Make a fire, and stay alive


Now that the Priorities of Survival are out of the way and you are happy with PLWF and how to use it, lets look at some of the practical skills required to address these priorities, starting with the basics of how to make a fire!

Now, I don’t know about you, but I love fire and it casts a very primal spell over me that has me entranced when I have a roaring fire burning away. I have been like this as long as I can remember and I doubt it is going to disappear anytime soon. Joking aside, this is a deep rooted and ingrained connection that humans first developed around 750,000 to 1,000,000 years ago when they found out how to make a fire.

Cavemen using friction to make a fire

Learning how to make a fire is what really proved that man was indisputably evolved and different from the ape. It allowed early humans to venture out in the night and to gain heat during cold periods. Using fire as a tool also allowed spear tips to be hardened and resins from plants to be used as a glue for securing these spear tips. This gave early humans a huge advantage over other animals, namely prey. Once the prey was caught it could then be cooked which allowed easier access to the proteins contained within the meat.

The added side effect of fire was that predators and insects didn’t like smoke and flames and this afforded early man with some much needed protection. This in turn allowed a relative amount of impunity when predators were wandering around trying to find their dinner.

So, to try and emphasise the importance of early man learning how to make a fire and why it has a primal connection for most; without fire man would not be here in his present form.Your very existence and the fact you are reading this text on a computer, you drive a car, are able to visit a supermarket, fly around the world all came about as a result of fire.

So how did ancient man make a fire?

There were 3 main methods that ancient man used in order to obtain fire; friction, sparks and natural fires. lets look at each in turn.

Friction

bushman using friction to make a fireThis is perhaps the most commonly known method used as it is easy and can be utilised in pretty much any geographical location. It involves 2 pieces of material (normally wood) being rubbed together in some way so that friction produces heat. This heat in turn causes a fine combustible material to ignite or at the very least start to smoulder. This can then be used (very carefully) to ignite another less fine combustible material which in turn is used to ignite an even less fine combustible material and so on until you have your 3 storey inferno raging, this is the simple way in which man learnt to make a fire.

Sparks

Modern man has it easy in comparison as there are several methods of making sparks such as Ferrocerium rods or ‘flint and steels’, lighters and electricity. Ancient man had to make a fire with flint which is afire by sparks very specific type of stone, although there are other kinds of stone that can be used. Striking or rubbing these stones together caused small sparks to come off that could be channelled in order to ignite or at least cause smouldering of some combustible material.

The flint method was more difficult and required patience… Lots of patience as it can be very hit or miss and helped to coin the phrase ‘flint fire rage’. This is the state of rage that you inevitably find yourself in after 45 minutes of trying to get a spark sufficient enough to make a fire. Okay, it maybe isn’t an internationally recognised phrase but it does exist; don’t believe me, try using stones to make fire, its easier to get blood out of a stone!

Natural fire

This was the most efficient method, but the least predictable or reliable, it simply involved using a naturally occurring fire to ignite a branch that could be taken to a place of ancients man’s choosing. As it was naturally occurring there was no way of predicting when or where this was likely to happen. As natural fires are more likely in the summer it unfortunately coincided with the time of year that ancient man least needed fire i.e. when it was warm. This provided the impetus for the skills being developed to make a fire on demand.

So what do you need for a fire to burn?

full fire triangleIn simple terms you need 3 things for a successful fire, Fuel, Oxygen and Heat. The absence of just one of these will prevent a fire from starting or extinguish a fire that is already burning. These 3 components are known as the fire triangle and are key to understanding fire and how you can make a fire and more importantly sustain it. Let’s now assume you have all 3 of these components and you want to start a fire, the final piece of the puzzle is an ignition source to get it all started.

What do I need to make a successful fire?

There are 4 main things you will need for your fire lighting skills to progress from a smouldering ember to towering inferno. You will need an ignition source, tinder, kindling and additional fuel. Most people can get the first 2 stages covered sufficiently that they can at least cause a small amount of smoke or a tiny flame. Progressing things from there is, in my experience, where most people struggle.

What can I use as an ignition source?

There are several options that you can buy to help you make a fire – Lighter, matches, chemicals, electricity, sparks, friction; the list goes on and on. I will not focus on any of these in particular as it doesn’t really matter what the ignition source is as the ignition source is just used to start the process off. Every fire follows the same route once the initial ignition source has been used.

The importance of tinder… for fires, not dating!

Tinder is the most important part of your fire lighting kit, without it you will simply not make fire. Tinder is easily combustible material used to cause fire by rudimentary methods. Importantly tinder is generally not self sustaining, it normally requires an input from you to keep the flame or smouldering going such as blowing on glowing embers or protecting from a slight breeze. Examples of tinder are

  • fire tinderDry grass
  • Thin paper
  • cotton wool
  • Magnesium shavings
  • feathers
  • wool/fur
  • Birch Tree bark
  • cloth
  • hay
  • fungus

The list is huge, essentially you want something that is dry and easily combustible.

Kindling is the bridge to a roaring inferno

Kindling is material that is easily combustible but is not combustible directly from your ignition source, it is something that can be ignited from a match, lighter or small flame. Kindling is used to bridge the gap between a minuscule flame of your tinder to a self sustaining fire that can be left for a few hours. Examples of kindling are kindling for fire lighting

  • Twigs (1 – 5mm wide)
  • Cardboard
  • Wood splinters
  • Grass (dry)
  • Leaves (dry)
  • Cloth
  • Bark (dry)

Again the list is virtually endless, most things could be used for kindling if it is small enough and if it combusts easily. You are aiming to get your tiny flame or smouldering tinder into a big flame as quickly as you can so that you can make your fire self sustaining. If you do this correctly you will end up with several small glowing embers that can be used to sustain your fire and allow it to slowly smoulder for hours.

Main Fuel

This is the stuff that big fires are made of, this is the final stage that will make a fire that is self sufficient and can be left for hours without is fizzling out. In theory, once you get to this stage you can put any size of fuel source onto the fire and it will burn. This is the part that a lot of people fall down on by trying to get to this stage too soon or don’t have enough fuel (things to burn) and the fire dies out. A fire at this stage will have a pretty big appetite for additional fuel; a few twigs just wont cut it. Its one thing managing to make a fire its another sustaining it.

How much fuel do I need?

fire lighting pyramid

I generally work on a simple ratio of 20:1. You will need 20 times the kindling as you do tinder and 20 times as much main fuel as you do kindling. Once you get to this stage the fire should be self sufficient long enough for you to leave it unattended for a while, such as overnight. This is a rough planning figure and is not hard and fast as environmental and weather conditions will affect this quite a bit.

 Crawl, Walk, Run.

The theory is actually very simple; the practice, not so much! If I was given a £ for every time I swore and cursed when I have tried to make a fire I would be living on a private yacht somewhere in the Caribbean. I have lost count of the amount of time that it has taken me more than a couple of attempts to get a fire going. This is not because I am particularly bad at it, in fact I would say I am actually pretty good, it is just that it requires varying amounts of luck and skill.

The key to getting it right first time and having a sustainable fire is preparing all of your tinder, kindling and main fuel before you even attempt to raise a tiny flame let alone make a fire that will keep you warn all night. the single biggest reason people fail to have their raging inferno within a few minutes, is either lack of sufficient fuel or putting main fuel on before the fire too soon and it wont ignite. When firelighting you have to be patient and use the motto, Crawl, Walk, Run.

What kind of prep should you get out of the way beforehand?

The following list is not exhaustive but will help to get you on the right path in your quest to make a fire.

  • Find a suitable dry area for your fire but that wont ignite the surrounding area or the ground (peat, leave mulch, grass etc).
  • Ensure the weather or environment wont affect your endeavours to make a fire in the first place or your subsequent bonfire i.e. Rain, high winds, a flooding river etc.
  • Select a suitable method for initially igniting your fire.
  • Gather sufficient tinder, kindling and main fuel to sustain the fire for a few hours.
  • Prepare your tinder, kindling and main fuel so that it is ready to be used as soon as the fire starts. This means breaking it into a usable sizes that allow for combustion and easy of use.
  • Tinder – ensure it is dry and easily accessible should you require more in order to keep the initial flame going.
  • Kindling – Have sufficient within arms length to sustain your fire for a few minutes. You will need more than you think you will!
  • Main fuel – Ensure it is small enough and prepped in a way that will initially allow easy combustion i.e. dry, smaller pieces or split.
  • Build your fire prior to trying to ignite it. I always make a small pyramid that is about 2 – 3 feet high that contains my tinder tucked away in the middle (about an inch across). This is then surrounded by lots of kindling (remember the 20:1 rule,this is around 18 – 24 inches high) and this is then surrounded by some pieces of the main fuel. The size (thickness) of the fuel within the pyramid should get progressively bigger/wider the closer it gets to the outside.
  • Finally, when all of this is in place, ingite your tinder. If you have done this correctly then everything should be self sufficient for a few minutes and will allow you to monitor it whilst being the image of calm…

fire pyramidThe reality is that when you make a fire it will probably not ignite first time and be self sufficient straight away. The only way you can help this is to practice, practice, practice! Ensure you are confident on what to do and can do it consistently; fire lighting is a life-saving skill that every survivalist should be able to do.

I will look at fire lighting in another post, I just wanted to give you a quick background on fire lighting. Hopefully this has helped you to learn something new about fire and fire lighting. If you just cant wait and want to but some cool fire lighting gadgets then please try here.

Dont leave yet as I have lots of other great info on my site, check it out now!

Let me know what you think or if you have your own ways of doing things. You can do this by commenting below and please share with your friends.

Dave

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18 comments

  • Hannah

    Hey there.

    I’ve lit a good few fires in my life for various different reasons. When I as a teen I used to meet up with friends and make a big fire in the field nearby. Good times! We build some pretty impressive fires too! I’ve had to build a fire to keep myself warm whilst I was homeless sleeping on the streets too – that was of course for survival reasons.

    Great guide – this will help a good few people out.

    Hannah.

    • Hannah I can relate to the fire in fields thing, I was a nightmare as a kid as a I loved fire… I still do.

      I do hope you have found yourself a home now?

  • Awesome tips on making fire. I should book-mark this page for camping next summer. Thanks for sharing!

  • Julie

    Hi Dave,

    What an interesting site! You have lots of really good info. here. I hope I never have to use this info. I’m not so good with the camping thing. I’d rather be in a nice warm environment. A hotel or resort next to a beach or pool. Much safer for me rather venturing off into the wild blue yonder!
    Julie

    • Haha, dont get me wrong Julie, I love a nice resort with warm weather and cold beers; I will never choose to be cold and wet 🙂

      Thanks for your comments.

  • Hello – may I add a light-hearted comment here?

    I think I may have misread your info about early man

    ‘ until you have your 3 storey inferno raging, this is the simple way in which man learnt to make a fire’.

    You also mention – ‘towering inferno’ and similar. Is there something about survival skills Bear Grylls has overlooked as he doesn’t mention setting fire to a 3 storey tree or burning down the entire forest?

    It makes me wonder how many of our ancestors went up in smoke themselves with their newly discovered fire when they were learning this as a new skillset. After all – why invent the fire extinguisher before you’ve properly invented setting fire to things you don’t mean to?

    Seriously now – may I ask if you’ve come across the new drinking straws that apparently cleanse and filter the water as you sip from river or stream? They sound like a good idea but I still recall being on military exercise and watching a sheep’s head float past in a stream we were thinking of filling our water bottles from.

    I love this website – sound info that’ll hopefully never be needed until we’ve all been priced out of our homes and meet up on the streets under a shop canopy or somewhere. Then, when we start a blaze we get to spend a few nights in a nice warm cell.

    All the very best wishes – Andre Kish

    • Andre,

      Haha, please dont get me started on Bear Grylls, lol. The guy winds me up with his ‘survival skills’ that he shows on TV, but that’s a post for another day!

      With regards to the drinking straws, I have come across them before and I have to admit I am a fan… But, again people have to do a bit of research and understand the limitations of what they can and cant do. There is always the danger of thinking they will filter everything and you can drink from a stangnant cesspool with rotting sheep carcasses. That is just not the case!

      Another limit is using them where there is a lot of grit or sediment. This will clog the filter unit and allow large particles through but more importantly will degrade the straws ability to filter pathogens. You are always betterSo to answer your question – they are a good piece of kit and can make the difference between life and death. I have used similar items in the past and have never became ill so they must have done something worthwhile 🙂

      If you are looking to buy any then there is a huge selection here and they only cost around $10 -$15 but can save your life. Buy one today!

  • Kim

    As an avid camper and former Girl Guide, I too love the challenge of getting a roaring fire happening… especially when the men are struggling or too impatient. Excellent tips here and if followed should result in a lovely fire! I love the humour too!

    Now something that I can never seem to conquer… how to keep mosquitos away?

    • Haha, if only my wife had your enthusiasm for fire, lol. Thanks for the comment and kind words… Now Mozzies, well there are actually quite a few ways to keep them at bay and I am going to assume you are meaning in a survival situation and not sitting with a beer in your garden.

      The easiest solution is smoke; you dont need to be choking but just a very light amount of smoke. This can easily be achieved by dropping some green leaves or grass onto a well established fire. The only other option is repellant and/or long sleeves and trousers. I have managed to stay bite free in the jungle by covering my arms and legs and sleeping with a head net so it is effective.

      If you are looking to get rid of mozzies in your garden then there are a few options – Citronella plants, Garlic (not a great option if you want to have friends) and remove any stagnant water. there are a few ways to trap them as well – A bowl of water and detergent (they like the water and then drown as the detergent breaks the water surface tension), a plastic bottle with the top 1/4 cut off, lid removed and inverted back into the bottle. Fill this with yeast, sugar and luke warm water and leave out. The Carbon Dioxide will attract them and the wont be able to escape the bottle once they enter.

      My number one option though is to drink Gin and Tonic as Quinine in the tonic water keeps them at bay… Well thats my excuse anyway 🙂

  • Good stuff, man! That is a real soup-to-nuts description of getting a fire ready to light.

    … and I particularly like that you end by asking people to go out and practice. A person never really owns a skill until they do it!

  • Hindy Pearson

    I can honestly say, until now that is, I never gave a thought to fire, how to make one, what elements are needed. I can’t even recall a time I ever used fire myself, other than to light a candle. Who knew there could be so much to say about it, and that it was such an interesting subject! Your article was really fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t think I’ll ever see fire in the same way, and now should I ever be in a position to need one, I hope I’ll be somewhat prepared.

    • Hindy,

      It is like any subject, the more you read into it the more there is to read 🙂 Make sure you practice your new found knowledge as thats the only way you will get confident and more importantly, competent!

      Dave

  • I am a bit of a pyro, always have and will love a good fire. Certainly essential if stranded , self surviving.

    • Mike, you are a man after my own heart, you cannot beat a bit of ‘bush TV’ 🙂

      Out of curiosity, how do you normally get a fire started?

  • I always wondered what would happen if God forbid I found myself on a deserted island. How to start a fire is the first thing that comes to my mind. I am going to need it to survive, to cook, to keep warm, provide light etc. I like how you took us back a million years to visualize how it came about.

    I guess I should start practicing. Now! 🙂
    Helen

  • Hi,

    We take it for granted we live in comfortable homes where all our energy needs are met with the press of a button. But what if we were in the middle of no where, what I we going to do? making a fire from natural materials is quite critical and crucial. Thanks

    Regards,Uwais

    • You mention a really good point and its something I see with my students, everything about modern life is convenient. Very few people have the skills that even their grandparents would have had never mind their ancestors from a few centuries ago. Fire is one of the most fundamental survival skills that will keep you out of harms way.

      UWAIS – When was the last time you made a fire? Do you think you could do it with only natural materials?

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