Every outdoors person should know how to light a fire. It’s not simply a source of pride at that lakeside cookout with your buddies: It’s also a vital, life-saving skill in case you ever find yourself in a survival situation. Let’s review some firestarting basics, including the requisite ingredients and the easiest way to start a fire. Practice makes perfect when it comes to quickly and efficiently lighting a fire—and speed and efficiency are the bywords when you’re caught out in a blizzard or a torrential downpour, or you just took an unexpected dip in the river and need to warm up and dry out posthaste. So try different ways to make a fire in non-emergency situations: It won’t take long to hone your skills, and it’ll make you that much more prepared in the event that getting some flickering flames going is of life-or-death importance.
A campfire's magical, no doubt about it, but it's often not the most eco-friendly choice when you're out backpacking. If you do make a campfire, you should be thinking about Leave-No-Trace principles. What we'll be discussing here is emergency fire-starting for those scenarios where having as light an impact as possible on the environment is not necessarily your top priority.
You may have heard about the “fire triangle” before. It’s a simple way to think about the three basic ingredients required for fire to happen: namely air, fuel, and heat. Absent one of those three ingredients, a fire isn’t going to happen; and if the components are out of balance, your fire may not be sustainable. A source of ignition, of course, is also critical. (It can be thought of as part of the “heat” category.) Let’s tackle fuel first. Your fuel setup will consist of tinder, kindling, and fuel wood.
If you’ve got a pine forest handy, another excellent, tried-and-true source of tinder is so-called “fatwood,” also called “heart pine,” “lighter knot,” and “fat lighter.” This is the resin-imbued heartwood of a pine, formed where sap has hardened. It quickly and easily lights, even if it’s damp. Where can you easily get at fatwood? The best sources come from well-aged pine deadwood: a stump where outer bark has sloughed off, the root stubs of a decayed log, or a branch nub from a standing snag. The nice thing about a hunk of fatwood is that it’s a long-lasting source of tinder: Just pare off some shavings when you need to start a fire. In terms of manmade sources of tinder, some of the best is clothes lint. In a pinch, you may be able to scrounge some from your pockets to get an emergency fire going. Better yet, save the lint from your dryer at home and keep it with your other fire-starting materials in a waterproof container. Another good, space-saving tinder source you can prepare at home is long, thin strips of newspaper you’ve rolled together and bound with a rubber band. Many outdoors people also carry around cotton balls presoaked in petroleum jelly: These will light quickly and burn awhile. Another good tool to carry around with you in the tinder department is char cloth(or simply char). This is cotton fabric that has been blackened by flame but not completely burned. The charred material easily catches a spark and can then be used to light tinder. There are different ways of making char cloth, the roughest-and-readiest simply lighting some cotton on fire and then snuffing out the flame. More efficient is to put a cotton scrap inside a tin or an aluminum foil packet in which you’ve punched a small hole. Put this tin or packet over a flame. Smoke or fire will start streaming from the hole as gases are burned off; as long as the hole you’ve punched isn’t too big, the cloth inside—not exposed to oxygen—won’t burn. After the smoke or flame dies down, remove the tin or packet from heat and let it sit a little bit. Open it up, and you should have a blackened piece of char you can then keep in your survival kit. (Char cloth, incidentally, was often the tinder kept inside “tinder-boxes” back in the day.) It usually takes only one spark to catch in char cloth. Lay the tinder you’ll use in your fire structure atop the smoldering part of the char to ignite it.
Kindling refers to the larger fuel that catches fire from tinder and burns long enough to ignite your bigger-yet fuel wood. Natural kindling includes twigs and small branches; an artificial option is segments of cardboard folded into branch-like bundles. It’s good to have a variety of sizes of kindling on hand—from little twigs to wrist-diameter branches—so you can progressively feed a growing fire. You should also gather different-sized fuel wood so you can regulate the size and heat of your fire.
The most beautifully structured fuel setup in the world won’t give you a happy fire without an ignition source. It’s always a good idea to carry a few different ignition tools so you’ve got a backup or two on hand if the need arises. Matches and lighters are the obvious first choices; carry both in a waterproof container. You should also consider having flint and steel or a ferrocerium rod and striker on hand. With a little practice, these can be dependable means of lighting tinder even in the rain. Now, there are lots of other ways to start a fire using friction, including hand drills and bow drills as well as fire plows. Learning how to use these “primitive” tools doesn’t only give you yet another backup method for fire lighting: It also lends some profound historical perspective, as cultures around the world used such tools for millennia. That said, they can be mighty hard to master and also generally time-consuming. In a survival situation, you’re usually better off using an easier and quicker ignition method if it’s available.
If you’re struggling to maintain the teepee shape, consider making a base for it by lying two pieces of maybe wrist-sized kindling parallel to one another and placing your tinder pile between them. These will give your braced kindling a little more support. You can also make a “lean-to”-style fire by driving a green branch into the ground at an angle, ribbing it loosely with kindling, and lighting a tinder pile placed well inside the structure. Other prefer a pyramidal setup with logs and branches stacked crosswise, the smaller wood at the top. You can light a tinder and kindling atop that and allow the fire to burn downward.