Introduction: How to Build a Survival Fire

Each year thousands of people get lost in the wilderness. Unfortunately, some are never found and are presumed dead. Those deaths could be prevented if more knew the basic survival skill of fire starting. Despite your level of experience as an outdoorsman, becoming lost, stranded, injured, hungry, wet, or cold while wilderness trekking is a real possibility. This set of instructions will teach you how to build a small fire that can save your life.

Step 1: Choosing a Location

The place you choose to build your small fire must be at least 6 feet away from flammable things you do not intend to burn such as trees and their roots, foliage both dead and alive, and your shelter if you have one. If possible, choose a location near a river or lake so you won’t have to travel far to collect water to boil and possibly fish to cook. If you intend to build a signal fire, choose an open and elevated location so as to maximize the chance someone will see the smoke.

Step 2: Gathering Tinder and Kindling

A wise choice of flammable materials will save you from wasting precious energy and time making multiple attempts to start a fire. The two things you will need are tinder and kindling. Tinder is small, dry, flammable objects that are used to light kindling, which is larger objects that will sustain the fire. Examples of tinder include dry moss, dead leaves, and dead pine needles. Examples of kindling include twigs and sticks, pine cones, and pieces of tree bark.

Step 3: Arranging Fire Pit

1) Remove organic debris from a spot on the ground twice as large as the fire you intend to build.

2) Arrange stones in a circle. These will surround your fire.

3) Place kindling in the shape of a teepee. If you don’t have any sticks or twigs which can form a teepee, stack your kindling in such a way that there is space for air to flow between the pieces.

4) Place a bit of your tinder in a clump at the base of your kindling.

Step 4: Ignition

While there are many ways to ignite a fire, we will only be covering two. The bow drill method involves the use of items that you can find in the wilderness, while the cotton ball method requires items that are prepared beforehand. By learning these two methods you will be best equipped to handle most survival situations.

Bow Drill Method

What you need:

1. Bow

2. String

3. Handhold

4. Drill

5. Board

6. Knife

Fashioning Bow Drill Components:

Board – Find a branch about 6 inches in diameter. Make sure the wood is dry and not green or else it is useless. The best wood is from a tree that has fallen in the past year and is not touching the ground. Once you have found suitable wood, use your knife and manual effort to cut the branch down to a length of about 1 foot. Turn the branch on end and split it using your knife and a club of wood or stone until you get a board about 1 inch thick. Cut off any protrusions and bark but be careful to not cut too much since your board must be at least 3 inches wide. Next, cut a ½ inch deep roughly cone-shaped depression about 1 inch from the edge of the board and about 5 inches from the end of the board. Finally, cut a small wedge out of the edge of the board in line with the depression you just made. See figure 5.

Handhold – Using your knife and a club of wood or stone, cut a 4 inch to 5 inch long, 3 inch wide, and 1 inch thick piece of wood from the leftover branch. Next, whittle down the edges so that the piece can be held firmly and comfortably. Using your knife, cut a ½ inch deep roughly cone-shaped depression into the center of the wood piece. See figure 3.

Drill – Using the branch left over from making the board, whittle a 0.8 inch to 1 inch in diameter dowel. Next, sharpen the last inch of dowel at both ends but make one end considerably sharper than the other. See figure 4 above.

String – If available, choose string that is about ¼ of an inch in diameter and made from natural materials such as cotton or leather. These natural materials are more flexible than most synthetics, more durable under high temperatures, and have greater friction against wood. If such a string is unavailable, a shoelace will just barely suffice.

Bow – The bow should be from a live tree and be about ¾ of an inch in diameter or about the width of your index finger. It should span the length of your forearm from elbow to fingertip and be flexible enough to bend. If you cannot find wood that is thin or bendable, cut uniform strips of wood from the curved side until the stick becomes flexible and thin enough to use. See figure 1.

Using the Bow Drill:

First, place all 5 components in a pile. Using your left foot, apply pressure to the board opposite to the side with the cone-shaped depression you cut earlier. You should be kneeling with your right knee. Next, assemble the bow drill by wrapping the string around the drill so that the string is between the drill and the bow. The drill should be snuggly held by the string. Holding the handhold in your left hand, press your left wrist against your left chin and cap the drill with the depression in the handhold.

Now that you are in position, start stroking the bow rapidly
while pushing firmly down on the handhold. Continue stroking the bow as the wood smokes and until a red coal can be seen in the wedge of the board. Remove the board and introduce a small amount of tinder. When the tinder catches fire, blow gently until embers form. Add the lit tinder to the clump at the base of the fire pit you assembled earlier. Blow gently until the kindling is aflame.

Cotton Ball Method

A much simpler and easier fire starting method is to use petroleum-jelly-soaked cotton balls and a magnesium fire starter. Prior to your outdoor excursion, simply douse a few cotton balls in petroleum jelly and store them in a resealable plastic bag separate from the fire starter. To use the soaked cotton balls, place them at the base of your kindling teepee just as you would normal tinder. Strike the metal stick against the magnesium plate to produce the spark that will ignite the cotton balls and start your fire.

Step 5: Extinguishing

Since you are building a fire to stay alive, you should probably stay by your fire until it completely burns out in order to cook any food you may have and to recuperate as much as possible. However, sometimes survival requires near constant motion. In those cases, you must know how to safely extinguish your fire so as to not inadvertently trigger a wildfire. Two surefire ways to put out your small fire are trampling and dispersion. The former is self-explanatory. Simply trample the still burning kindling, grinding the coals into the dirt. The latter involves dispersing the still burning kindling away from the fire pit. The individual pieces will stop burning in a matter of minutes. This method is particularly useful if you’ve built a fire too large to be safely trampled.