[Updated September 2019 with more information and tutorials]
Starting a fire is just like taking care of a baby: you have to slowly nurture it, keep it fed, and prevent it from getting wet so you can get a good night’s sleep.
Firestarting takes a lot of hard work and practice, so if you’re new to prepping and are here to learn how to start a fire, we won’t judge you. In fact, we created this guide specifically for beginners who want to ignite a new skill.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to start a campfire:
As a basic survival need, fire is essential in keeping your body temperature at a normal level. Temperatures tend to drop drastically at night, especially in temperate climates. In the US alone, hypothermia accounts for around 1,300 deaths each year— so starting a fire is an invaluable skill if you don’t want to freeze to death.
Fire also enables you to cook food, boil water for consumption, and protect yourself from predators.
So, the question on our mind; how does one start a big roaring fire? You’d need three things:
These three make up the “combustion triangle” and without one or the others, it would be impossible to ignite a fire.
20% of the air is made up of oxygen, so you don’t really have to worry about this element. The density of oxygen does decrease at high altitudes, so you have to use extra effort in creating a fire in areas significantly above sea level.
Heat can be produced through friction, like rubbing sticks together, striking a flint, lighting a match against a surface or using a lighter.
Fuel can be any flammable object that feeds the fire and keeps it burning such as tinder, kindling, and firewood.
What’s The Difference Between Tinder, Kindling, And Firewood?
Tinder is any dry and fibrous material that would easily combust.
When out in the woods, a “bird’s nest” made from dry tree bark makes for excellent tinder. Trees like cedar, pine, and birch are all rich in resin, which makes their barks easily combustible even when they’re damp. These resinous trees grow all over North America, too, so you wouldn’t have trouble finding them when out in the wild.
To create a tinder bundle with tree bark, all you have to do is peel the bark off of dead fallen trees. Make sure they’re nice, dry, and fluffy. Tear the bark into fine strips and bunch it up to form a bundle. Congrats, you now have tinder to start a fire.
Other things you can use as tinder include dry grass, wood shavings, pine needles, pine cones, dry coconut husks and fluffy plants like cattails.
You can also prepare some firestarters before leaving home. These catch flame really quick and will help you create fire even when conditions are less than ideal. Here are some excellent firestarters that you can make for cheap:
- Dryer lint – This may be the bane of many dryer filters, but don’t throw them out just yet. Dryer lint is made of hundreds of tiny fabric fibers and is highly flammable. You can use dryer lint on its own, or turn it into hardcore firestarters with some egg cartons and candle wax.
- Cotton balls – Like dryer lint, cotton balls are great on their own, but if you slather them in petroleum jelly or vaseline, they become even better.
- Char cloth – char cloth is dry, fibrous, and easily combustible. To make some char cloth, you’ll need an old altoids tin, a few small pieces of cloth (preferably cotton), and a nice fire. First, punch a hole in the middle of your altoids tin. Take the small pieces of cloth and put them inside the tin. Then, throw the tin into the campfire. Once you take it out of the fire, you’ll see that the cloth inside has become nice and charred, the perfect firestarter for your next camping trip.
- Biomass firestarters – you can actually buy biomass firestarters in blocks or discs, but if you’ve got some sawdust and candle wax lying around, you can also make your own. All you have to do is mix these two components together and form little blocks or “cakes”. Once they’re nice and dry, you can use them as firestarters.
Kindling is a type of fuel that’s slightly larger than tinder and is meant to keep the fire going long and hot enough for you to feed it larger pieces of wood.
With kindling, it’s important to start small. Ideally, kindling should be thin enough to snap with your hands. They’re usually around the diameter of a match, but no larger than a pencil. Think thin twigs, wood splinters, and small pieces of softwood.
Each layer of kindling that you put into your fire should ignite the next, so make sure to feed them gradually. Patience is a virtue in this stage of firemaking. Add too large pieces too soon and you’ll smother your flame.
Like tinder, you have to make sure that your kindling is dry. Look for dead standing tree branches and twigs. Stay away from pieces of wood that are on the ground, since they absorb a lot of moisture. They’re most likely rotten or have vegetation growing all over them, too. If a branch bends but doesn’t snap, that means it still has some moisture within and is not ideal for kindling.
It could be difficult to find good kindling after a rain shower, where everything’s wet or damp. It could also be a challenge when you’re in an area with limited trees, or if all you could find are thick tree limbs. In such cases, you’d need to know how to create feathersticks.
Feathersticks are simply kindling with curls or “feathers” on one end. You can make feathersticks by batoning a thick piece of wood in half and lightly running a knife along its length until you slowly form fluffy, fibrous wood curls. These feathers catch embers or sparks quickly, allowing you to make fire even when conditions are less than ideal. The rest of the wood can serve as additional fuel.
Once you light a fire with your tinder and kindling, it’s time to keep it going by feeding it larger pieces of fuel. You can bring some processed firewood from home, buy a bundle from camp stores along the way, or gather some firewood from dead standing trees around your camp.
Be careful not to smother your fire with too big pieces. Carry a bushcraft axe or learn how to baton with your knife to break large chunks of wood into smaller pieces.
Be strategic with your firelay, too. Here are a couple of setups that you might find handy.
How To Start A Fire With Modern Supplies
Now that you know the basics, you’re ready to start a fire.
First, make sure to build your fire in a safe environment. Be on the lookout for bans and wildfire warnings. If you’re in a campsite with designated fire pits, be a good outdoorsman and make your campfire there.
If there are no fire pits or if you’re camping out in the backcountry, clear the area from grass, pine needles, moss, and other vegetation until you reach loamy soil. In any case, don’t build fires in dry, grassy areas to avoid bushfires.
When the area is ready, take your tinder and light it up. Slowly build your fire by gradually adding kindling, starting from the thinner twigs and working your way up. Make sure to leave some space between the twigs and the tinder to facilitate the flow of oxygen. Once you’ve got a nice flame underway, add the thicker sticks and blow on the fire so it thoroughly burns the fuelwood.
Materials And Gear For Firestarting
When it comes to igniting your fire, you’ve got a bevy of choices. Matches are the most common, of course, since they’re light, portable and darn easy to use. However, they can easily get wet so make sure to buy high-quality matches and store them in a nice zip baggie to keep them from getting damaged. You can also dip them in melted wax or nail polish to make them waterproof.
Lighters are another popular mainstay in firemaking. They’re lightweight, cheap, and can last longer than matches. The downside to lighters is that they can run out of fuel, and their parts— especially that tiny piece of flint— can get damaged. The chamber can also break and leak fuel.
Another disadvantage is that they need to have the right pressure and temperature to work, so it can be difficult to get them started at high altitudes or when it’s too cold out. In such cases, make sure to warm your lighter up by rubbing it between your hands.
Ferrocerium rods are a good contingency when your matches and lighters fail. Sure, they’re relatively heavier, more expensive, and need a certain level of skill, but they will cover the bases that matches and lighters can’t. They can also work at any altitude, do not need fuel, and can last a long time.
Primitive Ways To Start A Fire
In the very real chance that you don’t have any modern firemaking tools, you will have to start one from scratch using primitive tools and methods. This could be daunting for a beginner, especially in wet or cold conditions, but you can get the hang of it with practice and experience.
Here are some primitive firestarting techniques that you can try:
The hand-drill is one of the most recognizable ways of primitive firestarting. It’s made of two components that you can easily find outdoors: the spindle and the fireboard.
A spindle or drill is a smooth, sturdy stick that you spin or rub against a fireboard to create embers. Dry, softwood works best for drills. Choose a stick that’s smooth and free from twigs, thorns or knots to prevent getting cuts or blisters on your hand.
The size and length of the spindle will depend on you, but it’s usually about 2 feet long and a quarter inch wide with a rounded tip. The longer the spindle, the longer you can rotate them and the faster you can create embers.
Spindles made from thicker sticks offer more control and are great at preventing blister formation. Thin spindles, while a bit hard to control, are excellent at focusing heat, so weigh these factors when selecting your spindle stick.
A fireboard is a dry, flat piece of wood about half an inch thick. It’s got round depressions and v-shaped notches on the side where the char and embers produced by the spindle will be collected.The embers are then transferred onto a tinder bundle.
You can operate the hand drill in a kneeling position, or go at it sitting down, pinning the fireboard with one foot. To minimize blisters, it’s important to start slow, warming up the wood and gradually gaining speed until you produce hot coals. Roll the stick not just with your palms but with your fingers as well.
Bow Drill Method
The bow and drill method is one of the most effective ways to build a fire through friction. Sure, it uses more materials and needs a few skills to construct, but it does take the stress away from your hands. The use of the bow and a handhold in addition to the spindle and fireboard ensures that you can get consistent speed and pressure to produce embers. You can also modify the bow drill method to a two-person configuration where one holds the drill upright and another operates the bow..
Since you don’t need to run your hands along the spindle, you can use a smaller, thicker piece of dry softwood for the bow drill.
The bow can be made by tying a sturdy piece of string (like your shoelace, a length of 550 paracord or some natural cordage) to a curved branch that’s about two feet long. Be careful not to tie it too tautly, though, since you need to twist the spindle around it.
A handhold or socket can be a round piece of rock or a small piece of wood that goes on top of the spindle.
Check out the video above for the step-by-step tutorial on how to construct an effective bow drill.
Cord and Pump Drill
You can take your primitive firemaking skills up a notch by putting together a cord drill or a pump drill. To create this mechanism, you would still need a spindle, fireboard, cordage, with the addition of a flywheel, which you can make using a flat, round piece of rock or by forming a disc from clay.
The spindle used in this method is pretty similar in size to the spindle used in a hand drill, albeit a tad bit shorter. The fireboard doesn’t have to be too wide, either. You just want it to be broad enough to accommodate the spindle and create embers.
The cordage, which is tied to one end of the spindle, helps spin the drill. The spinning motion creates momentum on the flywheel, causing the cords to wrap around the spindle again and turns the drill the other way.
This primitive firestarting technique is perhaps the hardest one to make. You have to be patient in drilling a hole into your flywheel or in making one from scratch using clay. Still, both cord and pump drills take a lot of pressure away from your hands and can save you significant time and energy in the long run.
The fire plough is a primitive firestarting method mostly used by Pacific Islanders. This works by rubbing two sticks together. On the ground, you have a long flat piece of wood with a groove running along its length. You use a shorter stick with a dull point to rub against this groove. The friction creates hot coals, which are in turn, transferred to a waiting tinder bundle.
Unlike the hand drills, you’ll be creating friction by pushing and rubbing the stick horizontally, so this might be more tiring. The trick is to select extremely dry pieces of softwood, and to keep your hands straight when doing the plowing motion.
Flint and steel
The flint and steel method that we know today probably came into being around the metal age, where people learned how to use percussion firemaking. This method is pretty straightforward: on one hand, you have your carbon steel and on the other, you have a hard piece of rock like flint, chert or quartz. Striking these materials against each other creates sparks. You can also use the back of your knife as a striker, as seen on the video above.
Unconventional Ways To Start A Fire
There are tons of other ways to create fire, as long as you’ve got good sources of oxygen, heat, and fuel. You can get a flame going using batteries and chewing gum wrappers, pencil shavings and a magnifying glass, and if you’re really hardcore, a bottle of water and beam of sunshine. You can check out these unconventional firestarting methods in this article.
Ready To Build A Fire?
Firestarting seems daunting at the beginning, but with enough practice, the right technique and patience, you can be an expert in no time. It’s also best to try these methods under different weather conditions to test your skills and cover all your bases.
Which one of these firestarting methods are you eager to try out? Sound off in the comments below!