Learn How to Build and Maintain a Fire

essential skills survival Nov 10, 2020

In order to get to my cabin, I have to drive through a Forest Service campground. Consequently, in the warmer time of year, I get to observe the camping practices and skills of a lot of people.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people want to spend the weekend in the mountains and they do not know how to  build a fire. Additionally, many of them do not know how to maintain that fire.  

Building and maintaining a fire is an essential survival skill. In fact, the ability to build a fire is considered one of the Ten Essentials of safe travel in the back country. In extreme circumstances, it could make the difference between life and death. A fire will help you stay warm and dry, cook a hot meal, and it is an incredible comfort in an emergency situation. 


Why You Need to Know How to Build and Maintain a Fire

This is a skill you need to learn and practice, practice, practice.  Even if you live in suburbia, it is essential to keep at least a small supply of dry firewood in the event of an emergency. 

For example, there was a period of time when I was living in South Carolina spending time with family. My house had a fireplace so I kept a nice supply of dry firewood around all the time. One winter a severe storm moved through the area and coated everything with a thick layer of ice. Numerous trees fell across the power lines and the roads making any sort of travel impossible. The electricity was out for 10 days with temperatures well below freezing.  I kept warm and had hot meals because of my ability to build and maintain a fire. 

One thing is certain about emergency situations is that they happened unexpectedly. Keep in mind the possibility that at any time you could find yourself in a survival situation. More than a century ago Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”   So, practice, practice, practice. 


How to Build a Fire Safely

The first thing you need is a safe location. 

If you are indoors, to safely build a fire you need a fireplace or a wood stove.  If you are using a fireplace, make sure you have a protective screen to prevent sparks from popping out and damaging the floor or causing a house fire. 

If you are outdoors, you need to locate or build a fire ring. Most developed campgrounds will have some version of this.  A fire ring will reduce your impact on the environment and help to keep the fire contained. Developed campgrounds typically have tall steel rings with cooking grates on top.  If not, then build a fire ring out of rocks.  Be sure that you DO NOT use rocks from a stream bed. If the rocks have cracks or fissures that have allowed water to seep in, when the rock heats up it could potentially explode.

Using an old fire ring will reduce your impact on the environment. If one is not available, then be sure to build the fire ring well away from other flammable material such as trees, bushes, or other ground debris. If possible, build the ring on top of a flat rock or soft, sandy soil. Intense fire can actually sterilize the soil and building a fire on top of a rock or  non-fertile soil will prevent this from happening.

A fire pit is very easy to build. All you need to do is dig a small depression in the soil and surround it with rocks to protect the fire from the wind. If possible, building the ring against a tall rock or rocky bank will give you even more protection from the wind.   

Another fantastic option is to have some sort of portable fire pit.  This works great in your backyard or if you do car camping or travel in an RV.  Obviously, this is not going to work if you are in the back country.


Gather Your Fuel

Tinder can be any material that is easily combustible.  For example, you can use anything from small twigs, leaves, dry grass, or thin bark.  Dryer lint makes great kindling. Cotton balls coated with vaseline are highly combustible. Newspaper is another great material to use. Simple wood shavings are also a great option. Think in terms of any material that easily catches fire with the use of one match .


 Kindling is material that is slightly larger than tinder. It should be dry of course.  The idea is to start with small, easily combustible material. Dry twigs work great.  As they catch fire, continue to add progressively larger material.  Even after a hard rain, dry twigs and sticks can be found on the underside of standing trees. Often the lower dry branches are protected from even dripping rain water.    



Logs or large branches. Split wood and small, dry sticks will burn better than whole logs.  If you are away from home, most likely split wood will not be available.  Start with smaller diameter branches and slowly build up to larger pieces. Low hanging, small dead branches still attached to the tree are usually dry and in good condition.

Water.Better safe than sorry. Keep water readily available in case things get out of control. If you have the option of building a fire close to a water source, that is even better.


Build the Fire

The first thing to do is place a small amount of tinder in the center of the fire ring. Over the tinder you can place kindling in a small teepee or cone arrangement. You can also place a small rock in the center of the fire pit, place the tinder next to the rock, then lean the kindling on the side of the rock directly over the tinder.  Another option is to stack the wood log cabin style.

The basic idea is that once the tinder ignites, the flames immediately contact the kindling, which in turn begins to burn. 

If you are using a wood stove or fireplace, you can accomplish the same thing by leaning the kindling against the side and place the tinder underneath.    

Light the Fire 

Before you light the tender, be sure to have extra available.  Tinder burns hot and fast, which is the idea.  But you need to keep adding more tinder until the kindling catches fire.  This should not be a problem as long as the kindling is nice, dry, dead wood. Be ready to add more wood a little at a time.  Start with smaller pieces and slowly add larger and larger pieces of wood.  Before you know it, you will have a roaring fire.  

What Not to Do

Never, never, never use highly combustible fuels to start a fire. 

This means gasoline, white gas, lighter fluid, etc. These fuels produce a lot of fumes that are just as combustible as the liquid fuel.  It is very possible to be severely injured doing this.  Plus, the simple fact is that you just don’t need it.  If you need a little help starting a fire, there are plenty of commercially produced fire starters. Additionally you can easily  make them at home.  This is a far better alternative than doing something dangerous and ending up in the hospital. 


When You Are Finished


For many years people camped along the creek that borders the north side of my property. This was because there were a number of free campsites in the National Forest.  After every weekend I would take a drive along the road with a 5 gallon bucket for dipping water out of the creek. I typically spent 1 to 2 hours extinguishing smoldering camp fires that were left unattended.  

Eventually all of the free camp sites were closed by the Forest Service. I assume they got tired of doing the same policing work that I’d been doing for years.  

A fire that burns for a long time produces a very deep bed of coals.  Consequently, it is necessary to pour water on the fire, turn the coals, then pour on more water. Continue this exercise until no more steam comes off the coals and you no longer hear things hissing. Then DO IT AGAIN. 

Forest fires can be devastating to the environment and people lives. Unfortunately, I’ve had several close friends loose their homes and everything they owned due to a forest fire caused by someones carelessness.  It takes the environment decades to recover. I drive through old burn areas in Colorado on a regular basis. The forest fire occurred 15 years ago and hills are mountains are still recovering.

Forest fires are easy to prevent. So after you enjoy a nice camp fire, PUT IT OUT!!!  PUT IT OUT!! PUT IT OUT!!!


Additional Posts of Interest

How to Maintain a Safe Water Supply

How to Build a First Aid Kit

The Ten Essentials Needed for Survival


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