How To Build A Fire

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How To Build A Fire

When I was a USAF Wilderness Survival Instructor (SERE) one of the things that I took pride in was my ability to build a good fire.  Being able to build a good sustainable fire in the worst conditions is probably one of the two most important skills a person needs to have in a wilderness survival situation.  The second is having the ability to find drinkable water.  Like many people who read this site, I watch all of the popular survival TV shows, documentaries, etc.  One of the things that is inevitably missing on all of these shows is demonstrating the very basic fundamentals of building fire and quite honestly it drives me bonkers!  So today I will be laying out all of the basic fundamentals for building a good sustainable fire in any environment.

Let’s see if this scenario sounds familiar?  When you have built fire in the past have you done any of the following things?  Have you laid your tinder directly on the ground and then piled up some sticks around it and then try to light the tinder without disturbing the sticks.  Then once the tinder is lit (if it gets lit), laid more sticks on or above the little delicate flame, which usually ends up in collapsing the sticks on to the tinder?  Or have you added sticks over every little open space above the flame hoping to catch a piece of kindling, only to smoother the flame even more?  Then in a rush tried to revive the dying flame by “adding air” by just blowing on a fire that is already doomed…  Most people will admit they have been there, especially if they have ever tried to build a fire in a wet environment or during a rain storm.  And to be honest when I was a student I have done the same things…  But time and a lot of practice have thought me what works and what doesn’t in extreme situations.

Yes, I realize it is easy for me to say building fire is easy when I am doing it in my back yard when its not raining…and I will be happy to demonstrate how these techniques work in the rain or snow in the future if I can get a waterproof camera.  But for now the purpose of this demo is to lay out the principles and fundamentals needed for building a fire.  Most people know that you need three things for to start a fire: fuel, air and an ignition source.  But what many people don’t know is how to incorporate air and how to make the most of your ignition source.  This is where my frustration comes in.  The two most overlooked steps of building a good fire are having a good platform and brace.  They are (or should be) the foundation of every fire.  Literally, I mean that…the platform and brace are the actual foundation of a fire, they are the base that your tinder sets on and next to.  They are bottom two most layers that all of the rest of the fire should be built upon.  So here is what you do and in what order they should be done for the best chances of success:

Follow These Steps To Build A Fire

1. If it is raining/snowing string up a quick makeshift shelter or find a good tree well that is as dry as possible.  This is just temporary to keep your kindling and fuel dry while you are getting everything ready to go.

2. If possible layout a ground tarp or other material to keep your kindling on or to cover it up from getting wet.  Don’t get your tinder out yet, keep it dry.

3. Go and collect or split up your fuel, that is pieces of wood that are at least as big around as your thumb or larger.  Gather enough to burn for about an hour or more if possible.

4. Gather or split up at least three large bundles of kindling, like the ones pictured below.  The more the better.

5. Find a 12″ by 12″ platform.

6. Find a forearm sized brace to lay perpendicular across your platform.

7. Place your platform where you want your fire to be built.  Ideally it will be close to where you plan to build your permanent shelter.  (Note: Don’t burn your fire in a tree well, especially if there is snow on the tree branches).

8. Prepare your tinder for ignition and lay on the platform about an inch away from the brace.

9. Light your tinder.

10. Lay a full handful of kindling across the brace over the top of the tinder flame.  (Don’t touch anything, let the flame build on its own).

11.  When the flame come through the top of the first handful of kindling, add the second bunch at a 90 degree angle to the first.

12. When the flame comes through the second handful of kindling, add the third bunch at 90 degrees to the second. (Note: Never no matter what add kindling one piece at a time!)

13.  Let the fire burn for a few minutes, it should develop some pretty strong and stable flames and heat.

14. Add fuel.

15. Enjoy your fire.

I know it sounds like a lot of preparation and to most people it probably sounds like I am going about it all backwards, because they usually get their tinder out first.  But I promise you every minute you spend preparing your fire will be hours of warmth and enjoyment on the back end.  Adding a three to four inch brace on top of a good solid platform is the best way to add the element of Air without having to blow on your fire.  Also having a solid platform to lay your tinder on will keep it from getting wet from ground moisture and will reflect the majority of the heat up off the platform and into your kindling to make the most of your ignition source.  If you have not incorporated a platform and brace into your fire building routine give it a try.  I am sure you will see an improvement.   I have personally thought over 500 USAF SERE students this technique and I have never seen it proven wrong…  It works and I have seen it work a thousand times in all types of weather.

Take a look at the video below for where I show how to build a fire with squaw wood (twigs).


Also see the pics below that are taken of a few good sources of kindling for a squaw wood fire.  As well as a couple of pictures of where not to find kindling.

Notice all of the pictures above of good places to find kindling are all off the ground.  Dead limbs still hanging from trees.  Now look below to see where NOT to find good kindling… On the ground.  If at all possible try to avoid having to use kindling that was collected from the forest floor. It will usually be wet and be much more difficult to get going.  Not impossible but much harder.

What fire building techniques do you use that have always worked well for you?  Please leave a comment in the section below!

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