life we don't have to worry about creating fire to heat our homes or cook our food.  However, if we're ever in a survival situation being able to build a fire will be the difference between comfort and discomfort, and it could be the difference between life and death. 

Building a fire is relatively easy provided you have some kind of fire starter, whether it be matches, a lighter, or even flint and steel.  If you're venturing into any remote area and there is a danger that you may be stranded overnight or in inclement weather its worth making sure you have the means to start a fire in case it becomes necessary.  Survival supplies belong in your car, truck, plane or boat, and especially in your backpack.   It is possible to start fires without matches, a lighter or flint and steel, but its not easy.  Don't tempt fate. Be prepared.

The first thing to remember about starting a fire is that the fire will be weak when it begins, and until it gains strength it will be easy to extinguish.  You have to make its early life as easy as possible.  The first goal is survival of the infant fire.  If the attainment of that goal is questionable do not compromise on achieving it.  Once the fire is going you can start another one in a better location relatively easily, so remember the goal: survival of the infant fire.

A good location is one that is protected from wind and dry.  If the weather is fair it will be easy to find a good location, but in inclement weather get under a rock outcropping, or under a stump, or beneath the branches of a large tree.  Once the fire is going you can move it. 

If possible, take your time preparing the fire.  Clear the ground so that you have a flat, dry area to start with.  If you have to, build a flat platform from sticks or rocks (sticks are better, especially if they're dry).  Arrange some tinder and make sure that it will be able to get air once you place the rest of the fuel around it.


Tinder can be anything that burns.  Paper is an obvious choice, but if you don't have paper you can use small twigs.  In some areas you can collect dried lichen or moss, or dried bark.  If you can find birch the bark burns really well.  Blow down trees and rotten trees can sometimes provide good tinder, and cedar is especially good, buring even when very wet.  Dried leaves and grass also work.   If you have to you can split larger sticks into thinner pieces, but this requires a knife.  Of course, if you're prepared you'll have a good, sharp fixed blade knife in your survival kit, with at least a 6" blade, although a bigger one can be very nice.

Don't skimp on the tinder, and make sure you have some extra to add to the fire if you need to.  Once you ignite the tinder you don't want to leave the fire on its own until its well established.   Be prepared!

Once you have the tinder under control you need to address the first type of fuel wood.  In a perfect world you will be able to collect a lot of small twigs between 6" and 10" long. They should be no thicker than a matchstick.  In an evergreen forest you can collect lots of them from the lower trunk of live trees.  As the trees mature the small lower branches die and dry out even though the rest of the tree is healthy and green.  If they snap off the tree in your hand they're perfect. If you have to wrestle with them they're second grade, but beggars can't be choosers.  You can also collect lots of twigs right off the ground.  Many will remain fairly dry, especially if they're held off the ground somewhat by other vegetation.  

Also look for dead trees, especially smaller ones that have died but not fallen down yet.  They will be drier and will provide not only twigs and kindling, but also bigger fuel for when the fire is firmly established.  If you're by a river or lake you may find driftwood at the high water mark that has been drying for months.  If its light and you can snap it, grab it.

Clean the twigs up and snap them to more or less uniform lengths.  If you end up with a bundle of crude chop sticks that you need two hands to hold together you're ready to start.  Place the tinder in the center.  Pile it high. Take three twigs and build a tripod over the tinder.  Don't be afraid to jam the ends of the twigs into the ground to stabilize them. You are going to build a teepee shaped structure by leaning more and more twigs against the tripod.  If you don't start with a solid base it will fall over before you're done, so don't rush it if you don't have to.  Remember - don't put all the tinder in, and don't use all your twigs on the teepee.  Keep some of both materials to the side in case you need to nurse the fire to life. 

Once you've built the teepee you should resist the urge to light it unless you're really confident that you're going to be successful. The more critical it is that you get a fire going the more patience you need.  To put it another way, if you're lighting a fire on a sunny sandbar just to cook a couple trout for lunch, and its not a matter of life and death, do whatever.   But, if it's starting to rain, and its getting dark, and your lost, don't fool around. Be patient and get the fire going.  

The third step is the kindling. This can be sticks or split wood, and it should range in size from the thickness of your finger to the thickness of a broom handle.  Try to get them roughly a foot long. If you continue to build a teepee fire with the kindling you'll be happier with uniform lengths, and it will work pretty well.  I prefer, however, to change styles at this point and start building a log cabin fire.  As the name suggests, all you do is lay two of the larger sticks parallel to each other on each side of the fire. Its best to start with a couple of the larger ones. Then, lay two more perpindicular to the first. Put them right on the edge of the teepee that you've built with the twigs.   Lay each successive layer close to the teepee so that you actually end up with something more like a log pyramid.  Be careful to maintain at least two clear access points to the tinder through the twigs and the first layer of fuel twigs.

Its now time to light the fire.  If you have matches  light one and stick it into the tinder until it catches. As soon as it does strike another (or light it off the first) and ignite the opposite side.  If you can repeat this a third time, do so.  Its better to get critical mass early than to have the tinder burn up slowly without creating any heat.  Feel free to blow judiciously, and add more tinder and twigs as appropriate. Listen for any crackling sounds (which are good) and look for any twigs that actually catch fire and start burning. If you see this carefull add twigs from the pile you set aside to these ares of the fire.  

Watch the teepee carefully once the fire starts burning. Once its fully engulfed you can start to add larger sticks, but do so incrementally.  You need at least three or four sticks as thick as your arm to be well aflame before you start throwing logs or stumps onto the fire.  Of course, if you make it to arm size sticks you'll soon be able to throw a stump on, and your fire will become a cheery blaze.

A word of caution: in many areas the danger of forest fires is non-existent much of the year, while the danger of hypothermia never disappears.  Still, don't be stupid. If you're lost or stranded in an arid forest use your head. There's no sense in staying warm by buring down the whole forest.  At the other extreme, if you're in the snow, and under a snowy tree, don't let the heat from your young fire melt the snow on the branches above - it will slide off and extinguish your hard work.  Shake the snow off first!






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