Pelican Flyer • June 25, 2020
Knowing how to start a fire is one of the most fundamental survival skills you can learn. In fact, it’s one of the core skills covered in classic survival guides like the SAS Survival Handbook and the Boy Scouts’ Fieldbook. Being able to start a campfire is important because fire provides so many crucial survival necessities, allowing people to keep warm, cook, purify water, signal for help and more. Most of the time, though, the campfire serves as a fun place to gather, make s’mores, tell stories and play music. No matter your wilderness needs, knowing how to light the fire is the first step.
Before we begin, we want to emphasize the importance of fire safety, especially while in remote or wilderness environments. Be sure to enact campfire safety best practices at all times. Keep children and pets away from the fire and be sure to tie back long hair or loose straps of your clothing. It also helps if you use a headlamp while foraging for tinder and kindling. Collecting necessary fire elements in the dark is extremely difficult, so you need a reliable light source until your fire is built.
Where you build your campfire is almost as important as how you build it. Before beginning, make sure there are no burn bans in effect. You’ll also want to make sure that the wind isn’t too strong (in other words, remember all the things Smokey Bear taught you when you were a kid). Use a designated firepit or create one by digging a pit and surrounding it with a circle of medium-sized rocks.
In general, fire-building components should go from smallest to largest, beginning with small pieces of tinder (twigs, dry leaves, needles, etc.) and ending with large logs. You can find tinder almost anywhere surrounding your campsite, but a tactical flashlight comes in handy when scouring for supplies. Lay a foundation of tinder at the center of the firepit and then place a few small handfuls of material on top.
On top of your tinder layer, you need to add some kindling before igniting. Kindling should be comprised of super-dry sticks no larger than your finger. Ideally, look for soft types of wood for your kindling base, like pine and fir. In a pinch, dry grass or leaves will work as kindling, but they are not ideal because they burn so quickly. Note that there are multiple unique fire configurations you can master, from the teepee (laying the kindling on the tinder like a tent) or the cross (crisscrossing sticks on top of each other). Experimenting with different styles will help you find one that works for you.
Now’s the time to light the fire! Using a torch lighter or a match, ignite the tinder and allow the flame to spread to the kindling. You may want to add more tinder or kindling to keep this foundation alive while you gather your firewood. Blowing lightly at the base of the flame will also help it thrive.
As your fire grows, you can begin adding fuel, starting with the larger kindling you gathered and ending with large pieces of dry firewood. Occasionally, you’ll need to feed the fire with additional logs to keep it alive, but make sure to keep the flame reasonably small. Just like with kindling, there are many distinct ways to position your fire logs. Some of the most popular configurations are the lean-to, the teepee, the star and the log cabin. The key is to stack the logs so that they fall into the core of hot coals as they burn through. This method allows you to keep strategically adding logs so they do the work for you.
When it’s time to go to bed, you should never leave a fire raging or even smoldering. The safest way to put out a campfire is to allow the fire to burn down until there’s almost nothing left besides ashes and a few hot coals. From there, you can throw some water into the pit to fully suppress the fire. To ensure the fire doesn’t re-ignite, dampen the area by mixing the embers and ashes with water and soil.
There are few survival skills as important as fire-building. You shouldn’t embark on this task unless you’re willing to honor The Outdoor Code of the Boy Scouts, which says, “I will do my best to be careful with fire.” A safe, properly-built campfire is a thing of beauty, so make sure to take the time to get it right!
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