How to Light a Fire in the Field
The ability to make and manage a fire is what separates humans from the other inhabitants of our planet. It is a unique skill set that offers the benefits of keeping us warm, enabling us to cook our food, while providing us with light, companionship, and a sense of security and comfort in the wilds.
Before we look at how to make fire, let’s start with a word of caution and etiquette. Be smart out there! Keep some water handy in case the fire gets away from you, and be sure your fire is completely out when finished. Please don’t burn down the woods! Also don’t leave fire scars on trees, rocks, and fragile soils. Evidence of poorly placed fires can, and will last for years. Note the current fire danger and follow all precautions and laws from Smoky Bear and the land managers in your locale. As a side note, our Waxed Canvas Bucket works great at carrying water to help extinguish a campfire.
AT THE MOST BASIC SENSE, FIRE REQUIRES THREE ELEMENTS— AIR, HEAT, AND FUEL.
When these ingredients are combined and are of good quality, ignition and combustion can take place and you have fire. If any of the three elements are missing or lacking in quality (like trying to use wet wood), you’ll have problems and face a tough time getting your fire started and keeping it going.
- Air - Oxygen in the air provides combustion for a campfire. Construct your fire loosely, allowing plenty of spaces for that oxygen to get in as you’re setting up and adding to your fire. It’s a common mistake to add too much wood and smother the flames. Start small, add slowly, be patient. A lot of smoke often means there’s not enough air.
- Heat - Flame, sparks, friction, you need a heat source to get your fire going. A butane lighter is one of the best and most common portable sources of ignition. A Ferrocerium (ferro) rod is also a reliable way to start a fire using hot sparks. Matches work as well. Flint and steel offers cooler, yet still combustible sparks. You can also make fire using friction with a bow drill or even a hand drill.
- Fuel - Do your best to start with good, dry wood. Be sure not to move firewood, as that can spread invasive insects like the Emerald Ash Borer. Source your firewood locally or buy it from a reputable dealer. Gradually increase the size of fuel for your fire, starting your fire with tinder, moving up to kindling, then adding larger pieces of wood.
Tinder - the type of tinder to use depends on your heat source. You can use different (heavier) tinder if you have a butane lighter than you can if using flint and steel or friction.
Good tinder for use with a lighter:
- dry grass and fine, dry, natural materials
- dryer lint
- cotton balls with petroleum jelly
- commercial fire starters
Good tinder for use with sparks or friction:
- char cloth (cotton that has been charred, but not burned)
- finely scraped birch bark
- jute twine
- certain fungus and other natural materials
Good kindling to add once the tinder has caught fire:
- Finely split firewood (not big, quarter rounds, you’ll need to split much finer than that to get your fire established)
- Small, dry, sticks and branches gathered from off the ground, not from standing trees. Collect fire materials only from dead and downed trees, but try to gather kindling that has not been laying directly on the forest floor as that material is usually damp and therefore makes fire lighting more difficult.
- Best size is anywhere from matchstick size to finger or thumb size sticks.
- Add larger fuel once the kindling is burning well.
ALL FIRE MAKING MATERIALS SHOULD BE COLLECTED (PREFERABLY AWAY FROM CAMP), PREPARED, AND PLACED NEARBY BEFORE ANY SPARKS ARE STRUCK.
Our Firewood Sling can help haul fuel from an its source to the ring. It is often easiest and most effective to build your fire as it’s burning, rather than constructing an elaborate setup beforehand. One reliable method is to begin with a backstop and a raised platform. The platform is nothing fancy, just a couple sticks laid side by side. If you can get your tinder off the ground it will burn much more easily (especially in the wintertime). The backstop gives you a place to rest your kindling while providing space to keep air circulation going, plus it’s nice to get one of those bigger pieces going as soon as possible. Once the tinder is involved with flame, it’s time to add the kindling a bit at a time. Place one end on the ground or on your platform, the other end on the backstop so the fuel is at an upward angle. Let it catch, don’t add too much too soon. Once that catches, add some more kindling, then wait again. You may add larger fuel once it begins to crackle and really get going. If it begins to die out, go back to some smaller stuff, maybe all the way back to tinder, especially if you’ve got plenty of birchbark handy.
As your fire is burning, you’ll need to replenish your fuels. Add larger pieces as the fire gets going and keep good airflow going at all times. Keep a piece of kindling handy to help reposition stuff that’s already burning. Fires for heat and light should have more air spaces, fires to be used for cooking will likely require less air space as you don’t want or need an especially hot fire to cook with. Consider splitting larger pieces of wood with an axe or hatchet (ours work really well). Wrist sized pieces are usually as big as you’d want to try and burn in a smallish campfire. Splitting the firewood helps it to burn more effectively and completely.
Plan ahead, burn your fire down as much as possible before you extinguish it. You won’t be leaving as much evidence lying around and it’s easier to put out when there aren’t big chunks still blazing. Keep it small, put it out completely. The rule of thumb for a properly extinguished fire is that it should be cool to the touch and drenched.
Well-maintained open fires are great, but we offer several handy cookstoves to contain a fire and support cookware. With many of our offerings you get the best of both worlds. A contained burn, that’s easy to keep together, plus, cheery flames that are useful for cooking, heating, and raising the mood ‘round camp.
Practice your fire skills safely, courteously, and often. Challenge yourself by mastering various forms of firelighting and campfire construction. Share what you’ve learned and teach someone (who’s ready to responsibly start a fire) what you’ve learned. You’ll be a better camper because of it!
Fireside chats with Dave and Amy Freeman on the Frost River trip to resupply them during their Year in the Wilderness.