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How to Start an Emergency Fire

How to Start an Emergency Fire

Everyone who spends time outdoors must know how to start a fire. It's a life-saving skill if you ever find yourself in a survival scenario.

Let's go through some basic fire-starting principles, including what you'll need and the simplest method to start a fire. When it comes to lighting a fire quickly and effectively, practice makes perfect—and speed and efficiency are important when you're caught out in a blizzard or a torrential downpour.

Try various methods to create a fire in non-emergency situations: It won't take long to get used to, and you'll be that much more prepared if getting some flickering flames going is of life-or-death significance.

The Fundamentals of Emergency Fire Starting

Perhaps you've heard of the "fire triangle." It's a basic metaphor for the three fundamental elements required for fire to develop: air, fuel, and heat.

A fire won't happen unless at least two of those three elements are present; and if the components are out of balance, your fire may not be long-lasting. A source of ignition is also vital. Let's start with fuel. Tinder, kindling, and fuelwood are all potential fuels for your campfire.


Tinder is the fuel that gets your fire started in the first place. Try lighting a dry branch with a match or a lighter to see how far you get (hint: not very far).

Tinder is a mixed bag, and if you're unprepared, poorly chosen tinder—or no tinder at all—is a frequent cause of failure. It's a good idea to bring tinder with you in your survival kit as well as to know where to find natural tinder. Some excellent choices of natural tinder are:

  • evergreen needles (pine needles)
  • dry and crushed leaf
  • wood shavings
  • dry moss or grass
  • dry bark (birchbark or yellow birch)
  • strips tree bark

Another great, tried-and-true source of tinder is known as "fatwood," which is also known as "heart pine," "lighter knot," and "fat lighter." This is the resin-imbued heartwood of a pine that has formed where sap has solidified. It burns readily and freely even if it's damp.

The greatest sources are well-aged pine deadwood, a stump with outer bark flaking off, a root stub from a decayed log. Fatwood is one of the most long-lasting tinder sources available: simply remove some shavings when you need to start a fire.

Cloth lint is one of the greatest man-made sources of tinder. In a hurry, you may be able to create an emergency fire. Alternatively, save the lint from your dryer and keep it in a waterproof container with your other fire-starting components.

Long, thin strips of newspaper you've rolled together and bound with a rubber band are another excellent, space-saving tinder source you can make at home. Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly are also carried by many outdoor enthusiasts: They will light quickly and burn for a long time. Paper, twine, and a lighter are also useful in the tinder department.

Kindling & Fuel Wood

The larger fuel that kindles from tinder and burns long enough to ignite your bigger-fuelwood is kindling. Twigs and small branches are natural kindlings, while cardboard folded into branch-like bundles is another option.

It's a good idea to have a range of sizes of kindling on hand, ranging from tiny twigs to bigger branches, so you may gradually feed an expanding fire. You should also gather a variety of different types of fuelwood to control the size and heat of your flames.

Fire Starters

It's always a good idea to bring a few different ignition tools so you're prepared if the need arises. Matches and lighters are popular first choices; keep both in a waterproof bag.

You should have flint and steel, or a ferrocerium rod and striker on hand. Even if it's raining, these can be used to light tinder.

Now, there are several other ways to start a fire using friction, including hand drills and bow drills. Learning to use these "primitive" tools give you another way to start a fire:

However, they might be difficult to learn and time-consuming to use in most cases. An easier and quicker ignition method is generally better off using in a survival scenario.

How to Build a Fire the Right Way

Let's go through a basic technique for starting a fire in an emergency. We're using the standard "teepee" design here; later, we'll discuss some other fuel forms that you might want to try.

  1. Clear a space for your fire. To square off a space at least three feet across, scrape away branches, leaves, and topsoil from the ground. You can either dig to bare dirt or construct a platform of green logs or branches on which to build your fire in winter cover.
  2. However, don't stack this too high or obstruct airflow around your fire pit.
  3. In the center of your fire area, lay a layer of tinder. If you're using newspaper strips, make a loose knot to boost the ignitable surface area and extend the burning time.
  4. Brace twigs in teepee form around the tinder bundle. Then, stack some larger kindling pieces, making sure not to pack the wood too tightly to limit ventilation.
  5. Tinder must be lit. Blow freely on the sparks to cause them to turn into a flame.
  6. When the kindling begins to catch, add a few more pieces to help develop a bed of flames.
  7. When the fire is just hot enough to burn, begin adding bigger fuelwood.

If you're having trouble keeping the teepee shape, try making a base for it by laying two pieces of wrist-sized kindling parallel to one another and placing your tinder pile between them.

You may also construct a “lean-to”-style fire by driving a green branch into the ground at an angle, ribbing it loosely with twigs, and igniting a tinder pile placed well within the shelter.

Instead, a cone or pyramid design with logs and branches stacked crosswise is popular among campers. The smaller wood at the top is preferred by some people. You may start a fire by lighting tinder and kindling on top of it.

How to Start a Fire When It's Raining

What if you're caught in a downpour as you attempt to start a fire? Look for any sort of natural shelter that you can find: perhaps a rock overhang, a tall leaning tree trunk, or simply an extensive tree canopy.

You can also create a shielding shelter from tarps, ponchos, or branches and boughs, but you should allow for ventilation and avoid setting your fire ablaze. Even if you are directly exposed to rain, a well-built fire may burn quite effectively as long as the rainfall isn't too heavy.

But what if you don't have any dry fuel? Hopefully, you packed some nice tinder in your survival kits—such as bundled newspaper, a fatwood chunk. Even during a rainstorm, you can usually discover natural dry tinder.

Look for twigs, leaf litter, dead fallen moss and lichen, and such on the ground around tree trunks: Even in heavy rain, overhanging branches can keep the soil surprisingly dry.

Conifers have a lot of dead branchlets on their lower trunk that may be snapped off to use as tinder. If the ground is extremely soggy, set up a log platform to burn your fire upon.

Place moist fuelwood around the fire to begin drying and heating the wood once it has started burning. Keep in mind that there are several methods to start a fire, and almost everyone has their own opinion on which technique is best.

The solution is to practice. Develop a technique that works for you and put it to the test in various fuel types, ignition sources, and outdoor conditions. Knowing several different approaches helps you sleep better in the great outdoors by giving you greater peace of mind.




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