As a primitive skills instructor, I spend a lot of time around fire. I like to think I have a special relationship with fire. I know for a fact I have spent more time in front of fires than in front of a television. Many times I have watched people try, yet fail, to build an adequate fire. In my opinion, building, lighting, and maintaining a fire should be taught in every elementary school. Like math.
Fire is a necessity for wilderness survival and primitive living. Yet of all the outdoor skills, building a proper fire structure is one of the most overlooked. It doesn’t matter how many techniques you learn for making fire–whether you’re using bow-drill, flint and steel, fire piston or a Bic lighter–if you don’t have a proper fire structure to ignite, you will probably end up cold, wet, and miserable.
Fire needs three things to exist: heat, oxygen, and fuel. If you remove any of these from the equation, fire will cease. A fire that is burning properly will be warm, provide good light, and be nearly smokeless.
In fire building, material selection is everything. As with any primitive skill, if you take the time to select ideal materials you will be rewarded by saving energy during the crafting process.
Here are a few tips on gathering wood:
Dry wood is key. Whenever possible, I gather wood that is not on the ground. When wood lays on the ground it absorbs moisture and is harder to get burning. I choose dead branches off live trees or dead saplings, and I also collect branches that have fallen off trees and gotten hung up in the forest understory. Remember to keep it dead and dry.
You don’t just want to gather wood willy-nilly, however. There is a method to collecting that trumps all others.
- Tinder. The first thing you need to collect is good, dry tinder. Tinder can be made from any dry, fibrous plant material or the inner bark of some trees. When looking for tinder I seek out fields or open areas where there are dry grasses and leaves. You can also use old flower heads. The best tinder is dry and fibrous with lots of surface area to ignite. I love when I find dead, dry poplar trees because the inner bark can be shredded and made into great tinder. If you have cedar trees around, you can use your knife to scrape tinder from the outer bark as well. I collect way more tinder than I need so I can have some in reserve to use later. When it starts raining you’ll be happy to have extra, dry tinder!
- Sticks. Next, collect a large bundle of what I call “pencil lead” wood: small, thin, dry twigs or woody stalk plants, about as thick as a pencil lead, not quite as thick as a pencil. When you start constructing your fire, these sticks will go around your tinder. Just like tinder, these sticks have a lot of surface area and will catch fire quickly once the tinder gets going. The tinder and pencil lead wood will be the two inner layers, the core of your fire structure.
- Branches. Now it’s time to gather the three outer layers of your fire structure. Collect about 30 pencil-thick branches, then 20 thumb-thick, and finally 10 “OK”-thick branches (make the “OK” sign with your thumb and forefinger).
- Get organized. Once you’ve collected all five types of wood for your inner and outer layers, lay your sticks and materials out by size. It’s time to start construction of your fire structure.
Building a Fire Structure
Fire ring. If you have a fire ring available, use it. If not, you need to construct a fire ring to contain your fire. A ring of large rocks will do the trick. If rocks aren’t available and local laws allow, dig a small depression in the ground about two feet wide and six inches deep. Build the fire in the depression to keep it contained.
Clear the space. It’s very important to clear away any and all debris near your fire ring that your fire might catch on for about 10 feet around. Our goal is to make a small fire, not burn the woods down! There’s an ancient saying: ”You can build a man a fire and he will be warm for a little while, or you can light a man on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life!”
Teepee Structure. One of the most basic and functional ways to start your fire is to build a teepee structure. In this shape, each layer of the fire is responsible for igniting the layer on top of it. When built well, it will even shed water! If the outer layer gets rained on, it will protect and keep dry the core of the structure.
- Start by putting a softball-sized ball of tinder in the center of your fire pit. If the ground is damp, put the tinder on a piece of bark or some dry leaves.
- Next, place bundles of the pencil lead-thick wood around the tinder in a teepee shape (see image above). Make sure they are actually touching the tinder and be sure to leave a small area open where you can ignite the tinder inside the teepee of sticks.
- After that’s done, lay the pencil thick wood around the structure. Repeat the process with the thumb and “OK” thick branches.
- Once the fire gets going, then you can add larger pieces of wood. Not before or you will put it out.
Personally, I try and keep my fires as small as possible. Smaller fires are easier to manage and eat less wood.
Now that you know the nuts and bolts of building a proper fire structure, it’s time to put it into practice. Like any new skill, it is important that you practice, and a great way to practice is the “one-match fire challenge”. The challenge is exactly what it sounds like: build a fire structure that you can light with one match. If you’ve done everything right, from tinder collection all the way through construction of the fire structure, you should have no problem getting it to light!
You will get the most dynamic practice by building and lighting fires in every season and all weather conditions.
Want to give yourself an even bigger challenge? Gather, construct, build, and light a fire in 5 minutes or less.
This is one of those skills that can truly save your life one day. Practice it, perfect it and pass it on.