Fire creates heat to keep you warm, boils water making it safe to drink, heats food to make it edible and offers a way of drying wet clothing. However, being able to start and maintain a fire isn’t always as easy as experts like Ray Mears and Les Stroud may make it appear.
As well as the above uses, having a fire in camp acts to provide morale, gives light, keeps insects at bay and can also deter large animals. The key to fire lighting is practice and preparation. Those who venture outdoors should to be able to start a fire in any conditions with minimal equipment.
Watch these video’s before reading on to see in detail how to choose your fuel, how to prepare for your fire and how to start and maintain it for whatever period is necessary.
All fires need three things to exist, Heat, Oxygen and Fuel. This is known as the Fire Triangle of Combustion. The basis of this is that if enough of any of these elements is not present, the fire will not start or will go out. Having knowledge of the fire triangle will assist in building a successful fire.
The more heat you can generate when trying to start and maintain a fire, the more chance you will have of success. Anyone who has tried to start a fire in the cold and damp will understand how hard it can be to get the fire established in these conditions, compared to completing the same task in warm weather.
However, the heat aspect of the triangle does not simply apply to the weather conditions, it refers more to the amount of heat required to ignite the fuel you intend to burn. For example, placing a match beneath a small amount of dry grass will have the effect of setting it alight, however, placing the same match beneath a large branch or log, will have no impact at all. Therefore, the lesson to take from this is to make sure you build your fire slowly, in order to generate sufficient heat to burn the larger pieces of wood that will keep you warm throughout the night.
A mistake often made by those inexperienced at fire lighting, is to pack the fuel too tightly and make a flat fire, where all pieces of wood are placed on top of each other. This restricts the flow of oxygen and therefore makes it harder for the fire to be maintained.
The way to address this is to either build your fire in a tepee formation or place the wood in a criss-cross fashion. The benefit of this is that the gaps created allow the oxygen to circulate within the fire, whilst allowing the hot embers to drop to the bottom and build up heat beneath.
A dying fire can often be reignited by simply blowing into the base of the fire or lifting and separating the firewood so that oxygen is able to circulate.
Fuel refers to what is burned in the fire, and for those involved in bushcraft, camping or survival, this will most likely be wood.
Different woods produce varying amount of heat and light and are beyond the scope of this article, however, regardless of what wood you use, the simple fact is that if you run out of fuel, your fire will go out. This often occurs to those who fail to prepare sufficiently.
There is an old adage that when you think you have enough wood, times that amount by five and that is the amount you will need to see you through the night.
Preparing Your Fire
Watch this video before reading on to see more tips on preparing for your fire
The key to fire lighting is preparation. As the saying goes, Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
The first thing to consider is where to locate your fire. Choose an area on level ground, sheltered from the wind and rain. Ensure that there is no overhanging vegetation which may catch alight, or snow covered branches which may subsequently drop onto your fire. Give yourself enough room to manoeuvre around the fire and clear all leaf litter from the floor, reaching about one meter around, down to bare earth.
Once your site is chosen, search around the area where you will be camping and collect all the material you will need to start and maintain your fire.
Tinder is the smallest part of the fire, consisting of light and fibrous material that will transform your ember or spark into a flame, which will burn long and hot enough to ignite small twigs and shavings of dry wood to make an embryonic fire.
Natural tinder includes dry grass, dry bark, dead plant stems, dead bracken, dead pine needles, dry fungi, lichens, dry moss, old birds nests and fluffy seed heads.
Man-made forms of tinder include cotton wool, tampons, char cloth, fluff from tumble dryers, fluff from inside your pockets, pieces of notebook or newspaper and alcohol hand cleansing gel.
Pull apart and rub the tinder together to make it fluffy with as large a surface area as possible. Rub small pieces of birch bark to release its oil, which also assists in the fire lighting.
When on your travels, pick up tinder at every opportunity, put it in a pocket away from skin, to keep dry and waterproof, keep some for next morning when fire has extinguished.
If kept dry, the charcoal from a previous fire can produce embers from a spark up to three months later to create a fire.
When we talk of kindling, we refer to the twigs and sticks used to take the flame of the tinder and generate enough heat to establish the fire and ultimately burn larger pieces of wood.
You will need three to six large bundles of thin, toothpick sized twigs to act as the basis of your kindling.
Whenever possible when choosing wood for your fire, avoid taking wood from the wet ground, and instead choose dead standing wood (see below video). This is wood that has died, fallen and before it reaches the cold damp ground, is caught in other branches. The more vertical the wood, the drier it is likely to be. To test if the wood is dry, take the twigs and snap them. If they make a cracking sound, this indicates that the wood is dry. If the wood bends or snaps faintly, it will be damp inside or still living.
Fuel is classed as the larger, slow burning pieces of wood, that will keep the fire going for a sustained period.
Once the fire is established, damp and green wood can be added to the fire. Be mindful not to put all your damp wood in the fire at one time, as it will reduce the heat generated. Adding damp wood will also increase the smoke produced by the fire, however, this may be beneficial in warding off flying insects.
Split wood burns better that whole or rounded logs, therefore, time spent splitting some of the larger pieces of wood is a worthwhile activity to help establish your fire.
Once you have collected your fire wood, place it onto a platform, keeping it off the damp ground. Place the wood into bundles sectioned by thickness, in the order that you will need them.
Collecting fire wood can be a laborious task, however, the selection of appropriate kindling and fuel cannot be underestimated. Fire wood collection is an on-going process that should be integrated into the day. By getting into the habit of never returning to camp empty handed, always coming back with adequate amounts of firewood in hand, the fire wood pile will be continuously replenished. Thus ensuring that you are not running around at two o’clock in the morning in the wind and rain looking for wood to keep the fire going
Starting The Fire
Once the area has been cleared and you have collected all your tinder, kindling and fuel, take a handful of twigs, approximately thumb size, and lay them onto the ground reasonably close together. The reason for making this platform is two-fold. Firstly, it acts to keep the fire off the cold, heat sapping ground, and secondly it allows oxygen to circulate whilst the fire is in its infancy. This platform will subsequently ignite and add to the heat and fuel of the fire.
Various methods of fire lighting exist, however, one of the simplest is to take your tinder bundle and place it on your platform. The next step is to ignite the bundle, either by flame, spark or coal. Once the bundle is alight, take a handful of toothpick sized kindling and place it confidently on top of the tinder flame.
From this point, slowly add your remaining kindling and fuel, moving up in wood thickness, starting from toothpick size, pencil size and onto finger, wrist, arm and leg thickness.
Be patient when adding the wood, resisting the temptation to put too much on the fire too quickly. This will have the result of smothering the fire. Each time a bundle or piece of kindling is added to the fire, ensure that the direction which it is laid is alternated. This creates gaps for oxygen to circulate.
If there is sufficient fuel on the fire yet the flames begin to fade, this can be addressed by blowing on the base of the fire to add oxygen to the coals.
Once the fire is established, damp wood can be placed at the side of it in order to dry it out
Employing the use a feather stick can aid the starting of the fire. This acts as both tinder and kindling.
To ensure that as little heat as possible is lost from the fire, build a Fire Reflector to maximise the heat generated.
- Select the location of the fire carefully
- Collect plenty of dry, dead standing wood of varying thickness
- Keep your tinder dry.
- 80% of a building a successful fire is preparation.
- Take your time when building a fire and prepare correctly
- Small fires are often better than larger fires as they use less fuel and enable you to sit closer to the flames.
- Practice and Be Patient!!