Fire Building

Fire building is by far a one of the most important skills an oudoorsman can own.(Second only to shelter) With fire, tools can be built, bodys can be warmed,water can be made free of harmfull organisms, food can be cooked and spirits can be lifted. Fire has been a basic skill for millions of years and it was only by mastery of fire that man pulled himself  up from animalism. Therefore in any wilderness situation the ability to make fire on demand is very important.

Sparking Tools
Building a fire usually requires some basic tools, some of which I will describe here. I will leave out such things as fire by friction until a suitable bow drill set can be procured for photography. Here you will find fire building tools available on the open market and are most likly to be carryed by a primitive camper or trekker.
Here I will deal specifically with spark based fire making as it is most pertnant to the primitve style of camping and survival. Note: the steps in building a fire do not change  between matches , lighters etc. and spark based methods.


This is a flint and Steel kit. Flint and Steel is what most people think of when they think about spark based fire making. Flint and steel requires that you hold the flint (The little blond stone) and strike smartly with the striker(The "D" shaped metal thing) which produces sparks wich, when caught in sufficiantly dry tinder, will be blown into flame.

(Please excuse the blurry picture)What you see here is the SAK Rucksack and the BSA Hot Spark(R). The Hot Spark is one of many types of sparking tools out on the market. Like flint and steel, the Hot Spark fires a spark that can be blown into flame, the difference being that the hot spark is merely scraped with a knife blade and it showers the tinder with sparks.  This gives a much better chance of the tinder being blown into flame

This is the Gerber Fire Storm(R), Big Brother to the Hot Spark. This is a really good survival firestarter in that it requires nothing more than what it comes with. The firestorm includes a huge sparking rod and its own striker. (So you dont have to mess up your knife blade!)
It also has a compartment to keep a small amount of tinder in. The Fire Storm folds up into a compact package that is easy to carry. Incidentally both sides are held togeather with cord so there is no losing pieces.


This is a Magnesium Fire Starter(MFS). This tool is one of the easiest to find sparking tools on the market. It has been military issue for years and is sold on the surplus market all over. Civilian versions also abound. The MFS uses the same sparking rod that the others do but this sparking rod is contained in a block of solid magnesium. 
To use this tool, simply scrape off magnesium from the bar until you have about a thumbnail (or larger) sized mound in your tinder. Then, scrape sparks from the sparking rod into the magnesium pile. The magnesium will flare up with a VERY HOT flame and you can add more tinder over the top and blow into flame.

The Five Steps to Fire Building

Building a proper fire takes much care and attention. To achieve a flame in primitive conditions requires that you use good tinder and maintain your fire  in such a way that it will continue to burn.

Step 1: Preparing your area:
Selecting a good place to build your fire is very important. Such conditions as safety, location and setup are important. First thing is to choose a safe area, one which is free of overhanging dead limbs and other debres that can catch fire. The next is to clear out the area of flamable materials. I reccomend a 10 fit area around the fireplace. next, build yourself a fire pit. This portion is my take and not everyone will agree.
here is my system.

If possible, choose an area with a natural reflector and set your fire so as to place yourself between the reflector and the fire. Such things as old walls, large bolders and  sheets of tarp(*1) work well
Dig a square or triangular hole and surround it with rocks (*2), dirt or green logs.

*1(Remember to keep the tarp well away from the flying sparks, the tarp could catch fire!)
*2(If you choose rocks, don't take them from creeks and river bottoms, the water in them will boil when heated and will explode sending sharp fragments flying in all directions. Some of which can impact a person resulting in death or serious injury)

Step 2: tinder

Pic: Left to right: cotton ball, wood shavings, steel wool

Tinder is the light fluffy stuff that catches a spark.
below is a listing of both natural and not so natural tinder:

0000 steel wool
Cotton balls
Charred Cloth
Charred Grass, cat tail fluff, leaves, combined with a birdsnest or "The Tinder Taco"
(Note: Instructions for making charcloth and other tinders  to come!)
Cotton Ball soaked on Petrolium Jelly
birch bark (Peely birch  bark, dont strip trees!)
Cattail fluff (Scrape your knife across the brown heads of
cattails and TONS of fluff comes out!)
tissue paper and bathroom tissue
Dryer lint

Step 3: Kindling
Kindling is larger than tinder and can be anything from twigs to pinky finger sized sticks.

Step 4: Squaw Wood
Squaw Wood is smaller limbs easily picked up off the ground. This is the wood you will use the most of as it is easy to come by and burns well.


Step 5: Logs
Im not going to waste more space showing you a log, Im sure we all know what a log looks like.
But a special note should be taken on logs. In a survival situation, you must conserve energy and the act of chopping a huge log will tire you out really fast, even with a good axe or survival knife. In a situation like that, if you find a downed log, burn an end and then move it up instead of chopping it. Logs are good for giving lots of mass to a fire when getting ready for bed and  when you need a long burning fire. other than that, you should stay with squaw wood and some smaller arm sized logs as they will serve you quite well and not burn up much needed energy, make you sweat to work on (gets you wet and you lose heat) and will be easier to put out should you choose to move on.

Striking and Catching a Spark
(with The Fieldmouse)
The secret to catching a spark and holding it in the tinder is to build somthing called a birds nest. Basically taking and folding the tinder into a bundle that closely resembles a birds nest and then placing the fluffiest stuff in the middle(Read: the really flamable stuff) .

I usually surround it with twigs and other light kindling so that it will be close at hand to add to the flame once it starts.
Then take your sparking tool, and strike sparks into the birds nest until a spark catches

Then gently blow on the tinder untill the flame grows. Once you have flame, add small twigs and other light kindling
Only add kindling when you have a solid blaze from your tinder and remember to continue to blow!

From there, Just add larger and larger peices of wood untill you have the desired fire

Lighting a Fire with Flint and SteeL


Flint and Steel is one of the oldest methods of fire building and a standard of primitive campers and historical reenactors. It is in fact a very effective and reliable method of creating fire when you are prepared with the right materials.

The tools involved are the following: a steel striker, flint flake, charcloth and light fluffy tinder. In this article we will examine these items and describe their use in the process of building your fire.

The steel striker is a “D” shaped piece of hardened high carbon steel that is held in the hand in so that the long face of the “D” passes over the knuckles. This striker has been hardened to a Rockwell of 64 or harder and is designed to present a flat face for the flint flake to strike against.

The Flint Flake is quite simply a flake of flint sharp enough to cut with if necessary but for our purposes it is designed to strike a spark.  A flint and steel kit usually contains a few of these flakes and they can be re-sharpened by tapping the dulled edge with the flint striker until chips are removed creating a new sharp surface. 

Char-cloth is cloth that has been charred so as to be almost black in color and can be quite fragile. Char-cloth is used to catch the initial spark of the striking of the steel striker and flint flake.

Creating charcloth is easy. One only needs a sealable tin box such as the type “Altoids” mints come in. A hole is punched in the top of the tin and the tin is stuffed full of cotton fabric such as old denim jean material or even cotton cording from an old mop. The whole affair is then placed in a fire. When placed in the fire, smoke will almost immediately start pouring out of the hole.  Do not remove from the fire until it stops smoking and do not open the lid until the box cools.

When it’s cool, open the lid and you will find perfectly charred but unburned cloth that takes and holds a spark quite nicely.

The box can now also be used to hold your steel striker and flint flakes making a very compact and easy to carry package.

~Building the Fireplace~

Building a fire with flint and steel starts out like any other fire building endeavor in that you must begin by preparing the area for fire building.

 First you must pick a safe area free of dry overhanging limbs. Once this spot is found, clear the area of any flammable debris in a 10 foot radius and build your fire in the middle of this cleared area. The fire pit should be built in a rectangular shape with non creek stones (stones from the creek explode!) . Behind your fire you should drive two 4 foot long stakes of green wood into the ground and stack green logs against these to create your reflector.  This stops the wind and allows the heat from your fire to bounce off the reflector and move in your direction.

Once your fireplace is created, build a base for your fire out of dry, thumb size sticks. Then create a “Birds Nest” of fluffy material such as pine needles, cat tail fluff and dry leaves. This is used to catch the spark created by the flint and steel.        

The next step is to create a conical stand of dry thumb size sticks and stuff the inside of this with more fluffy dry stuff along with such fire starting materials as birch bark, pine needles and leaves as well as twigs and such.

~Striking the Spark~

To start your fire, you must first take a patch of char-cloth from your tin and place it on top of your flint flake being sure to expose the edge of the flake to the steel. Then, taking your steel striker firmly in your left hand and the flint and char-cloth in your right; strike firmly using the steel striker to strike against the flint. If done correctly and sharply, sparks will erupt from the impact and after a few strikes, you should notice some glowing patches on your char-cloth. At this point , blow gently on the spark to make it spread through the charcloth and place the charcloth in your birds nest.  From here, gently close your birds nest around the charcloth making a “fire taco”. Continue to blow gently until flames begin to lick from the birds nest.

At this point, you must place your burning “taco” under your fire set and blow on it until the flame take to the tinder. Add larger pieces of wood log cabin style around the outside of the fire and then across the top to complete the fire building process. Remove your pot from your pack, cut up some meat and potatoes..add a bit of rice, some salt and you have a nice, cheery camp complete with a fire you made without matches a lighter or any modern accelerants. Cheers!


For more information and instruction on fire building, Check out Volume 1 of the Woodsmaster series by with Ron Hood of Hoods Woods !