How To Start A Fire In The Woods

If you have never spent a night in the woods, you may not understand how important a fire can be.  Fire is:

  • A source of warmth.
  • Helps provide you food.
  • A source of light.
  • Keeps the beasts at bay. 

There are few things more important to your comfort and morale than fire.

But how do you get it?  It may seem a simple process. But so many people fail at what can be a simple task. With a little knowledge, a little prep, and some simple supplies you ca make it happen.  Let’s get a breakdown.

Components of Fire

To get a better understanding of fire, we need to look at in stages.

  • Spark:  This is the shortest lived in the stages but can be the hottest.  Whether this is thrown from a match, lighter, or ferro rod it all starts with a spark.
  • Flame:  This could be the flame on a match, the flame on a lighter, or the flame on some tinder.  Either way, it is not sustainable on its own.  It is temporary, usually for less than a minute, before needing to be relit.
  • Fire:  This is the full deal and will be composed of multiple combustible items burning at once.  It can be added to and sustained without the need for relighting.  This is the end goal.

In order to progress up those levels, you need to add a fuel source that can be consumed and generate more sustainable heat.  These can be looked at in levels as well and will be used no matter what device you use to start your fire.


Tinder

Tinder for starting a fire in the woods.
Dried Grass Used As Tinder To Start A Fire

This is the smallest in diameter and shortest.  It can be anything from grass, tree bark, small twigs, pine needles or anything small and dry that can take a short duration spark and make it grow.  Thin something the size of a coffee stir or smaller.


Kindling

Kindling used to build a fire in the woods.
Sticks Used As Kindling To Get A FIre Going.

The next step up are combustible items that can readily take the flame of the tinder and ignite.  The usual candidate is the lowly stick.  Branches between the size of your pinky and thumb that are relatively dry are your best bet.


Fuel

Firewood Fuel For A Campfire In The Woods
Logs And Wood Chinks Used As Firewood Fuel

This is the real deal and knowing what and how much you need takes some practice.  This can be large branches, split wood, and similar sized wood chunks.  These should start about as thick as your wrist and can work up to larger as the fire goes.


There is one more important component that should be covered and that is the accelerant.  If you learn the proper steps, you shouldn’t need an accelerant unless your supplies are damp.

Lighter fluid is an accelerant but there are a number of commercial products that are intended for lighting fires in the woods.  These are a better choice and easier to transport.  If you spend much time in the woods, these are a tool that makes sense to keep around for when you need them.

Rules of a Fire

Fire ALWAYS behaves the same way.  There are two simple rules that you can follow to take the best advantage of how fire behaves.  This will improve your chances of getting a good flame and building it into a sustainable fire.

Rule One:  Fire happens between combustible materials, not in them.  The more tightly packed your materials, the more heat you will need to light it.  A phone book is harder to light than individual wadded up pages.

What this equates to is surface area and space.  The more surface area you have (10 small sticks vs 1 large stick) and the more space for air between them, the easier they light.  Just make sure they are close enough for the heat to affect all the pieces.

Rule Two:  Fire always travels up.  Laying a stick beside a fire will be less effective than laying a stick on top of it.  Just makes sense, right?

Keep this in mind as you lay out and build up your fire.  The easy to light tinder that burns faster needs to be on the bottom with space between it and the kindling.  When the kindling is going, your fuel needs to be added above that with some space between.

How to Start a Fire

Enough of the hardcore theory, let’s get to the actual process.  Realize that describing how to light a fire is still theory.  Until you get out and actually go through the process, you aren’t really learning.

Gather your supplies first!

Nothing is worse than getting your tinder going and having to run around and try to find everything you need to keep your fire going.  Here is some good starting advice that you can build on:

Tinder should be about 4 to 6 inches long and enough to fill both hands cupped together if it’s soft.  If it is hard tinder, form a circle with both hands using your index fingers and thumbs.  You want enough to fill that space.

Kindling should be around a foot to 18 inches long and you will need a decent armload.  When stacked on the ground it should be about as high as a basketball.

Fuel will be about the same length as your kindling and you will need a stack about knee high to get a solid fire.  You can use less for shorter fires but will need several times that if you want a fire that will last all night.  It goes faster than you think.

Layout your Tinder

For soft tinder, ball it into a ‘birds nest’ or loose ball.  Don’t form it too tight or it will be harder to light.  For hard tinder, break it in half and form an upside down ‘V’ shape.  You will light soft tinder at the bottom but hard tinder at the top of the ‘V’.  The best tinder will be a mix of both hard and soft working together.

Build up your Fire

Once your tinder is going, you want to be able to readily add your kindling.  It should be added smallest to largest and not disturb the burning tinder.  Use rocks or pieces of fuel to suspend your kindling a few inches above the tinder or lean the kindling gently against the tinder.

Increase your tinder size until the fire is self-sustaining long enough to get your fuel alight.  How much kindling you need will depend on your fuel.  Always err on the side of using more kindling than less.

A lot of attention is given to fire lays and what the best way is to organize your fire to get it burning right.  This is really not necessary as long as you remember the two rules of fire above.  Always leave space and build the fire up and not spread out.

Go slow and cause as little disturbance to the existing fire as possible.  If you follow these rules, you will get a sustainable fire but you need to practice to get this down.  Don’t wait until you get into the woods before you try to sort it all out.

Starting a Fire in the Woods

Did you think that was it?  Nah, that is in perfect circumstances in your own back yard.  In the woods, it never happens that easily.  There are a lot of factors in the wild that can really throw a wrench into your plans.  You will have to work around these to become a fire pro.

Where to Light a Fire

The first thing to address is where to put your fire.  Wildfires are a real danger and can destroy habitat, cost lives, and do massive damage.  It is your responsibility to see this doesn’t happen every time you light a lighter or strike a match.

Always clear your fire area of anything that can burn.  Not just where the fire is but for space around it.  I usually go with about 4 feet to make sure.  Be cautious of dead trees near your fire as their roots can be ignited through the ground.  Ring your fire area with stones or wood that is wet and unlikely to catch fire.

Pick an area that is sheltered from the wind as much as possible.  It should be far enough away from trees and other combustible materials, including your tent, that they will not ignite.

Unless it is an absolute emergency, never light a fire in windy conditions.  Sparks can stay lit and travel hundreds of feet.

Never build a fire bigger than you need.  Examine your area and determine how high your fire will be.  When it gets that high, stop adding fuel.  When it gets to half that high, add more fuel.

Not only does this keep your fire manageable but it conserves your resources.  You will rarely ever need a fire that is more than 2 feet high.

How To Start A Fire With Wet Wood

In a perfect world, wood would always be dry but that is not the case.  You need to practice finding the driest materials possible and learn to deal with materials that are wetter than you would prefer.  This is the core skill in building a good campfire in the wild.

If finding dry wood is not possible, then one of the keys will be to slow down your approach.

Here are a few tips on finding dry wood:

  • Don’t use wood that is still green or from a living tree.  It will always be wet.
  • Avoid wood laying on the ground.  Look for standing dead trees or dead branches on trees that may be dry even in the rain.
  • If you must get wood off the ground, check the downwind side of trees and rocks.  These may be sheltered from the worst of the weather.
  • Don’t gather wood in low lying areas or near water.  The ground will hold more moisture which will creep into the wood.
  • If all else fails, split your wood.  The inside may be dryer than the outside.  With care, you can often split out the driest wood.

This works well for kindling and fuel but what about tinder?  If your tinder is wet, there is little you can do to make it better but there are a few special tricks for finding tinder.  This is the main reason why most people carry a tinder or Firestarter with them. If you don’t have that here are a few tricks you can try:

  • Use the same tricks as with fuel and kindling for your best bet.  Tinder that is off the ground and sheltered may still be dry.
  • Find tinder with a natural accelerant.  Bark from birch trees, some pine wood, and milkweed pods, for example, contain natural oils that make them burn even when soaking wet.
  • Get the smallest tinder possible and carry it inside your clothing as you move.  Being near your body heat and the absorption of your clothing will help dry moist tinder.

If you have dry enough tinder to light, you can get fire but it all hinges on getting that good tinder.  If all else fails, fine shavings from the inside of a split piece of wood may be dry.  At this point, with patience, a fire is likely.

The key to wet weather fire is to gather more and go slower.  You want more tinder and kindling than with a dry weather fire.  Add it much slower and build up.  If you can get a small fire going, it will be able to cook off moisture as you add more fuel.

If you know that you’re going to be in a wet environment, I strongly suggest that you carry your tinder in a dry box or bring an accelerant.

Fire Starting Methods

The Magnifying Glass Method

This works with any lens that has a magnifying power of at least 5x so consider your binoculars or even eyeglasses if they are powerful enough.

There are two things you will have to have for this method to work:  Sunlight, preferably as close to noon as possible with the sun overhead; Dry tinder.  This is a very difficult method to use with any moisture in your tinder.

The hardest part about using this method is holding the lens still so the smallest dot possible is on the same are until it is lit.  To help with this, you can make a holder out of sticks, rocks or other local materials.

Use the smallest, finest tinder possible in the middle of a large tinder bundle or birds nest.  Wait until you have a good ember going before you start to try to blow to get the flames to spread.  Remember, fire travels up so getting the right orientation is important. 

Flint and Steel

The classic method on the frontier that every kid sees in the movies.  Our hero takes his knife and rock and strikes a spark to light his fire.

Like with the lens method, you will need two things to make sure this works:  Dry tinder is still necessary; You will also need a high carbon piece of steel.  The higher the better.  A stainless steel knife will not work.

The hard part of this method is getting the angle correct.  Once you do you can throw sparks readily and consistently with just a little practice.  Finding a good rock will help you.  It doesn’t have to be flint, chert, quartz, and iron pyrite work as well.

The spark from a flint and steel is only about 400 degrees where a Ferro rod throws a spark that is well over a thousand degrees.  This means tinder that will burn more readily.

Most frontiersmen used a manufactured tinder source to make this process easier.  It can be done with natural sources but you need the best you can get.  Cattail fibers and the seeds from milkweed pods are good options.

The Bow Drill

Make A Fire With A Bow Drill
The Bow Drill Method For Fire Starting can be very effective if you have dry materials.

An entire article could be given over to the bow drill and still not cover everything but this is one skill that will always impress if you can get it down.  Once you know the process, it does become easier.  Here are the basics.

You will need a flat piece of softwood about 3/4 of an inch thick (The Hearth Board).  A rounded length of the same wood about 10 to 12 inches long and about as big around as your thumb (The Spindle).  A piece of hardwood or stone about the size of your palm (The Bearing Block).  A stiff piece of wood about as long as your arm and some string (the bow).

Preparing your Materials

The Hearth Board will need a divot made about 1 inch from the edge and about 1/4 inch deep to fit the blunt end of the spindle.  It should also be flat so that it remains stable.

The Spindle will need to be formed somewhat like a pencil.  One end will need to be sharpened and the other rounded over like a used eraser.  It should be even and straight.

The Bearing Block will need a hole to fit the sharp end of the spindle.  It should be made comfortable to hold.

The bow can be either straight or bent.  The trick is getting the string on so that it holds tight on one end but the other end can be easily adjusted to keep the string tight as it stretches.

Getting Ready and Burning In

Lay the board down on a stable area where it doesn’t move and place your left foot securely on it about a hands with from the divot you made.

Place the spindle into your string by wrapping the string around it.  This can be a challenge but keep at it and you will sort it out.  The best way is to lay the spindle across the string and sort of weave it under.  Remember that the blunt end of the spindle faces down so you may have to flip your bow over.

Place the blunt end of the spindle into the hearth board and the sharp end in the bearing block.  Press down with a moderate amount of pressure and gently saw back and forth until you see a little smoke.

This is the burning in process.  Once you see smoke, you can move on to the next step.  Now your spindle and hearth board match and will provide better friction.

Going for Real

With the burn in complete, you need to carve a V shape into the hearth board that stops about 1/3 of the way through the divot.

Resume the same stance and setup as burning in.  Take a few deep breaths to get ready and start sawing.

At first you want to apply a moderate amount of downward pressure.  You may see smoke but you are mainly watching to see how much dust is building up in your V notch.  Once it gets quite full, its time to buckle down.

Apply as much downward force as you can.  Try to push the spindle through the board.  At the same time, trick to pick up speed.  The last step was to get material built up.  This is the where you cause it to burn.

Once you are getting steady smoke coming out of your V notch, stop sawing and gently remove the hearth board.  If the smoke continues, you have an ember.

Don’t rush things!  Slowly transfer the ember to a birds next and give it a little air until you get fire.  Congratulations!

The Hand Drill

Once you know the bow drill, you can try the hand drill.  Much of the process is the same with a few steps that are simpler and some that are more difficult.

You will need a similar hearth board set up the same way as the bow drill.  After that you will only need your spindle.  This will be longer and thinner than the bow drill.  Usually this will be about the size of an index finger and about 2 feet long.

Your wood will need to be very soft and very dry.  The bow drill was mostly used in areas that are very hot where wood could be dried in the sun.

Prepare your Materials

The hearth board will need the same divot cut but this time only about half an inch in.

Nothing will need to be done with the spindle other than making sure it is straight and slightly rounding the downward end.

Much simpler than a bow drill.

Getting Ready and Burning In

This process is very similar to the method with the bow drill.  The position can be tweaked so you are comfortable.  This is a long process.

Some people prefer to kneel on the board while others find sitting cross-legged on the ground with the board pinned under their foot to be better.  Experiment to find what works for you.

Starting at the top of the spindle, place your hands on either side of it with the spindle centered between your palms.  Move your hands back and forth slowly at first until you get a feel for how the spindle moves.

Once you have that down, start pressing down with your hands so that as you spin the spindle, your hands move downward.  Once you get near the bottom, quickly put them back at the top and start again.

Repeat this until you see smoke.  You should be burnt in and are ready to go for it for real.

Going for Real

Prepare your hearth board the same way you did with your bow drill.  Most things will work the same between the two methods.

The hard part of a bow drill is keeping downward pressure while spinning the spindle.  This takes time and practice.

Move your hands back and forth around the spindle as fast as you comfortably can while pressing them together firmly.

Press down as much as you are able while still being able to allow for good motion.  You will continue the motion until you see a sizable amount of smoking char in the V notch and it continues to smoke while you are not moving the drill.

Once you have an ember, treat it the same as an ember from a bow drill.

The Fire Plow

The less well-known method of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together is the fire plow.  The setup for this method is quite simple as is the action.  Were it gets complicated is in the fine control and making sure your materials are very dry.

You will need is a softwood hearth board like with the last two methods but this time make it a couple of inches thick and about 2 feet long.  You will also need a hardwood stick about 18 inches long and a couple of inches thick.  Other than tinder, this is it.

Preparing your Materials

This will be a very simple process for most people.

The hearth board will need a V-shaped channel cut into it.  It should start at one end and go about 3/4 of the way toward the other.  Make it about 1/2 inch deep and wide.  This groove will be the track you run your plow down.

The Stick is the plow and all it needs is to have a point sharpened on one end that fits well into the V-shaped groove.

Since you won’t have a burn in process, start now by kneeling on the non-grooved end of the board.  Start by running the plow through the groove so that they end up wearing down to a good match.

Going for Real

You will notice that a fire plow takes a lot of energy and moves a lot of your body.  While keeping the board firmly planted beneath your knee, press down hard on the plow and move it as fast as possible forward.  Lower the pressure as you pull it back.

The idea is to generate sawdust from the hearth board and get enough friction to get it burning.  It should all be moved to the open end of the groove pointed away from you.  You must be careful to get it to pile in the groove and not push it out of the end of the channel.

Repeat this process until you have a pile of sawdust about the size of a dime that smokes on its own.  At that point, scrape it gently from the open end of the groove into your tinder bundle.  From here it works just like lighting any tinder bundle.

General Tips and Tricks

If you are having trouble with your fire to a sustainable point, consider this your troubleshooting section.

  • When gathering tinder, don’t wait until you get to your campsite.  If you see a good tinder source, grab it along the way.
  • If you can get a flame but it goes out while building it up, go slower.  This is a common issue.  Wait until the flames rise higher than your current fuel source before adding anything else.
  • If it is wet outside, use a few pieces of your fuel to get your tinder off the ground.  In wet conditions, it will soak up moisture fast!
  • Blowing on the base of a fire can be helpful but requires practice to make it effective.  This is a skill you should work on so you don’t scatter your tinder or blow out your fire.
  • Use the heat of the fire to dry your additional fuel.  Stack it near your fire but not close enough to ignite.
  • Softwoods like pine and cedar light easier and burn hotter than hardwoods like maple and oak.  This makes them great for getting a fire going.  Hardwoods burn slower and will last longer.
  • Remember the two rules of fire!  Simply following those rules and going slow will solve most problems.

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