Fire is something we’ve lost touch with. We just don’t need to be that closely associated with it any more. In our modern world we burn fossil fuels rather than wood, because it’s so much easier to light volatile hydrocarbons like natural gas at room temperature with just a spark.
So it’s unsurprising to me that when I go camping I end up witnessing lots of people getting very frustrated with their inability to create and sustain fire. It’s sometimes resulted in their giving up and going home, especially if they’re relying on fire for food or hot drinks. Whilst I’ve little objection to being left as the only camper in the woods all by myself, it would be good if some of those folks’ negative experiences of camping could be turned into positive ones they’d happily repeat. It would be even better if I could wean these people off petrochemical accelerants so the woods could be free from the acrid kerosene smoke scourge. Their food might taste better too.
So here I am, an expert by no means. A mere student of bushcraft. But thanks to those I’ve learned from, one thing I can do fairly reliably is to light fires without any kind of petrochemical accelerant. Most of this ability is pure knowledge rather than physical prowess or any particular skill. So here’s my top tips for building and sustaining a fire.
- Prepare all materials in advance
- Surface area matters, so size of material is everything
- Don’t tinker… Leave it alone!
- Drier is easier, so learn where to find dry materials
So here’s the theory. Most of this you already know, so if you’ve had difficulties lighting and sustaining fires, you’ll probably kick yourself. But hey, welcome to the world of the human.
Wood burns when it gets hot enough to start producing combustible gases. The less volume, the quicker it heats up to the right temperature. The more surface area, the the more gases are produced, and the more oxygen can combine with those gases to produce fire. There are some other things you need to ensure for a successful fire.
Firstly, fire doesn’t like water. Damp things don’t burn well. Hence the need for dry materials. However, there are exceptions to this rule, even when you avoid petrochemical accelerants. Fortunately there are also materials that can be found in a dry enough state to use them in firelighting even in rainy weather when seemingly everything is wet.
This need for dryness also means that wet ground isn’t good for lighting fires. Fortunately it doesn’t take much to elevate your fire site sufficiently off the ground using a simple platform of small logs or branches.
Secondly, fire needs oxygen. So not only do you need to ensure that there are spaces for the air to flow, you also need to make sure that those air spaces don’t get choked with smoke. The aforementioned platform will help with this.
Third comes preparation. It should be obvious even by now that you need to prepare to make a fire instead of just doing it. That platform of logs isn’t going to just appear ready made. So… What else do you need to prepare?
Well, you’re going to need some sort of ignition source, something that makes a flame. This could be a match or lighter. It could be a lens concentrating the sun’s light energy. It could equally be an ember created by a spark landing on some sort of tinder. Some tinders are so effective, and some sparks so hot, that you can skip the ember phase and create instant flame. Other times you’ll need to place an ember onto or into some more tinder and blow the flame into life. More on the topic of ignition later on.
Prepare for Success
You’re also going to need to have prepared the next stage fuel ahead of time. I’ve watched many people light their tinder, only to go all jubilant and self-congratulatory whilst their tinder burns away to nothing. Shortly before the flame extinguishes itself they’ll flail around looking for one or two small sticks to kindle the fire, and end up putting out the flame by poking at it with those damp sticks they’ve picked off the ground, or the paper creating all that smoke and ashes. The tinder is gone, it’s probably getting dark, and misery is just around the corner.
So… Still on the topic of preparation… You’ve probably realised now that this is the single most important thing about fire. It’s often been said that a fire should keep you warm three times: once when you’re preparing, another time when you’re sitting by it, and then again when you’re clearing it away… Of which more later.
We avoid the misery by gathering the next stage fuel ahead of time. And while we’re at it, the next stage after that. In fact with most of my fires I’m gathering materials for five or even six stages of firelighting.
- First stage kindling (small twigs)
- Second stage kindling (small sticks)
- Third stage kindling (thumb sized sticks)
- First stage fuel (small or split logs)
- Slow burning fuel (logs)
In the case of all the kindling, gather two bunches (faggots) of each. Each bunch should be a large adult handful made of parallel sticks.
Lighting a Fire
So here’s the process:
- Make a platform of small green wood logs on a piece of ground clear of combustible materials.
- Place your tinder at the centre of the platform and light it to a flame; or light a tinder bundle by blowing an ember to a flame, and place the bundle on the centre of the platform.
- Place the first stage kindling bunches on top of the flaming tinder, across each other. Just place the bunch on top of the flame, then leave it alone until the flames come through.
- Then add your second stage tinder bundles in exactly the same way, and once again wait until the flames come through.
- Then do the same with your third stage kindling.
- Once the flames have come through, add some small or split logs.
- Once the flames are through that layer, add one or two large logs.
Congratulations, you’ve just made and sustained a fire.
This worked because of many factors. Firstly, the platform raises the fire above the ground, keeping it drier and allowing the air in. Even the curve of the logs forming the platform help provide air spaces. Secondly, the first stage kindling has a huge surface area compared with its volume, and is low density to allow the air in. The same is true of the second and third stage kindling, but with the surface area to volume ratio diminishing to provide more fuel for the growing fire. By the time the flames have come through the third stage kindling the fire just needs something a bit bigger to sustain itself. This first stage fuel is dried, heated and ignited by the smaller materials, as is the main long term fuel, the logs.
So… I mentioned a lot about needing to find dry materials. If it’s been raining for days, where can these be found?
Firstly, understand trees. Deciduous trees grow small twigs like we grow skin cells, and they shed them just as easily, often broken off by birds, or other trees, or the wind. Dead twigs dry out rapidly, and snap off much more easily. When they fall, these twigs often fall to the ground. Here they get soaked in ground water and are useless to us for immediate firelighting. But sometimes a branch will fall and get snagged on other branches. Here it will air-dry. When it rains, the canopy of leaves above (if present) shelters the branches below from most of the rain. Any water reaching the snagged branch will mostly just run down the outside, hardly wetting the wood inside. Gathering these snagged branches can be quite easy, as many are within reach in a deciduous forest.
If you can’t find snagged branches then the next best thing is standing dead wood. It’s easy to see what’s dead when it’s the only thing around without leaves, but rather harder in the winter when clues aren’t so obvious.
In a conifer environment, snagged branches aren’t an option. But nature still provides some useful dry wood. Conifers tend to rise tall, competing with all the other individuals packed densely together, and placing their evergreen leaf canopy of needles high above the ground. This canopy keeps not only light, but also a lot of rainfall from getting to the area under the trees. They save energy by withdrawing nutrients from lower branches, which then die off, leaving dry standing dead wood sticking out of the trunk close to the ground which can be easily broken off. Often rich in flammable resin, these are excellent for making fire.
Cutting them down to size
If you can’t find materials of the right size for first or second stage kindling, you’ll need some sort of cutting device to reduce the size of what you can find. This doesn’t have to be an axe or hatchet, it can equally be a knife. You can hit the back of a large enough knife blade with a wooden baton, and split small logs or sticks. Obviously don’t break any local knife laws, and exercise good blade safety practises at all times. Above all, have a first aid kit handy.
Using a knife you can reduce wood to matchsticks. You can also make feathersticks. These are an amazing way of producing both tinder and kindling in one fell swoop. You start with a log. You split the log into quarters, eighths or sixteenths (depending upon the size of log you start with) to expose the dry wood on the interior. Then you shave down the edges of the wood to produce a mass of curled shavings at one end. You can direct the shavings off to one side or the other by angling the knife blade. You can make both coarse and fine shavings in order to be able to light the featherstick easily, even with just a hot spark, and sustain the fire through its first few stages of growth. As with all firelighting, it’s best to avoid skimping on materials, so try to make two or three good feathersticks for each fire. It takes practise to make them well, but even an amateurish effort is better than nothing, and the more you make the better you’ll get.
I mentioned earlier that you need some good tinder, so let’s look at a few materials that work well. My favourite is birch bark. Birch bark contains an oily resin called betulin which is highly flammable and burns very hot. Birch bark can even be used straight off rotting or wet logs because of this. But be careful, it always curls as it burns, so if you hold a straight piece in your fingers you’ll be burned as it curls towards you. The solution to this is to hold a loop with the free ends between thumb and forefinger, and light the loop itself. The bark will hold together and won’t curl. Birch bark will light from just a spark if you increase it’s surface area by scraping it up with a knife into a pile of fine shavings or powder. But because the bark curls as it burns, empty the pile of shavings onto a pan made of something else before lighting it, or the bark will curl around the pile of shavings as it burns, possibly even stifling the flame before it really gets going.
Birch twigs are of course covered with birch bark, so they make the best first stage kindling, even if you pick them up from the ground around the base of birch trees which is always littered with them.
Dry grass is a good tinder if you can gather lots of it into a tinder bundle, as is clematis bark. You can rub these a bit to make them more ragged, increasing their surface area so they light more easily. Dry bracken works too, but crumbles to dust as soon as you start shaping it into a bundle, and certainly won’t withstand any rubbing.
Horse’s hoof fungus is a bracket fungus fruiting body that grows on dead tree trunks. It’s interior is always dry because the top layer is waterproof, to keep the spores on the underside nice and dry so they’ll disperse in the wind. This means that the interior of the body is dry and leathery. It can be sliced and carried as tinder. You scrape the slices with a knife to make a pile of fluff, and this will light from most sparks. Horse’s hoof fungus has been found, ready prepared for firelighting, at Neolithic archaeological sites, so it’s undoubtedly been used in this way for thousands of years by our ancestors. However the fruiting bodies are slow growing, and large ones may be over a hundred years old, so please don’t gather too much, especially from one area.
Char cloth is made from cotton or linen fabric burned anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen). You can cook it over the fire in a can with a small hole in it. Char cloth takes any spark, even a dull, cool, brown one from flint and iron pyrites, and turns it into a spreading, hot ember. It’s amazing stuff, worth making and carrying. Because it’s pre-prepared, it’s always ready and hopefully dry.
Cardboard and paper don’t make good tinder. They produce lots of smoke and ash to choke your embryonic flame. If they’re all you’ve got, then shred them as small as possible, and in the case of cardboard, rub the shreds vigorously between your hands to fluff them up.
The fluffy fibrous material that surrounds many plant seeds, such as clematis (old man’s beard), dandelions, cotton etc also makes good tinder. Equally, cotton wool, tampons and so on can be used as tinder in an emergency.
If you really get stuck, the alcohol gel in your hygiene pack, or the alcohol wipes from your first aid kit can be used to light a fire. Rubber burns well and doesn’t absorb water so it’s always dry – but it produces acrid black toxic smoke so it’s a last resort.
Sources of ignition:
- Magnifying lens
- Solar reflector
- Ember from old fire
- Flint and steel
- Flint and iron pyrites
- Swedish firesteel
Finally, I’ll remind you again about the overriding importance of preparation. I’ve seen people sit around a camp fire, with their supply of logs for the next fire sitting on wet ground or worse, being rained on. Then they’ll struggle with the next fire. So how about using your current fire to dry the materials for the next one? Toast your logs around the fire or on a grate over the fire, and hang your tinder and kindling high over the fire so it gently dries. In this way you can also gather even wet tinder and kindling, and by the time you need it it’ll be dry and ready for use. Even gently drying materials next to the heat from your body, or by hanging it to air-dry somewhere in your camp is preferable to the agony of trying to get a fire started with damp fuel.
With a little knowledge and foresight, firelighting can be easy, and camping so much more enjoyable.
I said earlier that a fire should keep you warm even when clearing it away once it’s burned down. This is an important stage in the fire building process. Ideally you should leave no trace, but it’s not just about tidiness. It’s more about respecting the environment and repairing your damage. Your fire damages the environment, heating a patch of ground to high temperatures, sometimes reaching several inches down. Clearing away the fire helps nature to get a head start restoring that damage.
Firstly, you’ll need lots of water. Flood the area of the fire, and mix the ashes and charcoal in well. Use your hands so you can feel that everything is cold. Then grab handfuls and throw them as far as you can in all directions, clearing the fire pit. Finally smooth over the area and scrape some soil or leaf litter over it.
If you’re not warm again, you’re doing it wrong!