How to Light a Fire, at Home, In an Emergency, or for Survival
I bet you think you know how to light a fire, and you've probably done it several times before. Many people think they know how to shoot because they can make the gun go, “bang”. Just as making the gun go, “bang” doesn't mean you know how to shoot, getting a fire going doesn't mean you really know how to light a fire.
Building a fire correctly will ensure the highest possible chance of a successful fire. This isn't too critical when lighting your wood stove or campfire, but when someone falls into icy water, getting a fire lit and sustainable on the first attempt can be a matter of life and death. Practice doing it right, every time at home, and you will be an expert when that time comes.
Every fire needs preparation, a base, a brace, tinder, kindling, fuel, and oxygen
Preparation: The most important stage of building a fire is preparation. I've seen hundreds of fires die just moments after being started because the camper hadn't collected enough wood to sustain it. Filled with excitement from a successful start, they run into the woods to collect more fuel, only to find the fire out when they return. If you're straining from the weight and bulk of wood you've collected, you probably have enough to get started. Preparation also includes selecting a base and a brace, and of course, a safe location to make your fire.
Base: A base is a solid dry surface or foundation to build on. In many cases, the ground is a sufficient base, but when building on snow, wet ground, deep ashes, or deep vegetation, you'll need a base. Look for a flat piece of wood or a large piece of bark. If necessary you can make the base from multiple separate pieces. Be creative, it just needs to be a dry hard surface.
Brace: A brace is usually a piece of wood or a rock that's several inches long and two to four inches high. It's used to lean sticks against, keeping them off of the tinder. This prevents the tinder from getting crushed and allows air flow. Position the brace on the up-wind side of the fire so it can also act as a wind block. If your brace is made of wood, it will burn up of course, but that's okay; It's only needed at the very beginning.
Tinder: Tinder is the very flammable material you light with a match, spark, etc. to start the fire. At home this might be crumpled newspaper, but in the field this could be shaved pitch wood, pine needles, dry grass, or anything else that lights easily. All of these materials burn best when “fluffy” so use the brace to avoid compressing the tinder. Light the tinder before adding any other wood to the fire.
Kindling: Kindling is the small sticks and twigs that are placed directly above the lit tinder and leaned against the brace. Kindling should be about the diameter of a pencil up to the diameter of your thumb. Use the smaller kindling first and save the thumb sized sticks for when the smaller ones begin to light.
Fuel: Fuel is anything bigger than kindling, and is what sustains the fire. Once the fuel is burning, the fire is considered sustainable, as even heavy wind and rain won't easily put it out. This is the time to collect more fuel, and your fire will still be strong when you get back.
Oxygen: You can't control how much oxygen is in the air, but you absolutely can control how much gets to your fire, and the more, the better. The primary way to control oxygen is by how you place the kindling and fuel on the fire. Stacking each piece side by side in a parallel manner will prevent airflow and smother the fire. Instead, separate each piece from the next by about three quarters of its own thickness, and lay each additional layer of fuel perpendicular to the last. This will allow plenty of oxygen to reach the fire.
Finally, follow these general tips to further improve your fire building success:
1) Where available, choose standing dead wood rather than wood from the ground. The wood on the ground will always be more damp. Standing dead branches and trees are usually bone dry inside even after a hard rain.
2) Avoid blowing on a fledgling fire to make it grow. Blowing on a fire works great to revive hot coals from a dying fire, but a new fire has no coals and will often just be blown out like a candle. If you must to blow on it, do so very gently and consistently.
3) Build upward. A young fire needs somewhere to grow to, and the obvious direction for fire is up. Many strong new fires simply go out because they consume the fuel down low and have nothing above to ignite. Always give your fire somewhere to go.
Follow these steps every time. You will build skill through repetition and you'll never be cold for lack of a fire.