If you ever find yourself in a survival situation, especially in cold or wet weather, few things will be as important to your survival as the ability to make fire. Hypothermia can set in when your body temperature drops by as little as two degrees, and it goes without saying that fire could be what stands between you and freezing to death. Almost as important, a positive attitude is essential to being able to survive and make it home to your family, and a nice warm fire can be the difference between hope and despair. But knowing how to build a survival fire, especially if you have no matches or lighter, can be difficult at best. If you’ve never spent any time building these all-important skills, mastering them in moments of stress will be almost impossible.
So we’ll explore the basics of starting a campfire in survival situations. Once you’ve got the head knowledge, it’s imperative that you put that knowledge to work in a practical way. You have to practice, practice, practice, until the different ways of building a survival fire become a part of your muscle memory. Only then can you be sure that when it really matters, you’ll be able to call your skills to mind. You can’t save yourself, or anyone else, if your knowledge never makes it off the page.
Choosing Your Survival Fire Location
As they say in real estate, it’s all about the location. The same holds true for choosing a place to build your fire. There are several things to consider:
- Where will your shelter be placed? If you’ve not already erected a shelter, choosing a location for your fire should be made in conjunction with a choice about shelter placement. If possible, choose an area below the canopy of a covering tree where limbs are over 10 feet high.
- What direction is the wind coming from?
This also applies to your shelter location. Selecting a fire site that is out of the wind will help in building the fire, maintaining the fire, staying out of the smoke, and controlling the fire, as well.
- What are the ground conditions? On wet ground your fire will struggle, if you ever get it started at all. In wet areas, or snow, you may have to build up a base for your fire to sit on. Choose rocks or green bows to build something out of the wet to build a fire on.
- Identify and protect against wildfire danger: Clear the area of debris and build a containment area. Fist size stones make a good fire ring, a trench or pit can also be used, anything to help ensure that your survival fire doesn’t become the spark that sets the world on fire.
Fueling Your Survival Fire
You can’t have a fire without fuel. Best case scenario you’re in a wooded area full of dead, dry wood just waiting to be gathered up and turned into a roaring blaze. Standing dead timber makes the best firewood. If you aren’t so lucky, remember that any items can be used to feed a fire. Dry dung will burn, if you can find it. Grasses, bundled and tied into knots, will burn longer than if it’s loosely piled. Whatever you can find, get as much as you think you’ll need, gathered to the place you’ve chosen for your fire, and then double it. Nobody ever gathers enough firewood.
Finding dry tinder: this can be a challenge in wet conditions. Tinder is the fine materials used to catch a spark, and the most basic part of any fire. If you were building a fire at home, in a fireplace, wadded newspaper would be your tinder. But in the wild, you’ll have to carry in, find, or make tinder. A small pile of fire starting material is called a tinder nest. Knowing where to look for tinder can be the difference between getting a spark to catch, and going cold through the night. If you can, locate a fallen tree or limb. Even after days of rain, the underside of the tree can hide dry materials. If there isn’t dry grass, twigs or leaves, take your knife and scrape up into the log, on the downward facing side, to create a bed of spongy dead wood. As long as you’re using your knife, you can shave off the outer wet layer of a good sized stick, to reveal the drier wood underneath.
Making tinder: Your clothing can also provide you with some usable tinder. Scrape the sharp blade of your knife along a flannel shirt, cotton t-shirt, or blue jeans to create a small pile of made-to-order lint. Use your knife to whittle a stick into a pile of shavings. The outside may be wet, but the wood inside will be much dryer. Cat tails and tree moss, if you can find them dry, also make great tinder for starting your fire. Cat tails go up fast, though, so have your other materials ready before you light it.
Bringing your own tinder: To avoid having to hunt tinder in poor conditions, you could carry some on you. A good wilderness pack should always contain a fire starting kit that would include tinder, among other things. There are several great commercial Fire Starter Kits that would be very handy to have on hand in a survival situation. In addition to your fire starter kit, here are several types of tinder that would be easy to find around the house and put in the bottom of your pack, to always have with you.
- Cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly (you’ll want to put these inside a baggie to keep them from getting on everything else)
- Steel wool – super fine grade works best
- Lighter wood – pine wood chunks, soaked in pitch, usually from the stump of a tree
- Dryer lint – you make some every time you do a load of washing. Put a couple of loads worth in a Ziploc bag, put it down in the bottom of your carry bag, and forget it’s there until you need it.
- Char cloth – heat cloth in a container until it quits smoking – it should be dark brown
Homemade accelerant: If you have a tube of petroleum based chap stick, you can cut a corner off of your cotton or flannel shirt or jeans, rub it good with chap stick and use it as a base for your homemade dryer lint tinder. The chap stick cloth will act as a wick, pulling petroleum into the lint, encouraging your tinder to burn longer, giving you a better chance of getting your natural tinder to light and take off. This can be especially helpful if you’re having trouble finding a dry area to start your tinder nest. There are other materials that can be used as an accelerant, if you can find them. Petroleum jelly, or petroleum based antibiotic from your First Aid Kit will burn, as will WD40, super glue, motor oil and a number of other household items that you likely wouldn’t have in a survival situation, but who knows? Mixing these accelerants with your fine tinder or a bit of cloth will help them to burn even longer, giving your other materials a chance to dry out and catch.
How To Start A Survival Fire Using Tinder Nests
So what is the best way to build a fire if you don’t have matches or a lighter? Not a question you want to face for the first time in a life or death situation. There are many methods for building a fire without matches. An important thing to remember is that tinder burns quickly, so before setting the spark to your tinder, have the next step ready to go. You don’t want to have to start three or four tinder nests, before you get your fire going.
Gather a bundle of twigs into a bunch, like you’re picking wild flowers. Holding the thicker ends together firmly at the bottom, the narrower ends up. Pack the narrow ends full of tinder (this is tinder separate from your tinder nest), then stand the whole thing on its head, with the tinder now on the bottom. Adjust the bundle as necessary to make it stand up in your fire pit. Now you’re ready to set a spark to your tinder nest, then push the lighted tinder into the bottom of the bundle, igniting the entire thing.
Using Friction to Start Your Survival Fire
There are already a number of great guides on how to light a campfire fire with friction. You can learn the steps here from the Boy Scouts of America or here from Field and Stream. Friction fires are more difficult to master, and certainly should be learnt and practiced by anyone serious about their survival craft. But there are some easier, though less discussed, methods for starting a fire that we are going to focus on here.
Flint and Steel: This is the easiest of all the survival methods, and barely qualifies as friction based fire. All that’s required is a piece of flint and piece of high carbon steel, like your survival knife. A spark is formed through friction, by striking the steel against the flint. Place your tinder bundle to catch the sparks and gently blow the spark to life, once it catches in the tinder. If you haven’t carried flint with you, you may be lucky enough to find some around. This YouTube video shows you how to identify flint.
How To Start A Campfire Using Lens
Standard lens: this method is pretty straight forward. Most little boys have practiced this method on ants unfortunate enough to set up camp in their yard. The biggest downside to this method is that it only works on a sunny day.
- Find a lens – magnifying glass, binoculars, reading glasses, lens from a camera (you’d probably have to remove it), even the lens from the end of a flashlight, removed.
- Hold the lens up to the sun, tilting it to focus the sun into a fine point of light, hold the light steady on your tinder nest until it ignites. If you’re using binoculars to focus your light, hold the wide end up to the sun, focusing the light out the narrow end.
- Steady! A steady hand is important, as is patience. A point of light that moves all over the place will never build up enough heat to light the tinder.
Less common lenses: Lenses can be created out of unusual items.
- Ice can be made into a lens, given the right circumstances. Absolutely clear water is necessary. With an approximately 2” thick piece of clear ice, use your survival knife to shape the ice into the rough shape of a lens. You can also use nearby stone to grind the ice into the right shape. Using the heat from your hand to smooth the edges of your ice lens, you should end up with a piece of ice that is much thicker in the middle than it is on the edges. Think “coke bottle glasses” kind of a lens. Then use the ice to focus the sunlight in the same way you would a traditional lens.
- Coke can lens – not exactly a lens, but another way to focus sunlight is to polish the aluminum on the bottom of a drink can to a high shine. You can use toothpaste, sand, or even chocolate to polish the aluminum to a high shine and then reflect the sun back onto the tinder nest.
- Water bottle – a preferably clear water bottle filled with water, can be transformed into a lens by removing the label and holding curved side of the bottle up to focus the sunlight onto your tinder nest.
- Bag of water – this method is about as simple as it sounds. Water in a clear plastic bag creates a bulging side that acts as a lens for focusing the heat of the sun and giving you fire.
One additional note: focusing your beam of light onto darker material is more successful in igniting than lighter material. Char cloth would be an ideal tinder for this scenario, but if all you have is natural tinder, focus your beam on the darkest you have in your nest. Once you get the tinder to smoke, continue to hold the beam of light in place until you have a genuine spark, then gently blow the spark into a flame and move your tinder nest into your kindling bundle.
The lesson with lens methods is to be creative. Don’t give up. If you lack the means to start a fire with one method, look around to see what else you might have available that just may work. A never quit attitude will bring you home to your family.
Using Other Methods To Start Your Survival Fire
Batteries and Steel Wool: Hopefully you’ve carried in, or can find, something with batteries in it and some fine grade steel wool. This is one of the easiest methods of fire starting, short of having matches or a lighter. Even a battery as small as AA will work. Slightly shred a piece of the steel wool, and make it long enough to reach both ends of the battery. Be sure you don’t break the continuity of the steel wool. Hold the steel wool to both ends of the battery and it will ignite, almost immediately.
Battery and aluminum gum wrapper: much like steel wool, this method is easy, but you have to move quick to make the most of the spark. The paper flashes and burns out just as fast. Shape the chewing gum wrapper into an hour glass shape, fat at both ends, narrow in the middle. This shape concentrates the flow of electricity in the middle, igniting the paper very quickly. But it goes out almost immediately, so your tinder will need to be very dry, and very close by.
With every method, once you get a spark in your tinder nest, blow it gently until you create a flame, and then move it to the bundle of kindling, to start your fire. Once your kindling is going good, add slightly larger pieces of wood, being careful not to smother your flame. Congratulations! You’ve now learnt how to build a survival fire!
Ensure You Practice Starting Your Survival Fire
All the knowledge in the world will do you little good in an emergency situation if you can’t call it to mind. Even skills that you can remember, but have never done, will be difficult to do for the very first time under stressful conditions. Take every opportunity to build a fire using one of these non-traditional ways of doing so. Making a pretend campfire with the kids in the backyard is a great way educate them too. Show your children or your friends how to build a survival fire without a match. They’ll be impressed with you and closer to possessing this all-important life-saving skill themselves.