Fire Starting 101 – How to Start a Fire

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The ability to start a fire is probably the single most important survival skill. Perhaps this is why survival instructors spend so much time and effort in collecting new ways of starting a fire. While some of these may seem a bit ludicrous or even impractical, there are some that are excellent.

We use fire to keep warm, provide light and to cook our food. We can even use it to purify water. That makes it the only survival skill that affects all of our top survival priorities. When establishing a camp in a survival situation, starting a fire is considered the single most important task to complete. Along with building a shelter, it is one of the two tasks that must be completed before nightfall.

Yet few people in our modern society truly know how to start a fire. I’m sure you’ve seen friends trying to start a wood fire in their fireplace or at a campsite. If they don’t pour flammables on the logs to light them, they’ll probably stuff newspaper under them. Then, when that doesn’t work, they’ll keep stuffing more newspaper, hoping that the fire will eventually catch.

What would these people do, if they were caught in a survival situation with only one match? In olden times, it was considered a matter of pride to be able to start a fire with one match, and young boys would work hard at reaching that goal. This wasn’t just vanity either; traveling cross-country didn’t give you the option of stopping in a convenience store to buy more matches. They had to be able to start a fire with one match, or even with flint and steel, to make sure that they could survive.

They were able to do this because they understood the concepts of how to start a fire. By comparison, the guy stuffing newspapers under the logs in his fireplace has no idea of what he is doing.

Start With the Right Materials

To start with, you need the right materials. Just having logs is not enough, and the logs you have need to be properly prepared. In most cases, that means splitting them, so that there is exposed wood for the fire to catch on to. While it is possible to start a fire with wood that hasn’t been split, it is much harder. Better to use those unsplit logs once the fire is burning well.

The materials you need are:

  • Fire Starter – Something to provide a flame, a spark or heat to get combustion going
  • Accelerant – Accelerants are highly flammable liquids or solids. While you shouldn’t need this most of the time, if you are starting a fire with damp wood, an accelerant will get it to ignite, when otherwise it wouldn’t
  • Tinder – Small pieces of flammable material, such as dry grass, char cloth, newspaper, or an old bird’s nest. This is what you are going to light with your fire starter, not the logs
  • Kindling – Sticks and twigs, roughly the diameter of a finger. Once the tinder is burning, it will ignite the kindling, increasing the size of the fire
  • Fuel – The logs and split logs which you will be burning in your fire. These will be ignited by the kindling

Notice the progression in those materials. In proper fire starting, you never try to light a log on the fire. Rather, you light smaller materials which will burn more readily and allow the fire to grow. It really doesn’t take much time to get to the point where you have those logs burning away.

Lay the Fire

With your materials gathered, you need a place to lay the fire. Choose a flat spot with no flammable materials. That means either bare earth or rock. You don’t want your fire to spread out of control, so having a good substrate is important. Creating a ring of stones around the area where you are going to build the fire is useful in containing the fire as well.

You want to lay your fire in such a way that you have the progression of materials set up so that the flames from one level of materials will reach the next level. So, start by placing your tinder loosely on in the center of your fire pit. Next, place some kindling over it, stacking it to form a teepee or stepped tower. There needs to be space between the tinder and kindling so that air can flow through, providing oxygen to the fire. But you don’t want so much space that the flame doesn’t reach the kindling.

Finally, make another, larger teepee or stepped pyramid out of your split logs. Once again, there should be a little bit of space between this and the kindling, but not too much space. Make sure that there are spaces between the logs so that air can flow between them.

One last little detail that you need to make sure of; when you lay in the kindling and the logs, you need to be sure that you do so in a way that leaves you some access to the tinder. To start the fire, you’ll need to get your fire starter directly to the tinder. That means leaving an opening.

Start the Fire

Pretty much any survival instructor will tell you that you should have two primary and two secondary fire starting methods in your survival kit or bug out bag. Primary means matches and lighters; secondary is anything else.

Personally, I’m a firm believer in doing things the easiest way possible. For that reason, I’m not a fan of bow drills, Ferro Rods, and Fresnel Lenses. While all of these can work for starting a fire, none of them is easy. Therefore, while I learn those fire starting methods, I try to make sure that I’ll never have to use them.

My favorite fire starter is a butane lighter. A disposable butane lighter, available at your local convenience store, is able to start about 1,000 fires if used carefully. That’s pretty good, compared to matches. But I don’t use a disposable lighter; I use a piezo-electric storm-proof refillable butane lighter. While considerably more expensive, it has one important capability that the one from the convenience store doesn’t have, it won’t blow out in the wind.

The reason why these types of lighters can’t be blown out by the wind is that the piezo-electric igniter keeps striking. So, if the wind blows out the flame, it instantly re-ignites. That one feature makes it worth investing in a stormproof lighter, no matter what it costs (and you can find them for as little as $10.00. Make sure it’s piezo-electric though because not all “survival” lighters are).

So, using your windproof lighter or whatever another fire starter you might want to use, all you need to do, to start your fire, is ignite the tinder. If you are using some of the more difficult fire starting methods, such as a Ferro Rod or bow drill, then you might need to remove the tinder from under the laid fire and ignite it outside of the fire pit. Then, once it starts burning, you can place it back under the kindling.

A better method is to leave the tinder in place and ignite some more tinder. Then, once it is burning well, move it to the tinder you laid with your fire. Be sure to do this before it gets burning well enough to burn your hand. If you can’t hold it, it’s probably too late.

Using Accelerants

Anyone who has used a charcoal barbecue grill has used accelerants to start a fire. The lighter fluid we use to get the charcoal going is an accelerant. You can use an accelerant any time to start a fire, but I wouldn’t recommend it. While I do carry a good supply of accelerants in both my EDC and my bug out bag, they are there for use when the foul weather makes fire starting difficult.

By only using my accelerants in such times, I ensure that they will last longer, just like starting a fire with one match ensures that my matches last longer. Conservation of assets is important when you don’t know when or how you’re going to resupply those assets.

Proper use of any accelerant is to start the tinder burning. In really wet weather, where you can’t find any dry tinder to use, you might have to use it to start the kindling burning. But you should never find yourself in a position where you are trying to start the logs burning with an accelerant. You’d have to use too much of it to be practical.

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