“Art? Pfft. I’m a man! I know how to build a fire!” said right before reaching for the lighter fluid. For many people I know, their “skill” in building a fire centers around their ability to go to Wally World and buy a container of the magic stuff. When you seperate them from their liquid combustable they become unable to start a fire.
Knowing how to start a fire when you are backpacking is a critical skill. Even if you pack a stove for cooking your meals you never know when you will need a fire for emergency warmth.
Just last weekend we went hiking in Oklahoma and since it is July we weren’t worried about being cold. However, on our hike to our campsite a storm took us by surprised and the waterproofing on our packs failed. While hiking we were warm enough but once we reached our destination the cold started to set in. The temperature had dropped into the upper 60s, and with the wind and being soaked to the bone I began shivering. As soon as the rain tapered off I was able to build a fire with nothing but 5 dry pieces of notebook paper that I keep in a plastic bag in my pack, and the soaken wet, fallen wood around us. We were able to warm up and dry our clothes and sleeping things.
Always Pack in Some Dry Tinder
Having some dry tinder in a baggie in your pack means you will always be ready to start a fire. Paper, dryer lint, and thin cardboard are light things you can carry from home. If you use them up making your first fire remember to replenish them with things from the woods. If everything is wet be sure to dry some new tinder out by your first fire so you can make your next one. Dry grass, dead leaves or pine needles, and thin shreds of some bark all make good tinder. Learn to identify birch trees because their bark is especially good for fire starting because of the oils found in it.
Kindling is King
This is the ingredient most often skipped when trying to start a fire. I’ve seen countless people people pile sticks an inch in diameter on top of leaves or paper and expect them to light. Fire will burn through paper way faster than it will take for a stick that big to catch.
You need to start small and very gradually work your way larger. I start with my tinder, then spaghetti noodle size twigs, and very gradually increase in size until I am up to small fallen branches.
You should gather more than you think you need. In very dry conditions you can probably get by with a small handful of twigs but having more on hand means you can feed them to the fire immediately if it starts dying out. In wet conditions, you need about 5 times as much kindling.
Laying your Fire
Teepee method or log cabin? People have had long and drawn out debates as to which is better. You know what? It doesn’t matter. You can lay your fire in any shape you want as long as you follow two principles. One, make sure you don’t smother your fire. Fire needs oxygen to burn and if you pack your kindling down you will smother it out or spend the next hour blowing on it to keep it alive. Two, you need to balance the need for air with the need for the next layer of kindling to be close enough to the flames to actually catch.
Personally, I like to lean my sticks against the side of my firepit or fire ring. I tilt each extra layer on a diagnal to make sure they don’t compact into the layer below. This means there is space underneath, near the side, where I can slip in more tinder or twigs if my fire is having a slow start.
I also like to lay my fire in stages. I will start with my tinder, twigs, and smaller sticks and wait to see that the smaller sticks are starting to catch before going a step bigger. I repeat this with each increase in size until I have plenty of hot coals to keep the fire going. I do this because if the wood was newer or damp from a recent rain, I may need more kindling than I thought. If I had laid my whole fire with all my wood from kindling on up, it would be very hard to slip in some smaller sticks into the heart of the fire.
Saving Your Hard Work
Unless it is needed for warmth, it is best to put out a fire before turning in for the night so that you reduce your risk of causing a forest fire. That doesn’t mean you need to start over in the morning though. Bury your fire with surrounding soil or ash and there should still be hot coals in the morning to help you get a new fire started. If it’s supposed to rain overnight, collect some kindling the night before and put it under your rain fly. If you are camping in an area where there are large flat rocks place them over your fire site to keep the rain from seeping down to your coals. In the morning, dig it out and throw some twigs on the coals. If everything is damp let the twigs sit on the coals drying out before blowing on them to get them to light.
Hopefully with these tips you can level up your fire starting skills and ditch the liquid crutch!
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