There are many skills that, while almost primordial, are neither known nor practiced by the majority in our modern world. These skills are fundamental to basic survival. While I am convinced that the most fundamental and necessary skill is that of building simple shelter, for comfort and long term survival, no skill is quite as rewarding as mastering reliable fire-building techniques that will work with a minimum of modern materials in all conditions—even in pouring down rain. While fire is low on my personal list of survival priorities, there is nothing like sitting around a nice fire enjoying the heat and light and the community that fire encourages. And when it comes to longer-term survival, fire becomes critical for sterilizing water and cooking.
Considering that I am co-owner of 180 Tack, LLC, the developers of the natural fuel 180 Stove and 180 VL, the knowledge of building reliable fires in all conditions is definitely a priority. We believe that our stoves offer the most reliable, compact, safe, environmentally conscious, portable cooking solution available. But the stoves are only as reliable as one’s ability to build a fire (or to use alternative fuel sources such as gel fuels or charcoal…).
So, come with me on a short journey; a journey that will reveal the primordial mystery of fire building. After reading this article and practicing these skills a few times, you will be able to join the ranks of the fire shaman. You will be the one who will start fires with ease when the rest of the neighborhood is ready to run to the convenience store to buy a fake wax log that promises a simple one-match fire. People will watch in awe as you illustrate the long lost mystery of the fire gods. Oooooh! Awe! Hurray!
Well…you may not become rich and famous by knowing these skills, but you very well may save an evening for your friends, provide a hot meal to those in need, or even possibly, save a life. But if none of those things happen, then at the very least, you will have the confidence that you are not among the fire ignorant. You will know that you can depend on yourself for this basic, worthwhile skill.
The following will cover fire making including tender, kindling, the proper way to arrange the wood, and a fantastic, reliable method for building a fire even when all the fuels are soaked. We will also talk about responsible use of fire and fire safety.
Three things are essential for any fire: air (oxygen), heat, and fuel. To start and maintain a fire, one must understand the interactions of these three things. Many inexperienced “would be” fire builders throw a bunch of sticks or logs in a pile and stick a match to the pile. After emptying their box of matches they either reach for gasoline or make that trip to the corner store to buy that fake wax log. WARNING! Don’t reach for gasoline to start a fire. It is not needed. It is very dangerous. There are safer ways to start a fire using volatile fuels, but I am going to keep those ways secret in this article. If you like your hair and skin, then just leave the gasoline out of the equation. As for that wax log, YOU DON’T NEED IT.
What you will need is some tender, kindling, dry wood, and to know how to stack the wood. I will cover starting a fire with wet wood in the next section. As a rule, the thicker the wood, the more heat will be required to get it to burn. This is because thick pieces of wood have a greater heat sink mass and less surface area. That means that the heat is absorbed/dissipated into the wood instead of igniting the wood, and the air can only reach the comparatively small surface area. Take that same chunk of wood and break it up into splinters, and the surface area increases hundreds of times over and the potential heat sink of each splinter is tiny. Stick a match to these splinters and the heat has fewer places to go and there is plenty of surface area exposed to the air. That is why a toothpick lights easily and a stick of firewood does not. As a rule, the smaller and more fibrous the fuel, the easier it will ignite.
Tender is finer still. The purpose of tender is to start a flame from a tiny coal or spark. If you are starting a fire with a match, then tender, while helpful, may not be necessary. Still, tender will expand a flame until it is large enough for the kindling to catch. In the woods, the best tender will be nests of very fine, very dry fibrous materials like fine wispy grasses, broken up cedar bark strands, milk weed fuzz, etc. If you have home resources at hand, then dryer lint or cotton balls with Vaseline worked into them work well. Surprisingly, steel wool can also make good tender and can be ignited with a 9-volt battery. To get a flame from a coal, make a nest about the size of your two hands together from tender, place the coal in the nest, and blow the coal gently until the tender ignites.
Kindling is composed of small pieces of fuel/wood that will catch and expand a flame. Kindling will range from toothpick sized up to twig sized, depending on how dry the fuel is. Larger sticks may be considered kindling but these will need smaller ones to grow the flame. Kindling does not burn long, but it burns quickly and hot enough to get those larger sticks of firewood started.
PROPER FIRE STACK
But what do we do with this stuff to get a fire going? Since heat rises, the tender needs to be under the kindling, and the kindling needs to be under the wood. But this will only work if there is enough space for air to get to the flames and not too much space to dissipate the heat. A single stick will rarely burn well, but two sticks an inch or two apart will capture each other’s heat and burn efficiently. Place the same two sticks too closely together and the fire will smother out. Understanding this is key to getting a fire to grow.
I prefer to stack my wood “log cabin” style with firewood-sized sticks separated by one to two inches. This stack can take full advantage of the tender/kindling and will grow quickly. Some like to prop the wood teepee style, which is nice for creating a hotter and taller flame, but I don’t like the way the wood tumbles as it burns, and it is harder to get the spacing correct.
Please be very careful if you use paper as kindling. Burning paper tends to escape a fire ring and float to places where fire is NOT wanted. Many forest fires have started this way resulting in the loss of thousands of acres of forest, homes by the hundreds, and even lives. Likewise, burning trash in a fire is really not a good idea.
WET WOOD FIRE
Above I stated that fuels need to be dry to start a fire. So what does one do if all the available fuel has been soaked by rain or snow? There is no great trick to this. But it does require a decent-sized knife. Wood that is wet on the outside, even wood that has been soaking in water for days, will be dry on the inside. All one needs is to get under some shelter to keep the wood dry, and split the wood into tender and kindling sizes. Well-seasoned (dead) wood will work best for this. The following pictures show this process.
Making a wet wood fire requires wet wood. Just to prove the point, I am soaking an aspen stick.
Even though the stick is soaking wet, there is still dry wood on the inside.
Using a decent knife and a second stick as baton, split the stick. You will need split sticks thumb-sized, pencil-sized, and toothpick-sized. Split more than you think you may need. You can always use the extra wood later, but running out of this kindling when building a fire can be disheartening. Be sure to use some sort of base plate to keep the stick out of the mud, and to protect your knife from dulling in the dirt.
When the wood is small enough, it can be split simply by forcing the blade into the wood and twisting.
Once there is a generous collection of thumb, pencil, and toothpick sized dry fuel. then if you have some tender or even just a match, you are ready to start the fire. If you do not have tender, then you will need to make some by first cutting some shavings from the wood and then making some sawdust by scraping the dry stick.
Making scrapings. The scrapings will catch a spark from fire steel to create a small flame. Use this flame to light the shavings, and then the toothpicks, pencils, and finally thumb-sized wood.
Getting ready to ignite the scrapings. Make a tall, loose pile. Notice the prop stick. This is used to support the weight of the shavings and other wood so the pile stays airy and the fire is not smothered out.
Igniting the scrapings using fire steel.
Carefully adding shavings, and then larger sticks. The young flame is fragile. Be careful to use the prop stick to support the fuel so you don’t smother the flame.
Finally adding the thumb-sized sticks. Almost ready to cook!
The 180 Stove is placed over the fire, and more wood can be added as needed through the open end (facing away from the camera). Ready to cook, even when all the fuel was wet.
RESPONSIBLE AND SAFE FIRES
Knowing how to be responsible with fire in the wilderness is a critical prerequisite for anyone who wants to camp, hike, or live in the woods. Fire can be friend or foe. Responsibility does not only include fire safety to prevent forest fires and personal injury. Abusing the wilderness with fire proves one is immature and has little understanding of, or respect for nature. This type of abuse is all too common and includes such things as making oversized fires, creating multiple fire rings in one locale, scorching trees or other plants, using a fire pit as a trash can, melting cans, bottles, and plastics and leaving them, failing to put out fires completely, leaving a fire unattended, building fires too close to surface water, and the list goes on and on.
When camping, use existing fire rings and scatter extra ones. Pack out trash left by others. Leave nature better than you found it. If you are in an area where there is no fire ring, then consider using fire practices that respect nature. One of the biggest mistakes is making the fire too large. Small fires use less wood, create less smoke, leave smaller scars, and are much easier to use for cooking. And small fires provide comforting heat and light that does not force campers to stand ten feet away.
Better yet, use a 180 Stove to contain your small fire and maximize your cooking. With the 180 Stove you can cook or boil water using only a handful of twigs. The cooking platform keeps the pan close to the flames and reflects the heat onto the pan. The stove is lighter than carrying a backpacking stove with fuel, and more compact as well. If you are not using the 180 Two-Piece Snow and Ash Pan, then scrape a little soil to the side, cook, douse, and then cover. This way no scars are left on the land. In more delicate areas or for cooking on snow, use the ash pan.