Getting a fire started

By Vin T. Sparano

Getting a fire started

Vin T. Sparano, as excerpted from Complete Guide to Camping and Wilderness Survival


To start a campfire, clear a site—always on rock or dirt—by removing all ground debris for at least 3 feet on all sides. This prevents any combustible material such as rubbish and underground roots from igniting and causing a possible forest fire. When using the top of a ledge for your fire, beware of small cracks through which hot coals might tumble into flammable material.

A good fire for cooking, lighting, or heat starts with tinder, thin sticks of kindling, and medium-size sticks of firewood. Stack them loosely or in pyramid fashion in that order. Then stand on the upwind side and light the tinder from there. This directs the flame upward and into the mass of tinder. Lighting from the downwind side leaves you little opportunity to direct the flame.

Once the tinder is well ignited, blow on it or fan the fire gently with your hat. The tinder will light the slim sticks, which in turn will set the medium-size sticks ablaze. Tinder, which forms the bottom layer of the fire, is any small-size fuel that ignites readily. Any scrap of dry paper will do, especially waxed paper and the like.

There are also wood sources of tinder. Birch bark that is stripped and wadded loosely and dry cedar bark both perform well. Sagebrush bark, dead evergreen twigs still on the tree with brown needles intact, and dry, dead grass or weeds that are crushed into a ball are also effective. Pitch is a primary burning agent that is found in the decayed trunks and upturned roots of woods such as spruce, pine, and fir. It also works efficiently as tinder when sliced up with the wood still attached. To tell if a wood contains pitch, alert yourself to the resinous odor and weighty heft of the wood. Even heavy rains don’t change the quality of pitch slabs as excellent tinder.

If you are handy with a knife and adept at whittling, you can make fuzz sticks (also known as fire sticks). Shave lengthy splinters from almost any dry, soft stick, leaving as many splinters attached as possible. When you have what resembles a tiny pine tree, thrust it upright into the ground and place some tinder around it. Set a match to the lower slivers, and you have a fine fire starter.

You can squirt a little kerosene, stove gasoline, or lighter fluid on the kindling as an alternative to gathering tinder. Be sure, however, to use these liquid fuels prior to striking your match to prevent an explosion.  You can also use commercial fire starters, which are available as fibrous fire sticks, tablets and tube compounds.  For those who want to save a few pennies, you can make your own fire starters by soaking 100 percent cotton balls with Vaseline.  About 10 to 20 of these balls can be crammed into a waterproof match case or a small plastic container. Kindling, which consists of thin, dry sticks, is ordinarily placed loosely in a tepee shape above the tinder or crisscrossed on top of it.

The basic firewood is not added until both tinder and kindling are in place. This wood is necessarily heavier than the kindling, usually longer, and from 3 to 4 inches, or possibly even 6 inches, in thickness. Small logs or thick branches are prime sources of this firewood, which catches from the combustible material beneath to provide a strong and stable fire.

Woods vary in burning qualities. They catch fire primarily in relation to their dryness, cut size, and resin content. They give heat and good cooking coals primarily in relation to their density—the denser the wood, the more mass available for combustion.

Any dry (seasoned) wood will be good kindling if cut to finger thickness. Wood of conifers tends to catch fire more easily than that of deciduous trees because their high amounts of resin ignite at lower temperatures than the gases generated from wood fibers alone. But conifers tend to be smokier, and their resin pockets cause more popping and sparks.

If you are forced to burn unseasoned wood, as in a survival predicament, ash is one of the best because of its low moisture content “on the stump.” For cooking, if very dry, the densest deciduous woods are best. These include oak, hickory, locust, beech, birch, ash, and hawthorn. Yet in parts of western states, you may find that conifers are the only woods available. In northwestern Canada and Alaska, birch and alder are about the only abundant, dense deciduous woods. 

Oak and hickory rate as good wood, but remember that these hardwoods will quickly take the edge off an ax or saw—something you may want to keep in mind if you’re on an extended trip. And if sparks and smoke bother you, avoid pine and spruce, tamarack, basswood, and chestnut.

2. Hunter’s Fire

Among the many possible arrangements of the basic campfire, the hunter’s fire is a simple, dual-purpose one that provides hot coals for cooking along with heat and light.

Start your fire as described earlier and wait for a bed of hot coals to form. At that point, place two green logs on either side of the fire to resemble a corridor. If this is done before the coals form, the fire will eventually eat right into the logs. Rocks can also be used to form a corridor. The camper out for a brief time or on a string of one-night stands on a pack trail or canoe route benefits most from this type of fire.

If the fire dies down, place a support under the ends of the logs to let more air in through the sides.

3. Keyhole Fire

Like the hunter’s fire, the keyhole fire supplies heat and light, and a place for cooking chores. Also for short-term use, this campfire consists of flat, small rocks arranged in a keyhole shape. It features a corridor 3 to 6 feet long and 1 foot wide and a circle adjacent to the rectangle. 

Begin the fire in the center of the corridor, and wait until you see that the surrounding rocks are hot and the trench is lined with a bed of coals. Using a piece of dry firewood, push the blazing wood to one end of the trench. The remainder stays at the other end for cooking. When the cooking coals seem to be losing their vigor, move some of the other coals to the cooking area.

Some campers prefer two keyhole fires rather than one, particularly for large groups of campers, so there is always a substantial amount of hot coals to work with.

4. Trench Fire

When stoves and wood are nowhere to be found, and the pots you are using have no bails, set up a trench fire.

Dig a trench as deep as you need, parallel to the direction of the prevailing wind. Leave the upwind end open to provide an effective draft. If the trench is very narrow, its sides may support the pots. Otherwise, you may need to use green sticks to hold up your cooking gear.

#trenchfire 🔥🔥 #bestideaever

A post shared by bells✌️ (@bellaa_mia92) on

5. Indian Fire

When wood fuel is at a premium and it is necessary to conserve what you have, try the Indian fire. Note that five thick logs radiate outward from the center. Tinder should be placed at this midpoint. As the logs burn, push them gradually into the middle.

#indianfire #inspiring

A post shared by Sirius Plan (@siriusplan) on

6. Indian Fireplace

If you have to contend with strong winds, the Indian fireplace is appropriate. Dig a hole that is a bit larger than your kettle and build a small fire at the bottom. Using a fork-shaped stick to support a straight stick with one end secured in the ground, hang the kettle over the hole. If you have enough fuel, set the pot in the hole itself, but be sure there is adequate space at the bottom for air to circulate.

The lower end of the stick for hanging the kettle doesn’t have to be buried or driven into the ground if a heavy enough rock or log is handy. Just lay this weight on the end of the stick or wedge the stick under it securely.

7. Reflector Fire

The reflector fire provides heat to a tent or an oven. A small raft of 1-inch-thick logs, rocks or sod, or aluminum foil will direct heat to the desired spot. A conventional fire built in front of the reflector safely warms up a baker tent or practically any other type of tent. The reflector oven using this fire lets you bake biscuits and such.

The reflector fire requires flames to project enough heat to a selected spot. Coals alone unfortunately radiate in all directions, making cooking more difficult.

Surviving #reflectorfire #goteam

A post shared by Jennifer (@dontfallasleepatthehelm) on

8. Dingle Stick

One of the simplest and most practical campfires uses the dingle stick, a device that holds a pot securely over afire. The accompanying illustrations show two arrangements of the dingle stick. Be sure to choose a durable stick for either one.

9. Swedish Fire Lay

An efficient fire for heating a single kettle, pot, coffee pot, or frying pan is the Swedish fire lay. It’s especially convenient in confined spaces. Its foundation is a small fire with the sticks arranged in a star shape, like the basic Indian fire. Around this foundation, three split chunks of log, each about a foot long, are stood on end. Tilt the split logs in at the top, propping them against one another to form a pyramid. The heat travels up the logs to the top, and eventually they’ll begin to burn. But even before they do, the top will be hot, and it serves as a base for the cooking utensil.

10. Rain or Snow

Starting a fire in driving rain or snow is usually possible, and often easy. On rain-soaked ground, you can construct a foundation for the fire using slabs of bark, rocks, or broken limbs. On snow, build the foundation from thick pieces of green or punky and wet downfall. Avoid building fires beneath trees capped with snow, as the rising heat will melt the snow and possibly extinguish your fire.

The optimum wood under these conditions comes from standing dead trees. Most of the wood chopped from their insides will be dry enough to burn. Birch bark, pitch-saturated evergreen, and white ash are excellent choices, even when moist.

When you have gathered tinder, kindling, and firewood, look for a natural overhang—a rock ledge, for example. If none is available, improvise with a flat rock, a slab of bark, or a log propped up at an angle. A poncho, a canvas tarp, or a tent awning is even better.

Prepare the firewood and search out a dry area to strike a match on. Your match case will probably be dry, and zippers and buttons on the inside of clothing will work in a pinch. Try scraping the match against your thumbnail, or even on the edge of your teeth as a last resort. Then, shield the initial fire until the heavy firewood is securely aflame. At that point, the fire stands little chance of being put out by the elements.

Make certain to carefully douse any fire you build with bucketful after bucketful of water when you are finished with it. Don’t stop until every piece of wood and all coals are drenched. Then, stir the coals until all sparks and steam are gone. A healthy mound of wet mineral soil guarantees that the fire is completely and safely extinguished.





About the author:

Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli

He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

About the Author: Vin T. Sparano is the author of Complete Outdoors Encyclopedia as well as three other guides for Rizzoli

He has been an outdoor editor and writer for more than fifty years. He is editor emeritus of Outdoor Life, and has written and edited more than fifteen books about the outdoors. In 2013, he was inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

Subscribe for future Step Outside News!