The Basics of Starting a Fire

Mankind has used fire for centuries. It has kept us warm, cooked our food, lighted our way, powered our industry, moved our transportation and even helped to fight our battles. I think it’s fairly safe to say that without fire, mankind would still be living in caves, with nothing more technologically advanced than a bow and chipped stone arrowheads.

Starting a fire is one of the most important survival skills to learn. It almost becomes humorous at times, with survival instructors coming up with more and more unusual ways of starting fires. Nevertheless, there is some value in knowing all those different methods, as the methods you are used to depending on may not be available to you. In that case, knowing some of those unusual fire starting tricks could be what keeps you alive.

Of course, before worrying about those, it would be a good idea to know how to lay a fire, so that the spark, coal or flame that you create won’t just burn out. Laying a good fire is an important skill; one that has been largely lost in modern society. If you don’t believe me, just watch someone light a fireplace.



What Creates Fire?

Any fire consists of three elements: fuel, oxygen and heat. In order to create one, we have to be able to provide all three of those. Fuel can be anything that will burn, from wood to an old tire. Oxygen comes from the air, so we don’t really need to supply it. All we need to do is ensure that there is a free path for the air to get to our fuel. Heat can come in various different forms. The most common ones are a flame, a spark or a coal. Different fire starting methods will create different ones of these. All will work, if you know how to work with them.

Starting with a Fire Pit


To start with, you need a place to build your fire. If the only place you’ve ever built a fire is at home, then you’re used to having a prepared place that you can use. However, if you’re out in the wilderness, trying to survive, there’s not much of a chance that you’re going to have your fireplace or wood-burning stove with you.

Creating a good fire pit is important, because you need to be able to control your fire. An out of control fire can cause a huge amount of damage and put many lives in danger, including your own. So, we don’t just want to start a fire anywhere.

The best fire pit in the wild is a circle of stones, over either a stone or bare earth base. You don’t want to start it on top of something flammable, but rather ensure that there is nothing there which can burn, other than what you put in the fire pit. The ring of stones should be higher away from you, to form a heat reflector and lower close to you. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt to leave a gap in the circle on the side facing you, so that air can get in to your fire.

Fuel for the Fire

The wood or other flammable material you are going to use for your fire is broken down into three categories: tinder, kindling and fuel. You will need a good supply of all three, especially the fuel. Each is used in the process, in order to help the fire grow.


Tinder consists of small materials that will burn readily. This is the first stage of your fire and you want to be able to ignite it easily with a flame, spark or coal. In pioneering days, travelers carried a tinder box with them, so that they could gather tinder as they found it, saving it until they had need. Their tinder box would also contain their flint and steel.

You can find a number of things to be used as tinder in the wild, such as an old bird’s nest or mouse nest. Dry grass will work, as well as dried moss. If you find a decomposing tree, the shredded bark makes good tinder. In addition, there are a number of man-made things which work well as tinder. Paper is probably the most commonly used in our modern society, especially newspaper. You can also make char-cloth or use dryer lint.



Kindling is the small sticks that you ignite with the tinder. Generally speaking, you want sticks that are about the diameter of a finger. These will catch fairly easily, especially at the ends. You can make them catch fire easier by cutting shavings into the side of the stick, making a “fuzz stick.” Leave the shavings attached to the stick, but spread out like hair.

Bark tends to protect the heartwood from catching fire, so you want to either catch the ends of the sticks on fire or split them with a knife, so that there is open heartwood for the fire to catch on.


Once the kindling catches fire, it can be used to catch the main part of the fuel on fire. Most people use fuel pieces that are about the diameter of an arm or of the calf of the leg. The bigger the pieces are, the longer they’ll burn; but the bigger they are the harder it is to catch them on fire. You have to balance the two, perhaps starting with smaller pieces and then putting on a couple of good sized logs, just before going to bed. That will help to keep the fire burning through the night.

Like I mentioned with the kindling, the bark on the fuel will tend to make it harder to light, that’s why firewood is normally split, offering the heartwood inside to the fire.


Accelerants are not needed to start a fire, but are often used. When you start a fire in a charcoal grille, you normally use lighter fluid. That’s an accelerant. While not normally needed, if you know how to start a fire, they can be useful if you are trying to start a fire when it is damp out.

Laying the Fire

In order to get your fire going well, you want to have the fire properly laid out, before trying to start a flame. This means having the tinder, kindling and fuel set up in such a way as to start burning easily. There are several ways of doing this, but the easiest are either a tepee or a pyramid.


In both cases, all that’s really shown in the diagram is the fuel. However, the tinder and kindling are inside the structure. If you can think of the tepee having another, smaller tepee inside it made of kindling and the tinder inside that, you’ve go the right idea. Same goes for the pyramid.

Lighting the Fire

What you’re going to ignite is the tinder. Depending upon your fire starting method, you may ignite some quantity of it outside the laid fire and then move it in once ignited or you may have it in place when ignited.

Some methods of fire starting only produce a coal or sparks. In those cases, you’ll probably want at least some of the tinder outside of the laid fire. Once the coal or sparks are applied to the tinder, you’ll need to blow the fire into a flame. When that happens you can add it to the rest of the tinder, allowing it to catch and burn.

If the fire is properly laid, once you have the tinder burning, you should be done. The flames from the tinder should ignite the kindling and then the flames from the kindling should ignite the fuel. If the process stops at any point, you’ll have to go back to the beginning and start your fire all over again.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave

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