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    Practical Survival Skills 101 – Fire Starting

    by Aaron M

    Sunday, December 12, 2010, 5:56 AM

Throughout the Internet, a great many resources exist on an immense variety of topics. Some purport expertise in Survival – a sign you should instantly recognize as a red-flag.

Survival is not a topic, nor a way of life. It’s a measure of adaptability. Casually discussion of methods of starting fires, building shelters, procuring clean water and food is the academic tantamount to describing the process of surgery without having ever seen a scalpel.

For this reason, I intend to write a series on Practical Survival. This will not be geared towards the rugged woodsman who knows just how difficult it is to survive off the land – it’s written with an intended audience of the layman who knows little or nothing outside the modern First World.

As a matter of course, this primer is here to assist you in practicing these skills over time. It is not a reference to draw upon when suddenly needed. Without a practical, hands-on approach, it like all others, will fail you when you need them. This is no different than exercise; in order to build a level of fitness, you must use your free time to condition yourself.

The first step in developing your skills, is to begin building a database in your mind that you can draw upon. So, what is survival, really?

It’s the maintenance of systems. It’s the integration of respiration and consumption with a balance of heat energy. Remove one of the above and it becomes very difficult to survive. The “Key Concept” here is the Survival Saw, or as it’s sometimes known, the Rule of 3’s:

A human being is said to be able to survive for:

  • 3 minutes without oxygen
  • 3 hours without warmth
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

While these numbers represent an “average,” it’s important to note that your ability to function diminishes significantly after the first third of any given requisite, and thus plan accordingly.

Because this guide is meant to be a practical means to developing a skill set, we’re going to focus first on the issue of creating a means of survival for the “medium term” – meaning something that once complete needs maintenance, but does not require that we start completely over each time – if managed correctly. Combined with a shelter which will be discussed in Part II, a fire is one of the most practical survival tools in your personal toolbox. Please keep in mind that this primer is geared for a “semi-primitive” environment – not an advanced discussion of severely austere conditions.

The Art of Sustained Combustion

During human history, several innovations have led to the ability of humans to adapt their environment to them, rather than the other way around. The definitive moment for human-kind was the mastery of fire. Plainly put, fire is a change in state that results in the release of energy: Oxygen is used to facilitate the rapid oxidation of the material being burned, and the resulting energy is given as heat. This heat is used to minimize the impact of environmental conditions, such as cold, improper or non-existent shelter, bacteria in our food and water, et cetera.

The ability to build a fire from “scratch” using a bow drill, fireboard, or any other measure is a subject that would require significantly more time and effort than is practical for “most” people – therefore, we’re going to approach this from the perspective that you have several items that you should keep in your first line gear – in other words, things you carry every day:

  1. A knife
  2. A lighter, or waterproof matches
  3. Magnesium

As you develop your skills, it’s prudent to adjust the level of difficulty accordingly. What we want to avoid is an overwhelming experience which leaves you with no room to improve.

So, what do we need to make fire?

  1. A safe area in which to build
  2. Fuel
  3. Heat
  4. Oxygen

The challenge is combining the three in a way that creates enough heat to maintain a even, consistent burn without running out of material. So, with that in mind, the first objective in fire building is site selection. When determining or assembling the area in which you will build your fire, take a moment to make the following considerations:

  1. Is it easy to reflect the heat?
  2. Is it near enough your temporary shelter that it will provide warmth?
  3. Is it far enough from your temporary shelter that it will not put you at risk?
  4. Is there adequate ventilation?
  5. Is it near enough a fuel source/water source to make it convenient?
  6. Are there tactical or situational factors that make a high visibility fire a liability?

It’s time to get your material together.

First and foremost – the most important ingredient: Patience. If you’re not patient, and don’t pace yourself, you’ll find yourself wasting time and material — two things we don’t have in great excess during emergencies. Manage both wisely.

This is when observation and experience really become paramount. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, things are “wet” almost all the time. However, this doesn’t mean that all things are retaining water. Searching around the base of trees can provide dry tinder, thin dry sticks, and so forth. As we look for materials with which to build our fire, a simple way to think about it is:

  1. Fibrous dry material (tinder) – Think light, porous and dry, pine needles, dry grasses, unsaturated rotten wood.
  2. Toothpicks – thin, dry sticks about the same diameter as a toothpick.
  3. Pencils – dry sticks (remove wet bark if necessary) about the same diameter as a pencil. This is commonly refered to as kindling. In the woods, it’s rare to find thin, dry flat pieces of wood, so for this exercise, kindling will be small dry limbs, thin, flat pieces of driftwood, or the like.
  4. Broom handles – small tree limbs.  By the time we use these, the dryness will be less important.
  5. Logs – either rounds (sections) of a small, dead tree or branches. These will be the fuel for larger, hotter burning fires – such as cooking fires. The Boy Scout handbook refers to this wood as about the size of your wrist, and I think that’s an excellent way of describing it. Large, heavy logs are inefficient as they require more energy to gather, and you’ll have to refuel your fire every hour or so regardless of the size of the logs you add. Finally, gather your wood from an area outside your camp – leave the easy stuff nearby, just in case.

This semi-prioritized list considers the material’s size in relation to its order in the fire-building process. It will take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to gather as much wood as you’ll need simply for one day, but to get started, your selection should look something like the photo above. 

A good way of determining how suitable any of this material is for fire starting is checking to see if it twists or shouts – when you try and break it, does it snap audibly, or does it just twist around? Leave the twisters and take the ones which break. They contain less moisture and are more suitable for this process.

Things to avoid: (This is in bold because it’s almost as important as things to look for.)

  • Napkins – They don’t burn well, fail to generate enough heat to light wet tinder, and generally waste your time.
  • Leaves – Leaves are basically devices for managing water. Even when they’re dry, they lack the body for combustion. I’ve wasted valuable time trying to burn leaves before I figured out they just lack any redeeming qualities for ignition.
  • Big pieces of wood – Bbigger isn’t better. It requires more calories of heat to start the burn and requires more to keep it burning. Start small.

Next, assemble the dry, fibrous tinder for the tinder ball, which is essential to starting a fire without a lighter or magnesium (as was done for these photos). Once you’ve collected your material, take the dry, fibrous grasses, or dry bark and shred it.

Your tinder ball should be the size of a major-league baseball, or roughly the size of your hands held together as fists. This is no small amount of material, especially before you shred it, but you’ll need quite a lot, as this process is very dependent on your skill at balancing the Fuel/Air/Heat triangle.

I try to find a curved piece of bark to hold the material as I set it alight; this accomplishes several things:

  1. It keeps any water mobile and away from my dry material
  2. It allows air flow from the bottom of the tinderball.
  3. It allows you to move the burning material once it’s lit.

You can make an effective tinder ball from shredded, dry grass, and dry pine needles, with “toothpicks and pencil stick” sized kindling laid atop– they will not burn if you just leave them like this; it’s just for ease of setting the fire up once your tinder is burning. If you’ve found some dry wood, take shavings and add it into the mix:

This finely shaven material should be kept dry – in this case, I’m shaving it into a napkin which will be kept in a pocket until I’m ready to combine it into the tinder ball. 

Once you’ve assembled your tinder ball, and have your wood material handy, set the tinder alight – if you use magnesium, take care, as it burns very hot, and very bright. The first challenge here is managing the air flow while not smothering the fire or blowing it out. Don’t blow from your cheeks, blow from your lips. This will manage the air flow into a nice, even stream and won’t overwhelm the combustion process. Oh yeah, if you’re not laying belly-down in the dirt, you probably will be before long, so don’t wear your Sunday-go-to-town clothes.

Your burning tinder ball should end up looking something like the photo at right:

Now that you’ve got it to this point, don’t give up – the task is not finished!  It may not continue to burn freely, and you might end up relighting it several times. If you’re using matches, use them as fuel. If you have hand sanitizer, check it for alcohol. If it has it, it’ll burn. Same thing with wax and Vaseline. This is the “sun” of your universe – everything else will orbit this component, so make sure it’s strong.

More important than flame is heat. If there is a good amount of heat coming from it, it’s time to start setting the fire up, and there are a few different thoughts on how to accomplish this, but we’re going to use the “teepee method.” In contrast, the “hut” or “cabin” method disallows access to the interior component of your tinder, tends to collapse (which disrupts the heat distribution), and typically works poorly with smaller pieces of kindling. 

The “Teepee Method” of Fire Starting

The toothpick- and pencil-sized material is assembled as a circular base, which concludes in a single point atop the tinder. This directs the fire into a single point, which means your heat transfer is directional, and therefore somewhat controlled. Also, you can build upon this basic foundation – adding larger pieces in the same way until the fire is mature. As the fire becomes more stable, the lean-to method works very well, and that’s how I prefer to set up my fires. For me, it’s yielded the best results. This picture is difficult to see, because the larger sticks around the exterior appear to be much bigger than they are – the one on the right is actually just bark being used as a fire-reflector – directing the heat back inward. In the center there, you can see smoke – and over the top, a scavenged piece of cardboard I’d found from some road debris, which was used in this case to protect the fire from the rain.

Continually add oxygen to your fire now that it is at this stage. As your fire begins to generate more heat, it will cause the surrounding sticks to warm and ultimately burn. A better picture of the teepee below:

This shows the fire in the “growth” stage – at this point, it is burning unaided and will continue to burn until it is extinguished, or it runs out of fuel or oxygen. Use this opportunity to scavenge more wood from an area outside your camp.

It’s important to gather plenty of wood in the “pre-fire” stage – you do not want to have to continually expend calories getting up, scavenging , dropping back down (and getting cold) in a chaotic sequence, never really accomplishing anything. You’ll lose energy and heat, both of which are critical for survival.

So, to recap:

  1. Select a suitable site.
  2. Scavenge suitable material.
  3. Prepare material for combustion.
  4. Assemble material in a way that facilitates combustion.
  5. Add material as needed and maintain.

This concludes this very brief tutorial on starting a fire during wet weather.

The next topic in “Practical Survival Skill 101” will be Filtering Water. Now that we have a fire, we can filter and boil water to make it potable for cooking.

Waste Nothing.



This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by ChrisMartenson.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you’d like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our What Should I Do? series feedback forum.

If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:

This series is a companion to this site’s free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the ChrisMartenson.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.

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