Knowing how to start a fire in the wilderness can save your life.
Bud Ahrens knows this first-hand. A few years ago, while leading a dog sledding trip in northern Minnesota with Outward Bound, an outdoor education and wilderness company, he watched as a coworker fell through ice into a lake. She spent several minutes in the freezing water before the team could pull her out.
Ahrens, the program director for Outward Bound’s winter courses, knew just what to do, so he and his team got to work. They had a fire burning in 20 minutes, likely saving his companion from frostbite, or worse.
As you can see, understanding how to build a blaze in the wild, be it for warmth or cooking, can make a huge difference when you’re far from civilization.
Find your firestarter
A good fire begins with a quality firestarter. In some cases, that can mean something as simple as a store-bought starter or lighter fluid-doused twigs. But if you ever find yourself with no access to such tools, there are plenty of other options you can use to get some flames burning.
Aherns’ favorite is birch bark, and he often packs a bag or two of the stuff before heading into the wilderness. It contains a natural oil that’s water-resistant, so it will catch fire even if it’s wet. Native Americans often used the bark for baskets and canoes because of its moisture-shedding properties. If you’re harvesting bark in the backcountry, try to find some that has been blown off of trees. Each piece has many layers, so keep peeling until you find a dry one.
Spruce sap also makes a great natural firestarter. The flammable substance oozes out of injured trees and hardens into a resin, which can be snapped off and set ablaze. Still, Aherns warns that it may take several matches to get it going. Once lit, though, the sap will burn for several minutes, making it a great resource in wet conditions. While spruce is best, any hardened sap will do. Just find a blob that’s about the size of a wad of chewing gum, pull it off the tree, place it on the end of a stick, and light it up.
Other substances that make admirable stand-ins for natural firestarters include cotton balls coated in petroleum jelly, hand sanitizer sprinkled on small kindling, such as dry leaves and grass, or the fibrous inside of the bark of cedar trees. You can also make your own firestarters by melting candle wax, adding dryer lint, and coating a pine cone or two with the mixture. And for a fun way to start a fire and impress your friends, you can use Doritos, Cheetos, or any type of oily chip in a pinch. Simply light a corner of a few chips and place them beneath your kindling.
Give your fire room to breathe
“You need oxygen, fuel, and a sustained ignition source to have a fire,” Ahrens says. Those three factors form what he calls a “fire triangle”—neglect one side and the whole thing collapses.
Generally, fuel means wood, and an ignition source is a match or lighter. The level of oxygen will depend on how the wood is arranged—if you stack it well, it will facilitate air movement so the fire can breathe and grow.
Start with the kindling. Aherns suggests digging a trench a couple of inches deep as your fire pit, then laying three small pieces of wood over the trench in a triangle that’s just big enough to support your tinder. Pile your tinder, place your firestarter of choice in the middle of it, and build your structure around it all.
Ahrens prefers the teepee method—where vertical pieces of wood are tented over a central point above your kindling—but the log cabin method—when wood is stacked in a square in alternating directions, as if assembling a Jenga tower—works, too.
Start with smaller branches and sticks that will catch easily, then add larger pieces as the fire grows. Be careful not to overcrowd the wood, or oxygen won’t be able to flow freely and your fire will go out. Stick with branches or logs no bigger than your wrist. Ahrens says larger logs don’t mean more heat energy, just a longer burn. And don’t worry if you can’t build a massive blaze—small fires are just as effective for cooking and heating as larger ones.
Light it up
Ideally, when in the backcountry or at a campsite, you’ll have access to a lighter or matches. If you’re relying on the latter, make sure to keep them in a watertight container in case of inclement weather or unexpected submersion. Ahrens also always carries a lighter on a lanyard around his neck, just in case. But those aren’t the only ways to spark a flame.
A flint and steel fire striker is a handy tool for the job. If you’re in a pinch, a knife, or even a hard rock with a sharp edge can stand in for the steel. To create a spark, strike the flint and steel together in a fast, slicing motion. With dry kindling, a spark is often all you’ll need to light a fire.
Set a fire in the rain
Building a fire when everything’s perfectly dry is one thing, but in cold and wet conditions it becomes exponentially more difficult. It can, however, still be done.
“There’s dry stuff somewhere,” Aherns says. You just have to find it.
Start by looking for dry wood and kindling at the bases of trees where branches and foliage may have protected it from rain. In an emergency, you can harvest small branches from the lowest parts of nearby trees. It’s not good Leave No Trace ethics, but sometimes you have to do what’s necessary to survive. Look for dead trees or branches and wood that’s fallen to the ground that might be soggy on the outside, but dry on the inside. When you do, carve off the wet outer layers until you hit dry wood.
If it’s raining when you’re trying to start a fire, protect it from above by building a tripod-like structure or two and stretching or draping a tarp or tent fly over it. Make sure to mount it high enough that the fabric won’t catch fire or melt. To maintain a secure fuel supply, put damp logs nearby or over a fire grate to help them dry out.
Extra tips and tricks
When getting a fire going, patience and preparation are key, Aherns says. To make it less of an ordeal, he suggests gathering all the materials you’ll need (matches, kindling, wood, etc.) before you begin so you don’t waste energy searching for more materials once you spark a flame. You can save time by gathering downed wood and starter materials on the way to the campsite if you know you’ll soon be calling it a day. Use your environment for ideas—Ahrens has used everything from pine needles to cattails as firestarter because that’s what was available nearby. Trial and error is a great way to discover what works and what doesn’t.
Don’t expect there to be an abundance of perfect materials where you camp, so the best trick is to always be prepared with fire-starting kits. Emergency provisions, such as food that doesn’t need to be cooked, are also a good idea in case you can’t find any wood or don’t have the energy to build a campfire. Waterproof and windproof matches are also quite useful in less-than-ideal conditions.
And if all else fails, Aherns says a gas stove you may have only intended to cook with will start a warming blaze. It’s somewhat difficult and not ideal (especially given the whole gas-canister-next-to-an-open-flame thing), but if you learn how to build a fire in the wilderness in any condition, it’s a last resort you’ll rarely have to rely on.