Fire Starting for Survival and Camping

By  David Arama‎, Director

Why Fire is Important?

Whether you find yourself in a life threatening outdoor  survival situation, ‎or in an urban disaster, fire is one of the key components required for a successful outcome. Fire gives you warmth, security, fends off animals and insects, can be used to boil water for purification and cooking, and is important in search and rescue since searchers frequently employ “FLIR” (heat detecting equipment) to locate lost persons. Also, in my opinion, a campfire is integral to any fun camping experience. Many camping memories include singing songs and roasting marshmallows by the flickering flames of the campfire. My first experience starting a campfire was like a lot of folks, I had no idea what I was doing, so I poured camp fuel over the logs, and lit it with a lighter. Not a good idea, it’s extremely dangerous, and the fire goes out every time.‎ Now, I offer Survival and Disaster Prep training courses and camps, where Fire Starting is always a staple. 

Tools to Start a Fire‎: My favourite tools for fire starting include the following:

  • Butane lighter
  • Stormproof brand matches
  • Adjustable quality BBQ lighter
  • Flint or Ferro rod
  • Magnesium block
  • Steel wool and batteries, cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, tampons soaked in hand sanitizer and store-bought fuel cubes

St‎ormproof matches will light even in pouring rain and a gale force wind.  My favourite flint rods are the Strikeforce and Firesteel brands. The benefit of a Ferro Rod Flint is that it can be used thousands of times, will work even when soaking wet, and they are safe to use when lighting a BBQ and Lantern. The downside for firestarting is that you need to have good tinders or artificial fuel materials. TIP: make a fire Tinder bag using dryer lint, wax, and pine sap.

The Fire Triangle: fire requires 3 things, oxygen + fuel + ignition. If you remove one component, you extinguish the fire.‎ Don’t pack the fire materials or firewood to densely.

Tinder, Kindling, and Fuelwood: to start and build a good fire, you need to have tinder, kindling, and fuelwood. The key to understand fire is “ignition point temperature”. A pine needle can be lit by an errant spark from a lawn mower, whereas a hardwood log requires thousands of degrees to ignite.Tinder is the finest materials. My list of excellent tenders includes:

  • white birch bark
  • pine needles
  • fluffy stuff from cattails and milkweeds
  • dried grasses
  • fuzz stick and shavings from softwoods, eg pine
  • pine cones
  • pine and spruce sap
  • cedar bark for smoldering

TIP: peoples used to transport fire, using Smudge materials like fine cedar bark and tree fungus. Some call this an “Apache Match”

TIP: crunch a bunch of spruce ‎twigs into a bundle, and fill with birch bark. We call this a “firebomb”.

Kindling is the fine dead coniferous twigs. My favourite is spruce twigs. Fuelwood is thumb size to large pieces of dead, dried wood. I prefer standing wood versus wood found on the ground.

Fire Safety‎: many Forest Fires are caused by careless campers. Here are some basic fire safety rules:-

  • never leave a fire unattended
  • always use a sanctioned fire pit‎, that is lined with firebrick etc.
  • if building a fire in the wilds, never build it on the forest floor, always dig down to the mineral soil layer where there’s no roots, or on top of rock
  • careful with bonfires on windy days, and under an evergreen tree canopy
  • never use an aerosol spray can to ignite a fire, or gasoline fuel-hair is extremely flammable-never wear saddles or crocs when cooking and boiling over an open fire
  • fleece and poly clothing is highly flammable-keep flammable liquids and propane/butane tanks, well away from the campfire area.
  • never bring fire inside a tent, or pans of coals, or candles,  etc, for heating, unless you have a properly vented hot tent with woodstove and stove pipes-have a bucket of water or sand ready
  • always ensure that the fire is completely extinguished‎, by feeling around for missed coals and hot spots with a stick and your hands
  • abide by any firebans or be extra cautious if high to extreme fire danger

Fire Bans and Regulations‎: the Fort MacMurray fire was apparently caused by careless campers.  Last year, during a serious and severe drought, we witnessed many illegal fires. One guy decided that during a fire ban, that it was the perfect time to do a leaf and brush burn. Another guy started a grass fire when he decided to use his lawnmower on a parched lawnTownship fire departments and municipal offices post fire conditions and bans. They can issue fines of $5,000 to $10,000, and you can be held liable for all costs, including f‎ire suppression and property damages.Check with your local Township Office regarding where fire pits are allowed.

Hardwoods vs Softwoods: for heat and coals, and use in a woodstove or fireplace, burn Hardwoods, eg. Ironwood, Red Oak. Sugar Maple. They give off more heat since the wood cells are densely packed. For flame and a campfire‎, burn Softwoods like pine. Avoid green wood. And avoid poplar and cedar. Poplar is full of water, and cedar gives off a zillion sparks. TIP: in soggy wet conditions, I make a fuzz stick, and combine with inner birch bark (made of oil). Also, I use a pocket knife to remove the outer bark of branches, and get at dry wood.

Smokey Smudge Fires to Keep Insects Down‎: when the bugs are bad, make a Smudge fire using tree fungus, thick moss, and punky rotting wood. TIP: make a Smudge can for the campsite, by simply taking a coffee or juice can, poke a bunch of holes into it add a wire handle, ‎Place a few coals inside to start, and then some punky wood.

Teepee vs Log Cabin‎: there are many ways to build a campfire, but my favourite design is the Teepee, followed by the Log Cabin. The teepee is very efficient, and focused the intensity and oxygen of the fire. For fun, I build the log cabin, and start the fire from the top.

TIP: for a large fire, build several small fires, and connect with logs.

Feeding Logs‎ versus Sawing: when camping, I use my favourite saw, the Boreal Agawa Canyon collapsible bucksaw. However, the historical way to utilize logs is to feed them into the fire or burn them in half. 

Cooking Tips: I reuse old fridge steel trays, and old washing machine drums. For wood cooking, my favourite stoves are the ” Biolite and Kelly Kettle”‎ 

Fire by Friction‎, Flint & Steel Historical Methods: Native Americans utilized several methods of fire by friction, including the fire bowdrill, hand drill, plough drill, and pump drill. The easiest is the bowdrill, and it’s always a crowd pleaser at tradeshows and camps. It is not something to depend on if you’re lost in the wilds since it takes tons of skill and luck (finding the right woods, stormy weather). It can take hours or even days to get a firebow to work, and most lost persons are list late in the day, Typically with less than an hour before nightfall.The voyageurs and pioneers used flint and steel to start their fires. That included a high carbon steel striker that fits in your palm, a flint rock‎ or silicate containing igneous or metamorphic rock, and some charred cloth to strike the spark into to get an ember glowing, and some jute twine to blow the ember into a flame.

All outdoors recreationists should know how to start a good fire. And remember, a flint might add some spark to your life!