emergency fire

Surviving Starts With Learning To Build A Fire

Fire Building For Survival

This is a guide to getting a fire started outdoors. When in the wilderness, you want to secure a source of water and shelter first. After that, the next step is getting a fire going. A fire will keep you warm and help you cook food and dry clothing.


Before starting a fire, you need to find the right location for one. Finding the right place will make it easier to start, allow your fire to last longer, and keep things much safer. Here’s what to look for:

  • A dry, flat surface on the ground
  • An area that is protected from the wind
  • An area close to your shelter, as well as close to sources of firewood and water

Clear the area of brush, and dig a pit that is about 3 feet across, and about 6” deep. Place rocks around the pit to form a protective barrier (do not use river rocks though, they may have absorbed water and when heated, may expand and burst).

If it’s winter and there is snow on the ground, dig the pit a bit deeper, and put down a layer of green branches in the pit.


The next step is collecting your firewood. There are three types that you will need: tinder, kindling, and fuel. A good rule of thumb is to always get twice the wood you THINK you need- you will always need more than you think you do.


Tinder is materials that easily catch fire and help to get your fire going. It burns quickly and burns out quickly. Many materials make good tinder, but they must be completely dry. Some items to consider:

  • Shredded newspaper
  • Dry leaves
  • Brown pine needles
  • Cotton
  • Tree bark


You’ll also need small twigs and medium-sized sticks for kindling. Kindling takes a bit longer to get burning but lasts longer than tinder. They must be dry, or they will smother your fire. Break them into pieces of 2-6” in length.


Lastly, we need large branches and logs for fuel. This is what makes your fire burn hot for long periods. These materials will take a while to get going, but burn for hours. For fuel, you want traditional fireplace logs and thick, dry branches found under trees. Birch and spruce tree branches work well.


Now it’s time to get the fire started. In the immortal words of The Boss: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

There are many ways to do this, varying from the standard (using matches), creative (using a battery and steel wool) to the absurdly creative (using ice or a condom filled with water)!

Using Matches

The most common way to get a fire started is with matches. Light a match and drop it onto the firewood. It should get the tinder going and later get the kindle and fuel burning.

If the fire burns out, try again. It sometimes takes a few matches to get a steady fire going.

Using a Car Battery

Say you find yourself stranded in a car wreck, with no matches. You can use your battery to create a spark.

Attach a piece of wire to each battery terminal. Collect a pile of tinder near the battery. Touch the wires above the tinder. This will cause a spark and will cause the tinder to smolder. Blow on the tinder to cause it to light. Bring it to your fire pit, and add kindle then fuel.

The Lens Method

Another common way of getting a fire started without matches is by using a lens. A lens can direct sunlight onto a concentrated point, raising the temperature enough to get the tinder to ignite.

Set up a pile of tinder in your fire pit. Take your lens and play with the angle, trying to direct the sunlight onto the tinder, onto the smallest point possible. When the tinder begins to smolder, blow onto it to ignite. Add kindling and fuel slowly.

Some objects that make a good lens:

  • A magnifying glass
  • A disassembled camera lens or binocular lens
  • Ice fashioned into a lens shape (seriously!)
  • A condom filled with water (yes, still serious.)

The Hand Drill, Fire Plow, and Bow and Drill Methods

There are some ways to get a fire going with only items found outdoors.

Go here to learn how to do the Hand Drill.

Go here to learn how to do the Fire Plow and Bow and Drill.

Some other wacky ways to get a fire going…

Using a battery and steel wool: Stretch out the steel wool. Holding it in one hand, use the other to hold a 9V battery and rub the contacts against the wool. The wool will begin to smolder. Blow onto it to ignite, and drop onto a pile of tinder in your fire pit immediately.

Using a soda can and chocolate or toothpaste: smear chocolate or toothpaste onto the bottom of the soda can. Using a cloth, polish for about 30 minutes, adding chocolate or toothpaste as needed. Wash the can off. You should have a shiny, reflective surface to concentrate a hot spot, similar to the lens method.

Do not eat the used chocolate, as it has become toxic!

Using flint and steel: an old school way to get a fire going. Strike steel (such as the back of a knife blade) against a piece of flint to create a spark and get the tinder going.


Regularly poke the firewood with a stick, to move things around keep the fire supplied with oxygen. Occasionally add kindle and fuel as the fire burns through the original sources.

Putting the Fire Out

After the fire has died down, use a stick to spread the coals out. Pour water onto the coals. Repeat a few times until there are only smoldering, wet ashes left. Shovel wet dirt onto the pit to bury the ashes. Keep adding water and dirt until there is no smoke or hissing noise coming out of the pit.

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