Making A Fire To Survive

Survival Fire

When you find yourself in a survival scenario, it is important that you prioritize your activities. You only have so much energy to expend, so you must carefully choose how you spend that energy. 

There are four pillars of survival to consider.  They are food, water, fire, and shelter.  You can make it three weeks without food, so that cannot be your top priority. You can survive three days without water.  However, you can die from exposure in as little as a few hours without fire or shelter.  This makes fire a top priority.

Fire offers so much more than warmth.  It can help you cook food, purify water, ward off predators, kill bacteria, repel insects, and light your camp.  Most importantly, fire provides a boost in morale that you cannot get anywhere else. 

When you have been working or hiking all day and feel like there is no hope of survival, a warm fire can bring you back.  It can make you remember that there is hope.  It can make you think of the people that love you. It can remind you why you need to survive.

Collecting Supplies


One of the biggest mistakes people make when starting a fire is with the supplies they collect.  It is vital that you collect the right kind of fuel in the right amounts before you ever attempt to start the fire.  Once you get a flame, it is too late to run out and get more supplies. 

The first point of focus is tinder. This is fine material that must be very dry.  Dried grasses, dry leaves, cattail fluff, and feathers can all make for a good tinder bundle.  It is best to shape the bundle into a nest to catch the sparks or flames you form.  Birch bark and pine resin are flammable substances that can take flame even when wet.  It is ideal to collect these materials whenever you see them.  I suggest that you have a tinder bundle large enough that you can barely wrap both hands around it.

Kindling is the next bundle of materials to collect.  This consists of small sticks up to branches one inch in thickness.  These need to be added to the fire slowly to bring it to a large flame.  Start with the smaller sticks that are the thickness of a pencil and work up to the larger wood.  It is suggested that you have enough kindling that you can barely wrap two arms around the bundle. 

Finally, there is the larger fuel.  These are split logs that will keep the fire going for hours. They can be of whatever thickness you desire, but the pieces that work best are about four inches thick.  To keep a fire going all night, it is suggested that you have a stack of fuel wood about knee high.

Fire Designs

There are a few different designs that you can use for your fire depending on your particular needs.  The most common structure is the teepee fire.  This fire structure starts with a tinder bundle in the middle. Then you add kindling around the tinder and lean the sticks against a center point like a teepee.  Finally, you add split logs in a log cabin fashion around the perimeter of the tepee. 

As the fire moves from the tinder to the kindling, it will light the fuel wood and keep the fire going.

Another popular fire structure is a top-down fire.  This design is good for keeping your fire going for several hours without adding any wood.  You start at the base with your split logs and make a platform about seven logs wide.  Then add sand or dirt into the gaps in the logs to ensure that minimal oxygen can get in between the logs. Then, rotate 90 degrees and follow up with slightly smaller logs on the second level.  Pack the creases with dirt or sand and repeat. As you get into the fourth and fifth levels, use large kindling for your bundle.  Continue controlling the oxygen. The finished structure should be at least seven layers. 

To start the fire, build a small teepee on top and light your tinder.  It should burn from the top down and keep for several hours.

The self-feeding fire is designed to keep a fire going all night without adding any logs.  It starts with two logs set side by side.  You then build ramps on both sides using logs.  Start by driving a log with a ‘Y’ on the end into the ground beside one end of your logs.  Then repeat this at the other end of the logs and twice on the other side.  Next, rest four logs in the ‘Y’ of your vertical logs so that they are at a 45 degree angle.  This should form a ‘V’ with the two logs at the bottom.  Then strip the bark off of several round logs and rest them on your ramps so that the weight of the logs holds them in place.  Put tinder bundles in between your two logs on both ends and light them. As these two logs burn down to nothing, the logs on the ramp will roll into place.  This will continue as long as you have logs on the ramps.

A two-log fire or body length fire is intended to last all night and keep you warm from head to toe.  Get two round logs at least six feet long.  Place several tinder bundles on the first log spaced evenly. Then place the second log on top. To hold the top log in place, you can either drive a metal spike down through them both, or you can put long wooden stakes on both sides.  Light your tinder in several places, and it will start to burn.  By pressing the two logs together, you control the oxygen and keep the fire burning slowly. 

You will not get large flames out of this fire, so it is really only good for keeping warm.  It will just smolder and turn to coals over time.

Fire Starting Methods

When starting a fire in the wilderness, you face challenges that you would never face in the civilized world.  Moisture, wind, and cold temperatures can all make starting a fire very difficult if not impossible. 

I will never forget my first winter survival challenge.  I collected all my supplies in advance and spent most of my day working on the shelter.  The temperature was around 20F and it had been snowing all day.  I left myself about an hour of daylight to get my fire started assuming that it would not be a problem.  After all, I had started hundreds of fires before.

I was using a ferro rod, and the tinder that I had collected was damp.  I tried over and over shooting sparks into my tinder bundle with no results.  I could not believe that it was getting dark and I was not able to start my fire.  Why did I not allow more time to start a fire?  With just a few minutes of light left, I abandoned my fire efforts and attempted to reduce the size of my shelter so it would hopefully keep me warm.  

As the temperature dropped down to -1F and the winds gusted at 20 mph, my body temperature dropped.  At about 1am I was forced to tap out as I started to become hypothermic. My fingers were numb for weeks after that.  

The following weekend I attempted the winter challenge again with similar conditions, but ensured that I got a fire going well before dark.  I was successful this time.

The easiest tools to use for fire are lighters and matches.  However, there are some downsides.  Lighters run out of fuel, and there are only so many matches in a pack.  I find that the two best options for lighters are Zippos and Bics.  Zippos are more expensive, but they are windproof and can be refilled with any flammable liquid.  Bics are much less expensive, but still very reliable.  I normally either carry a few Bics or a Zippo any time I head into the wild. 

If you are going to take matches, I suggest waterproof matches.  I sometimes bring them as a backup plan, but they are never my first choice.

A ferro rod is the most reliable fire starter you can have.  They are windproof, waterproof, and never require fluid.  I always carry at least two ferro rods with me in the wild.  They shoot sparks that register at 3000F, but you still must have the right kind of tinder. Not everything will catch a spark.  The drier and finer the tinder, the better.  

A fire lens is another reliable fire-starting tool.  The lens magnifies the rays of the sun onto a small focal point that gets very hot. The lens is waterproof and windproof, but you must have a sunny day with direct sunlight for it to work.  Because of this, I never rely on a lens as my primary fire-starting tool.  You also must have ideal tinder for the lens to produce an ember.

Friction fire is a method that you hear about all the time.  However, this is typically the most difficult way to start a fire.  You must have pieces of wood that are the perfect hardness to get an ember.

A bow drill set is the most common way to implement friction fire. You first need to find make a fireboard.  Take a flat piece of wood and cut a notch in the side about ¾ inch deep. Then use the tip of your knife to carve out a dent in the top of the board at the end of the notch.  

Take a stick around ½ inch thick and round off one end to place on the fire board.  You can use either a rock with a dent or a piece of hard wood at the top of the spindle to protect your hand while you hold it in place.  Find a curved stick a few feet long and tie cordage between the ends.  This is your bow.  

Place the spindle against the bow string and twist it so the cordage wraps around it.  Hold it in place on the fireboard with your hand hold in your left hand, and use your right hand to run the bow.  If you have the right wood, it will create an ember at the base of the notch in your fire board.  However, if you use the wrong wood or if there is moisture, it will not work.

Fire Assistance Products

It is always a good idea to give yourself every possible advantage when building a fire for survival.  You can make your own fire assistance products, or you can buy them premade.  Char cloth is a good example of a homemade fire assistance product. Char cloth will take a spark or the heat from a lens and smolder for about a minute. To make char cloth, cut up two inch squares of an old 100% cotton t-shirt.  Put them in a mint tin and punch a small hole in the lid.  Throw it in the fire for 20 minutes, and your char cloth is done. You can also add petroleum jelly to cotton balls for a fire assistance product.  This will take a spark and produce a flame for a minute or two.

If you want to buy fire assistance products, there are several out there.  The one I use the most is Wetfire cubes.  These waxy cubes allow you to shave off a pile of shavings, light it with one spark, and then add the rest of the cube to the flame to keep the fire going for several minutes.  These are both waterproof and windproof, so they are great for inclement weather.  I also use Fire Stix quite a bit.  These sticks will not take a spark, but once you light one it will stay lit for 20 minutes in the wind and pouring rain.  These also are a great help.

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