Why is fire important to survival?

A full pit fire while backpacking Alleganey State Park
Above all other good reason’s to be able to make a fire at will when in the backcountry, bush, or whatever you call the woods, is purely for the heat that it creates. In other words, the true nature of the thing, igniting and burning fuel so that you can drink from the life giving heat that is created in the beautiful exothermic chemical reaction that is fire. The human body runs at a steamy 98.6°F or 37°C (roughly determined by oral temperature), and it is of utmost importance that this body temperature is maintained within a degree. The number one killer in the wild isn’t the not so friendly bear next door, no, the number one killer among all other causes of death in the backcountry is, hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature for whatever reason drops below the normal required level for normal metabolism and body functions to occur, and is usually a result of prolonged exposure while wet to cold external temperatures. Fire is the great equalizer to this wild serial killer. While clothing can attempt to keep you warm and dry, only fire (or some other form of man-made heat) can reinstate your status of warm and dry after it has been lost.

The second really good reason for being able to create a fire at will is safety. Depending on where you are adventuring off to this may or may not be a major concern. If you are traveling to any area of the world where there are large apex predators or really, larger creatures than yourselves in general, having a fire is a fantastic safety protocol for setting up camp and turning in for the night. Hell, when confronted face to face with a pissed off wallaby, I’d rather have a flaming torch to wave at the thing that just my bare hands and my puny human growl. If it happens to be a pissed off grizzly bear, even more so. Just remember to follow proper backpacking and camping protocol, and separate your cooking fire from your camp fire (that is the one that will provide warmth and protection to you whilst you sleep) lest you learn the hard way how enticing fire roasted meat or whatever smells to just about every animal in the kingdom. Especially raccoons. Goddamn, thieving bastards.

Purification (both food and water)
Fire has been viewed as a purifier by humans for as long as humans have been able to harness it. Fire can be used to boil water, which when done properly will remove nearly all organic nasties from the water rendering it safe to drink. The same is also mostly possible with food. If you are forced into a situation where survival hinges on your scavenging carrion, then you better hope that you have fire to cook that possibly rotting meat on to minimize the chances of contracting some sort of parasite and a nasty case of the runs.

Getting a fire going again to make breakfast backpacking
Utility (lighting, fire can be used to craft things, heat is a catalyst to chemical reaction)
Fire among other things, is also extremely useful for making things that without heat cannot otherwise be made. Heat is a catalyst for chemical reaction and many compounds and potions cannot be made without sufficient heat, heat that can only be created in the backcountry by fire. Metallurgy for example would not have been possible if not for the advent of the harnessing fire. Some brews, medicinal and otherwise could not be created without boiling the components down and boiling of course requires fire. Canoes, fire-hardened spears, etc, there are plenty of examples of materials and goods that were created solely because of or more efficiently due to the use of fire in the process.

Fire demands wonder from us because it represents the telling duality of life. Fire is both beautiful and dangerous, powerful beyond imagination, yet frail and ephemeral, massively destructive but through that destruction spawns rebirth and regrowth. The creation and control of fire is, much like the balance between death and survival in the wild, a delicate task that requires your constant focus. While taken for granted because of the fact that we are fortunate enough to have heat and light at the flip of a switch and fire itself with the flick of a lighter, the experience of creating a fire from scratch the old fashioned way will quickly instill the delicate nature of creating flame from nothing and the loss of that hard won spark will remind one to be diligent so as not to waste that hard won resource. This delicate nature should lend itself to a great feeling of accomplishment and a big boost in your moral in any precarious situation since the successful creation and maintenance of a proper fire is so difficult and the fact that you have succeeded greatly increases your chances of survival.

The Fire Triangle
The fire triangle is a diagram that is meant to represent the fact that four things must be present to create and sustain fire. Those four things are as follows:

  1. Oxygen, enough to sustain combustion
  2. Combustable material, and enough of it
  3. Heat, at a proper amount to ignite your combustable material
  4. Exothermic reaction, the type of chemical reaction that is fire

The first three represent the three sides of the triangle. If any one of these elements not present than fire is not possible. The fourth element, the exothermic reaction could said to be the area of the triangle because it is this chemical reaction that is what sustains a fires’ energy throughout its lifecycle.


Tinder, Kindling, Fuel

Tinder is the stuff that you will get your initial flame going with. Tinder can be made up of many different materials but the most important characteristic that any good tinder has is flammability. Now ideally you would also want a tinder that is able to hold the flame once its lit, but this is not as important if the tinder that you are using is natural since you can just forage for more. Quantity can replace the burn time of any given tinder since you can keep adding more until you can get the bigger stuff lit.

Synthetics/Man Made Tinders/Store bought

Wetfire in action
My favorite form of tinder is Wetfire. This is a store bought synthetic tinder that is affordable, $5 will get you a decent amount of this stuff. Wetfire comes as small individually wrapped white cubes. These cubes are have the consistency of soft chalk, if that makes sense, and can be shaved into smaller pieces or lit as is. The reason they call it Wetfire is because you can light one of these cubes on fire and then drop it into a bucket of water and it will just float around on fire. No matter how hard the rain is coming down you can still get fire going with this stuff. My second favorite synthetic fire starter is cotton balls mixed with petroleum jelly. Quick, easy, super cheap and much like Wetfire this will take a flame even in really bad conditions. In addition it weighs next to nothing. Below is a list of some synthetic fire starters:

  • Cotton balls w/petroleum jelly
  • Char-cloth
  • Wetfire
  • FireStarter sticks
  • Starter logs

Natural/Foraged Tinder

While synthetic tinders are good to have and usually very effective, it is important that you know how to find appropriate tinder in the backcountry from nature. If you know of readily available sources of tinder and where to find them you will never be without fire. My favorite form of natural tinder comes from pine boughs. Find a pine tree and you are set. Any low hanging branches that no longer have any needles on them are dead and can be easily pulled down to be processed for firecraft. The other advantage to dead pine boughs is that since they are still hanging in the tree any recent rainfall will not have soaked them through and ruined their flammability. Once you have a large bundle of dead pine boughs bring them back to camp and process them. The key is to take and separate each size of the boughs. One pile for the sticks that are the girth of pencil lead, another pile of sticks the size of pencils and then bigger from there. Take some of the bigger pieces that are bone dry and, using your knife perpendicular to the piece of wood, shave up and down the stick which will produce shavings. This will be the tinder that you are able to ignite with only a spark. Some forms of natural tinder are listed below:

  • Pine trees of any kind are your FRIEND
  • Tinder Fungus
  • Birch Bark
  • Dried Grass
  • Cattail heads (Bonus: most parts of the cattail are edible)
  • Pitchwood/Fatwood

Kindling will be the portion of gathered wood or materials that you will use to stoke your fledgling fire into a roaring giant. After initially getting your fire started kindling is the material that you will be throwing into the small flame to get a good coal base going so that you can eventually throw bigger pieces of fuel onto it. Kindling is usually going to be wood and more so than the type of wood that you use, the size of the wood and quality that you use is the most important thing. Kindling should be dry, obviously, and not much bigger than whatever you just threw into the fire. So that means that if you recently had thrown in sticks the size of pencils, then your next pieces of kindling should not be much bigger.

Fuel is all the bigger pieces of wood that you will throw into the fire once you get to the point that you have a large and hot enough coal base. Fuel is the larger logs that you think of when you picture an atypical camp fire. When selecting pieces of timber for fuel you do not need to be as selective as with tinder or kindling. It is best not to use dead or rotted wood but really once you get your fire hot enough you can throw pretty much anything on it and it will burn. You will know that you have gotten to the point that you can use the larger stuff once you cannot throw kindling into the fire fast enough because of how quickly it is burning up. This is the good part. Once you have a hot enough fire and coal base that you can throw a proper log on and sit back and relax. From this point on the fire needs much less maintenance and constant attention.

One of the most important components of getting a fire started and sustained without any problems is properly preparing to make the fire. Preparation will include three main components: Site preparation, gathering materials, and preparing and processing those materials.

Site Preparation
Foremost in site preparation is, to the best of your ability and whats available, choosing an appropriate spot to make your fire. The spot that you choose should take account for the proximity of surrounding foliage and possible flammable material, your shelter, whether it be a tent or handmade lean-to, flat ground if possible, and dry ground, again if possible.  You should make sure that you are not trying to get a fire started to close to any sort of flammable material and a good rule of thumb is to have a 10ft perimeter of nonflammable space surrounding the spot that your fire will inhabit. If there is a litter of dead leaves and other flammable ruffage on the ground then you should do your best to rake it or clear it from the area.

Notice the cleared ground around the fire area.
Outdoor classroom bonfire at Mountain Shepherd Wilderness Survival School. Notice the cleared ground around the fire area.
Depending on the weathers condition it may be necessary to attempt to weather proof your fire area. This may include erecting some form of structure over the top of it to protect it from rainfall, or creating a wind barrier to shield the initial flame from strong gusts of wind. I usually bring a 10‘x10’ roll of 2 mm thick painter’s plastic with me because of its multiple uses and light weight and it works beautifully for creating a shield from the rain. To make a wind barrier you could also use this type of plastic or you could take your bigger pieces of fuel, the logs, and erect a makeshift wall to protect the initial flame from the wind. Another step that can make creating a fire much easier is to find a piece of bark or flat wood to use as a flat dry platform to make your fire on.

Gathering Kindling/Fuel
When gathering kindling or fuel you should be looking for the materials that I described above. The most important part of gathering your materials is not skimping on them. When you are looking for kindling and you think you have a pile that is large enough to get a fire started, don’t stop. Once you feel that you have enough, go back out and gather 2, 3, 4 times that amount. Trust me, you will thank me later. Nature is an unpredictable bitch and it is always much better to have way more than enough than to find out that your beginning flame is not hot enough to get the bigger stuff going and when you inevitably go out to find more kindling your fire has died by the time you come back and you must start all over.

Preparing/processing materials
Preparing and processing your materials is exactly what it sounds like. After you have gone back and forth into the brush and have a pile of wood that would make good old Paul Bunyan proud, now its time to process that shit! Processing will include the making of tinder, stripping branches of sticks and chopping those sticks into smaller sticks. It will also include the incredibly manly task of chopping big logs into little logs. Hell, you might even be chopping trees into little trees, if so, well done.

Lighting the Fire: Getting the Damn thing started
The method you use to create heat to cause your tinder to ignite into flame can very greatly. There are obviously many man-made ways of setting igniting your tinder, weather that be a lighter, match or otherwise. I always have at least one standard lighter in a ziplock baggy ready to go but I also bring a Blast Match with me. A Blast Match is a store bought Ferro rod sparking tool. The great thing about Ferro rod sparkers is that they are good for a massive amount of strikes before the rod is worn away. Also, the Ferro rod sparking method is not held hostage by rain or wind and it really does not run out of fuel. I also feel that getting to the point of starting a fire with only a sparker is important because it will really teach you to covet that fire and nurse it to the point where only a hurricane will put it out. It is a delicate process and will force you to take your time with things. Now of course the hardest way to start a fire is rubbing two sticks together. Two methods that use friction like this are the bow drill and the fire plow. While these are very cool skills and they are probably what our ancestors used initially to start fires, it is extremely difficult to master. First, you must know what type of wood to rub together, second you must be able to construct either method, and third, this method will take a lot out of YOU. It requires a great deal of effort to build up enough friction to get a spark, and if you fail to use that spark to get a fire going you might not have enough in you to get another spark going.
Some forms of fire starters listed below:

  • Butane Windproof torch
  • Lighter
  • Waterproof matches/matches
  • Ferro Rod (Blast match, scout fire steel, etc.)
  • Battery and steel wool
  • Flint and Steel
  • Lens
  • Bow Drill
  • Fire Plow

Building the Fire
Whatever tool you use to get your fire ignited the hard part is not over. The period of  time right after your first flame is the most delicate. Once you have sparked your initial tinder you must be patient in your adding of kindling. Do NOT rush this process. During this period you cannot leave the fire to go gather any more kindling or do anything else, it will require constant attention if you want it to grow to the point that you can start throwing the big stuff on. Seriously, if you are impatient or overly ambitious and rush this process you will just choke your fire and this of course makes you look like a huge jackass. Don’t be that guy, nobody likes that guy.

^^^^(Reggie Bennett; a former AirForce SERE instructor, teaching how to make a fire. He is the man I learned from)

The baby fire that you have created will not be hot enough and does not have an established coal base yet, if you add too wood, too quickly, you will choke the fire of oxygen and there will not be enough heat to sustain it. A good rule of thumb to follow is, if there is much visible smoke coming from the wood you just threw on that means the fire is starving for oxygen. The way to combat this problem is to use a fire brace. When creating your fire you should have a thicker branch about 2 feet in length perpendicular to the kindling that you are laying down. You lay one end of the kindling over top of this branch, your brace, and whenever you see smoke lift up gently on the brace to allow air flow to hit the fledgling flames. Slowly add minutely bigger sticks until you can add a pile of kindling without choking the fire out. With some practice the brace, and the ability it gives you to air your fire out, will allow you to quickly make a knee high fire.

Once your fire is about knee high you can start to use a traditional fire “build”. While teepee fire builds look very quaint and coffee table picture book-esque, my preferred build is the log cabin. I like this build for two reasons. One, its easy to do. If you have ever messed with Lincoln Logs you are well equipped to make a log cabin fire build. Just intersect your bigger pieces of wood around the main fire and throw more kindling in the center. Eventually the cabin itself will catch and because of the structure it will make a very uniform coal bed for cooking. The second reason I like the log cabin build is because you can keep piling wood in log cabin format around the fire on the fringes to dry damp wood out for use later. This method has served me well on numerous occasions when the rain has followed me into the backcountry and soaked everything, including me, but the log cabin helped to dry bigger pieces out, so that by the time my fire was big enough to use those pieces they caught flame in no time.

Practice, practice, practice…
Practice and more practice is probably the biggest factor in good efficient firecraft. You can know the method behind sparking a fire with flint and tinder, or the exact types of wood and design of a fire bow, but if you haven’t practiced those methods, and practiced them often and in different conditions, you had better hope that lighter in your bag hasn’t got wet or run out of fuel because your going to need it. If you don’t want to take my word for it, I suggest you read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, this tale perfectly depicts the importance of fire craft when venturing into the backwoods. So go read it. After you’ve read it get into your backyard, your local woods or wherever is most convenient for you to get some practice in and do it. After all, some believe it was our ability to harness and learn how to create fire that separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom in the first place, your not a simple monkey are you? No, your an intelligent, bipedal, fire-monger with opposable thumbs, now go prove it!

This Article © Adam Brady 2014

3 thoughts on “FireCraft: The Art of Making a Fire, Anywhere, Anytime, and Why It Matters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *