In many survival situations, the ability to start a fire can make the difference
between living and dying. Fire can fulfill many needs. It can provide warmth
and comfort. It not only cooks and preserves food, it also provides warmth in
the form of heated food that saves calories our body normally uses to produce
body heat. You can use fire to purify water, sterilize bandages, signal for
rescue, and provide protection from animals. It can be a psychological boost
by providing peace of mind and companionship. You can also use fire to
produce tools and weapons.
Fire can cause problems, as well. The enemy can detect the smoke and light it
produces. It can cause forest fires or destroy essential equipment. Fire can
also cause burns carbon monoxide poisoning when used in shelters.
Remember weigh your need for fire against your need to avoid enemy
BASIC FIRE PRINCIPLES
To build a fire, it helps to understand the basic principles of a fire. Fuel (in a nongaseous
state) does not burn directly. When you apply heat to a fuel, it produces a gas. This gas,
combined with oxygen in the air, burns.
Understanding the concept of the fire triangle is very important in correctly constructing
and maintaining a fire. The three sides of the triangle represent air, heat, and fuel. If you
remove any of these, the fire will go out. The correct ratio of these components is very
important for a fire to burn at its greatest capability. The only way to learn this ratio is to
SITE SELECTION AND PREPARATION
You will have to decide what site and arrangement to use. Before building a fire consider–
• The area (terrain and climate) in which you are operating.
• The materials and tools available.
• Time: how much time you have?
• Need: why you need a fire?
• Security: how close is the enemy?
Look for a dry spot that–
• Is protected from the wind.
• Is suitably placed in relation to your shelter (if any).
• Will concentrate the heat in the direction you desire.
Has a supply of wood or other fuel available. (See Figure 7-4 for types of material you can
If you are in a wooded or brush-covered area, clear the brush and scrape the surface soil
from the spot you have selected. Clear a circle at least 1 meter in diameter so there is little
chance of the fire spreading.
If time allows, construct a fire wall using logs or rocks. This wall will help to reflector direct
the heat where you want it (Figure 7-1). It will also reduce flying sparks and cut down on
the amount of wind blowing into the fire. However, you will need enough wind to keep the
Do not use wet or porous rocks as they may explode when heated.
In some situations, you may find that an underground fireplace will best meet your needs. It
conceals the fire and serves well for cooking food. To make an underground fireplace or
Dakota fire hole (Figure 7-2)–
• Dig a hole in the ground.
• On the upwind side of this hole, poke or dig a large connecting hole for ventilation.
• Build your fire in the hole as illustrated.
If you are in a snow-covered area, use green logs to make a dry base for your fire (Figure 7-
3). Trees with wrist-sized trunks are easily broken in extreme cold. Cut or break several
green logs and lay them side by side on top of the snow. Add one or two more layers. Lay
the top layer of logs opposite those below it.
FIRE MATERIAL SELECTION
You need three types of materials (Figure 7-4) to build a fire–tinder, kindling, and fuel.
Tinder is dry material that ignites with little heat–a spark starts a fire. The tinder must be
absolutely dry to be sure just a spark will ignite it. If you only have a device that generates
sparks, charred cloth will be almost essential. It holds a spark for long periods, allowing you
to put tinder on the hot area to generate a small flame. You can make charred cloth by
heating cotton cloth until it turns black, but does not burn. Once it is black, you must keep
it in an airtight container to keep it dry. Prepare this cloth well in advance of any survival
situation. Add it to your individual survival kit.
Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Again, this
material should be absolutely dry to ensure rapid burning. Kindling increases the fire’s
temperature so that it will ignite less combustible material.
Fuel is less combustible material that burns slowly and steadily once ignited.
HOW TO BUILD A FIRE
There are several methods for laying a fire, each of which has advantages. The situation
you find yourself in will determine which fire to use.
To make this fire (Figure 7-5), arrange the tinder and a few sticks of kindling in the shape of
a tepee or cone. Light the center. As the tepee burns, the outside logs will fall inward,
feeding the fire. This type of fire burns well even with wet wood.
To lay this fire (Figure 7-5), push a green stick into the ground at a 30-degree angle. Point
the end of the stick in the direction of the wind. Place some tinder deep under this lean-to
stick. Lean pieces of kindling against the lean-to stick. Light the tinder. As the kindling
catches fire from the tinder, add more kindling.
To use this method (Figure 7-5), scratch a cross about 30 centimeters in size in the ground.
Dig the cross 7.5 centimeters deep. Put a large wad of tinder in the middle of the cross.
Build a kindling pyramid above the tinder. The shallow ditch allows air to sweep under the
tinder to provide a draft.
To lay this fire (Figure 7-5), place two small logs or branches parallel on the ground. Place a
solid layer of small logs across the parallel logs. Add three or four more layers of logs or
branches, each layer smaller than and at a right angle to the layer below it. Make a starter
fire on top of the pyramid. As the starter fire burns, it will ignite the logs below it. This gives
you a fire that burns downward, requiring no attention during the night.
There are several other ways to lay a fire that are quite effective. Your situation and the
material available in the area may make another method more suitable.
HOW TO LIGHT A FIRE
Always light your fire from the upwind side. Make sure to lay your tinder, kindling, and fuel
so that your fire will burn as long as you need it. Igniters provide the initial heat required to
start the tinder burning. They fall into two categories: modern methods and primitive
Modem igniters use modem devices–items we normally think of to start a fire.
Make sure these matches are waterproof. Also, store them in a waterproof container along
with a dependable striker pad.
Use this method (Figure 7-6) only on bright, sunny days. The lens can come from
binoculars, camera, telescopic sights, or magnifying glasses. Angle the lens to concentrate
the sun’s rays on the tinder. Hold the lens over the same spot until the tinder begins to
smolder. Gently blow or fan the tinder into flame, and apply it to the fire lay.
Place a flat, dry leaf under your tinder with a portion exposed. Place the tip of the metal
match on the dry leaf, holding the metal match in one hand and a knife in the other. Scrape
your knife against the metal match to produce sparks. The sparks will hit the tinder. When
the tinder starts to smolder, proceed as above.
Use a battery to generate a spark. Use of this method depends on the type of battery
available. Attach a wire to each terminal. Touch the ends of the bare wires together next to
the tinder so the sparks will ignite it.
Often, you will have ammunition with your equipment. If so, carefully extract the bullet
from the shell casing, and use the gunpowder as tinder. A spark will ignite the powder. Be
extremely careful when extracting the bullet from the case.
Primitive igniters are those attributed to our early ancestors.
Flint and Steel
The direct spark method is the easiest of the primitive methods to use. The flint and steel
method is the most reliable of the direct spark methods. Strike a flint or other hard, sharp-
edged rock edge with a piece of carbon steel (stainless steel will not produce a good spark).
This method requires a loose-jointed wrist and practice. When a spark has caught in the
tinder, blow on it. The spark will spread and burst into flames.
The fire-plow (Figure 7-7) is a friction method of ignition. You rub a hardwood shaft against
a softer wood base. To use this method, cut a straight groove in the base and plow the
blunt tip of the shaft up and down the groove. The plowing action of the shaft pushes out
small particles of wood fibers. Then, as you apply more pressure on each stroke, the friction
ignites the wood particles.
Bow and Drill
The technique of starting a fire with a bow and drill (Figure 7-8) is simple, but you must
exert much effort and be persistent to produce a fire. You need the following items to use
• Socket. The socket is an easily grasped stone or piece of hardwood or bone with a
slight depression in one side. Use it to hold the drill in place and to apply downward
• Drill. The drill should be a straight, seasoned hardwood stick about 2 centimeters in
diameter and 25 centimeters long. The top end is round and the low end blunt (to
produce more friction).
• Fire board. Its size is up to you. A seasoned softwood board about 2.5 centimeters
thick and 10 centimeters wide is preferable. Cut a depression about 2 centimeters
from the edge on one side of the board. On the underside, make a V-shaped cut from
the edge of the board to the depression.
• Bow. The bow is a resilient, green stick about 2.5 centimeters in diameter and a
string. The type of wood is not important. The bowstring can be any type of cordage.
You tie the bowstring from one end of the bow to the other, without any slack.
To use the bow and drill, first prepare the fire lay. Then place a bundle of tinder under the
V-shaped cut in the fire board. Place one foot on the fire board. Loop the bowstring over the
drill and place the drill in the precut depression on the fire board. Place the socket, held in
one hand, on the top of the drill to hold it in position. Press down on the drill and saw the
bow back and forth to twirl the drill (Figure 7-8). Once you have established a smooth
motion, apply more downward pressure and work the bow faster. This action will grind hot
black powder into the tinder, causing a spark to catch. Blow on the tinder until it ignites.
Note: Primitive fire-building methods are exhaustive and require practice to
-Use non-aromatic seasoned hardwood for fuel, if possible.
-Collect kindling and tinder along the trail.
-Add insect repellent to the tinder.
-Keep the firewood dry.
-Dry damp firewood near the fire.
-Bank the fire to keep the coals alive overnight.
-Carry lighted punk, when possible.
-Be sure the fire is out before leaving camp.
-Do not select wood lying on the ground. It may appear to be dry but generally doesn’t
provide enough friction.