Practical Survival Skills 101 - Fire Starting

Throughout the Internet, a great many resources exist on an immense variety of topics. Some purport expertise in Survival – a sign you should instantly recognize as a red-flag.

Survival is not a topic, nor a way of life. It’s a measure of adaptability. Casually discussion of methods of starting fires, building shelters, procuring clean water and food is the academic tantamount to describing the process of surgery without having ever seen a scalpel.

For this reason, I intend to write a series on Practical Survival. This will not be geared towards the rugged woodsman who knows just how difficult it is to survive off the land – it’s written with an intended audience of the layman who knows little or nothing outside the modern First World.

As a matter of course, this primer is here to assist you in practicing these skills over time. It is not a reference to draw upon when suddenly needed. Without a practical, hands-on approach, it like all others, will fail you when you need them. This is no different than exercise; in order to build a level of fitness, you must use your free time to condition yourself.

The first step in developing your skills, is to begin building a database in your mind that you can draw upon. So, what is survival, really?

It’s the maintenance of systems. It’s the integration of respiration and consumption with a balance of heat energy. Remove one of the above and it becomes very difficult to survive. The “Key Concept” here is the Survival Saw, or as it’s sometimes known, the Rule of 3’s:

A human being is said to be able to survive for:

  • 3 minutes without oxygen
  • 3 hours without warmth
  • 3 days without water
  • 3 weeks without food

While these numbers represent an “average,” it’s important to note that your ability to function diminishes significantly after the first third of any given requisite, and thus plan accordingly.


Because this guide is meant to be a practical means to developing a skill set, we’re going to focus first on the issue of creating a means of survival for the “medium term” – meaning something that once complete needs maintenance, but does not require that we start completely over each time – if managed correctly. Combined with a shelter which will be discussed in Part II, a fire is one of the most practical survival tools in your personal toolbox. Please keep in mind that this primer is geared for a "semi-primitive" environment - not an advanced discussion of severely austere conditions.

The Art of Sustained Combustion

During human history, several innovations have led to the ability of humans to adapt their environment to them, rather than the other way around. The definitive moment for human-kind was the mastery of fire. Plainly put, fire is a change in state that results in the release of energy: Oxygen is used to facilitate the rapid oxidation of the material being burned, and the resulting energy is given as heat. This heat is used to minimize the impact of environmental conditions, such as cold, improper or non-existent shelter, bacteria in our food and water, et cetera.

The ability to build a fire from “scratch” using a bow drill, fireboard, or any other measure is a subject that would require significantly more time and effort than is practical for “most” people – therefore, we’re going to approach this from the perspective that you have several items that you should keep in your first line gear – in other words, things you carry every day:

  1. A knife
  2. A lighter, or waterproof matches
  3. Magnesium

As you develop your skills, it's prudent to adjust the level of difficulty accordingly. What we want to avoid is an overwhelming experience which leaves you with no room to improve.

So, what do we need to make fire?

  1. A safe area in which to build
  2. Fuel
  3. Heat
  4. Oxygen

The challenge is combining the three in a way that creates enough heat to maintain a even, consistent burn without running out of material. So, with that in mind, the first objective in fire building is site selection. When determining or assembling the area in which you will build your fire, take a moment to make the following considerations:

  1. Is it easy to reflect the heat?
  2. Is it near enough your temporary shelter that it will provide warmth?
  3. Is it far enough from your temporary shelter that it will not put you at risk?
  4. Is there adequate ventilation?
  5. Is it near enough a fuel source/water source to make it convenient?
  6. Are there tactical or situational factors that make a high visibility fire a liability?

It’s time to get your material together.

First and foremost – the most important ingredient: Patience. If you’re not patient, and don’t pace yourself, you’ll find yourself wasting time and material -- two things we don’t have in great excess during emergencies. Manage both wisely.

This is when observation and experience really become paramount. For example, in the Pacific Northwest, things are “wet” almost all the time. However, this doesn’t mean that all things are retaining water. Searching around the base of trees can provide dry tinder, thin dry sticks, and so forth. As we look for materials with which to build our fire, a simple way to think about it is:

  1. Fibrous dry material (tinder) – Think light, porous and dry, pine needles, dry grasses, unsaturated rotten wood.
  2. Toothpicks – thin, dry sticks about the same diameter as a toothpick.
  3. Pencils – dry sticks (remove wet bark if necessary) about the same diameter as a pencil. This is commonly refered to as kindling. In the woods, it’s rare to find thin, dry flat pieces of wood, so for this exercise, kindling will be small dry limbs, thin, flat pieces of driftwood, or the like.
  4. Broom handles – small tree limbs.  By the time we use these, the dryness will be less important.
  5. Logs – either rounds (sections) of a small, dead tree or branches. These will be the fuel for larger, hotter burning fires – such as cooking fires. The Boy Scout handbook refers to this wood as about the size of your wrist, and I think that’s an excellent way of describing it. Large, heavy logs are inefficient as they require more energy to gather, and you’ll have to refuel your fire every hour or so regardless of the size of the logs you add. Finally, gather your wood from an area outside your camp – leave the easy stuff nearby, just in case.


This semi-prioritized list considers the material’s size in relation to its order in the fire-building process. It will take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to gather as much wood as you’ll need simply for one day, but to get started, your selection should look something like the photo above. 

A good way of determining how suitable any of this material is for fire starting is checking to see if it twists or shouts – when you try and break it, does it snap audibly, or does it just twist around? Leave the twisters and take the ones which break. They contain less moisture and are more suitable for this process.

Things to avoid: (This is in bold because it’s almost as important as things to look for.)

  • Napkins – They don’t burn well, fail to generate enough heat to light wet tinder, and generally waste your time.
  • Leaves – Leaves are basically devices for managing water. Even when they’re dry, they lack the body for combustion. I’ve wasted valuable time trying to burn leaves before I figured out they just lack any redeeming qualities for ignition.
  • Big pieces of wood – Bbigger isn’t better. It requires more calories of heat to start the burn and requires more to keep it burning. Start small.


Next, assemble the dry, fibrous tinder for the tinder ball, which is essential to starting a fire without a lighter or magnesium (as was done for these photos). Once you’ve collected your material, take the dry, fibrous grasses, or dry bark and shred it.

Your tinder ball should be the size of a major-league baseball, or roughly the size of your hands held together as fists. This is no small amount of material, especially before you shred it, but you’ll need quite a lot, as this process is very dependent on your skill at balancing the Fuel/Air/Heat triangle.

I try to find a curved piece of bark to hold the material as I set it alight; this accomplishes several things:

  1. It keeps any water mobile and away from my dry material
  2. It allows air flow from the bottom of the tinderball.
  3. It allows you to move the burning material once it’s lit.

You can make an effective tinder ball from shredded, dry grass, and dry pine needles, with “toothpicks and pencil stick” sized kindling laid atop– they will not burn if you just leave them like this; it’s just for ease of setting the fire up once your tinder is burning. If you’ve found some dry wood, take shavings and add it into the mix:

This finely shaven material should be kept dry – in this case, I’m shaving it into a napkin which will be kept in a pocket until I’m ready to combine it into the tinder ball. 

Once you’ve assembled your tinder ball, and have your wood material handy, set the tinder alight – if you use magnesium, take care, as it burns very hot, and very bright. The first challenge here is managing the air flow while not smothering the fire or blowing it out. Don’t blow from your cheeks, blow from your lips. This will manage the air flow into a nice, even stream and won’t overwhelm the combustion process. Oh yeah, if you’re not laying belly-down in the dirt, you probably will be before long, so don’t wear your Sunday-go-to-town clothes.

Your burning tinder ball should end up looking something like the photo at right:

Now that you’ve got it to this point, don’t give up – the task is not finished!  It may not continue to burn freely, and you might end up relighting it several times. If you’re using matches, use them as fuel. If you have hand sanitizer, check it for alcohol. If it has it, it’ll burn. Same thing with wax and Vaseline. This is the “sun” of your universe – everything else will orbit this component, so make sure it’s strong.

More important than flame is heat. If there is a good amount of heat coming from it, it’s time to start setting the fire up, and there are a few different thoughts on how to accomplish this, but we’re going to use the "teepee method." In contrast, the "hut" or “cabin” method disallows access to the interior component of your tinder, tends to collapse (which disrupts the heat distribution), and typically works poorly with smaller pieces of kindling. 

The “Teepee Method” of Fire Starting

The toothpick- and pencil-sized material is assembled as a circular base, which concludes in a single point atop the tinder. This directs the fire into a single point, which means your heat transfer is directional, and therefore somewhat controlled. Also, you can build upon this basic foundation – adding larger pieces in the same way until the fire is mature. As the fire becomes more stable, the lean-to method works very well, and that’s how I prefer to set up my fires. For me, it’s yielded the best results. This picture is difficult to see, because the larger sticks around the exterior appear to be much bigger than they are – the one on the right is actually just bark being used as a fire-reflector – directing the heat back inward. In the center there, you can see smoke – and over the top, a scavenged piece of cardboard I’d found from some road debris, which was used in this case to protect the fire from the rain.

Continually add oxygen to your fire now that it is at this stage. As your fire begins to generate more heat, it will cause the surrounding sticks to warm and ultimately burn. A better picture of the teepee below:

This shows the fire in the “growth” stage – at this point, it is burning unaided and will continue to burn until it is extinguished, or it runs out of fuel or oxygen. Use this opportunity to scavenge more wood from an area outside your camp.

It’s important to gather plenty of wood in the “pre-fire” stage – you do not want to have to continually expend calories getting up, scavenging , dropping back down (and getting cold) in a chaotic sequence, never really accomplishing anything. You’ll lose energy and heat, both of which are critical for survival.

So, to recap:

  1. Select a suitable site.
  2. Scavenge suitable material.
  3. Prepare material for combustion.
  4. Assemble material in a way that facilitates combustion.
  5. Add material as needed and maintain.

This concludes this very brief tutorial on starting a fire during wet weather.

The next topic in “Practical Survival Skill 101” will be Filtering Water. Now that we have a fire, we can filter and boil water to make it potable for cooking.

Waste Nothing.



This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our What Should I Do? series feedback forum.

If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:

This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Awesome, Aaron! I wanna go out and try this now!
I would suggest also a small magnifying lens for starting a fire in broad daylight, such as a plastic Fresnel lens that you can carry around in your wallet or shoe.

Poet “the Pyro”

Thanks Aaron.   great tutorial.  Im going to print this one off and keep it in mile 3 ring binder for future reference.  

I was wondering when we’d get Aaron in on the What Should I Do seres.  Bravo!  Looking forward to the next installment…
Viva – Sager

Great post!
From my days as a Cub Scout leader—

Pine cones burn really well, and here in the southeast they are very easy to find; I guess they would be pencil size.

If you know you are going to be out making fires, you can make your own starter in advance with dryer lint  and/or parrafin.  Some people add sawdust to the wax.  That way you can start a fire even if you have some moisture problems,. You should have some waterproof matches in the emergency kit–you can make those by dipping the tips in that same parrafin, and keeping them in a dry place.

Scouts are careful with kids and fire.  Firebuilding is a great skill to know, but leaving kids with a fire is a judgement call based on their maturity and whether they can be trusted to follow instructions.   They have rules from clearing the site to properly extinguishing  the coals.  You don’t want to burn down the woods.

Aaron, thanks for the informative post. I want to try this today (I’m going to cheat and use my new fire pit, though) but it is very windy. Any ideas regarding dealing with (or utilizing) wind in the process?
Thanks again…Jeff

Here’s an interesting enhancement to the hand drill.

Aaron,  I was excitied to see you’re doing a survival 101 series!  This is great information, and I look forward to the rest of your series!

Thanks Aaron, good stuff!
Here’s an add on to the pine cone.

My Dad told me if you are ever lost in the woods and (first and foremost)  have a means to start a fire, go find some “pine knots” to help get the fire going to keep you warm, cook with, etc.

In the Southeast US where we have lots of pine trees, “Pine knots” are an excellent fuel to a small fire to a larger one.  Dead pine trees concentrate their sap in interior wood as they decay.  Ultimately, the pine you find in the piney woods on and in the ground with the most resin resists decay for a very long time.

You will sometimes find what you think is a rotten pine log with the core being excellent fuel. With  a large knife or hatchet you can split “pine knots” in to toothpick size, pencil size, and broom handles.

I prefer to use these to start a campfire, and then use other dry wrist size wood to maintain the fire.


Good article, Thank you. You mentioned a lighter in your gear. I believe man invented a better mousetrap with the disposable lighter. Yes, matches have their place. I am a non-smoker, but I keep a Bic in all of my bags, vests and coats. I spent a number of years in far remote Alaska and used a Bic often, it lights wet or cold, with few exceptions. Look forward to the rest of your articles. Thanks again.

When starting a fire, birch bark burns like a meth lab.  As you hike, gather some and put it in your pocket.  Note the location of birch trees as you move around. 
Dry tinder (toothpicks and pencils) can be found on the dead brances of white pines. 

Aaron, Great topic and post!Laughing
I have been saving all my used lighters ever since hearing how to make a prison match.

Prison Match by Trent Hardy

If your lighter runs out of fuel or you've only got a spark, you can make a "prison match" with a square of toilet paper, or tissue or even birch bark and your cotton socks. Pick a bunch of lint of your socks or shirt or whatever, then roll it into a loose bundle and wrap it into a piece of tissue - shaped like a match. Put the end of the lint to the lighter and start making a spark. It should catch after a couple of tries. I actually tried this one with a good bit of success. Also, if you're gonna take a lighter with ya. Screw all those fancy "light up in a hurricane, or torrential downpour" gimmicks. Just scatter a few bic disposables through you pack. If they get wet, it's just a matter of rolling it back and forth across your pants half a dozen times and the flint will be dry enough to light again. Plus, if you lose it your out what a buck? I actually saw this on SurvivorMan, so gotta give him creds.
(The link has other survival topics as well)


Thanks Aaron for the inspiration.
It’s pouring rain today here and your post makes me want to go outside and try out my somewhat rusty wet-weather fire starting skills.

I’ve found that beginners tend to err on the side of having too few tinder, matchstick and pencil sized pieces spaced too far apart (too much air space between each stick).  In this case no one burning piece is close enough to another to heat it sufficiently to ignite.

Also the bark of the paper birch tree is excellent for starting fire in wet weather due to the combustible oils in it.  Thinner pieces will ignite from matchstick sized sticks or even a burning tinder bundle and thicker chunks will ignite from burning pencil wood or perhaps matchsticks.  It’s a good idea to grab a piece of birch bark when you see it and keep it in a pocket or bag so it’s there when you need it.

Finally, a sturdy knife where the piece of metal that comprises the blade extends all the way through the handle, is quite useful for splitting  thumb to wrist sized woods into smaller pieces.  Simply hold the stick vertically with the knife blade resting on top and pound it with another sturdy wrist-sized stick.  Of course a knife also useful for whittling away wet outer layers.


Thanks for the article.  We recently installed a wood burning stove and had no previous experience using one.  I started learnig ‘how to’ with a short article from Mother Earth News and recently discovered this on line free book that has been a great additional guide to the experience of actually using the stove. 

FYI we purchased a Drolet Pyropak from Northern Tool it was reasonably priced and works great.  Our only difficulty was locating an installer willing to install a stove you hadn’t purchased from him. 

Great work Aaron…
The rest of you…hurry up!



Great article, Aaron.  An important subject that is often overlooked.  One cannot stress enough the necessity for patience in assembling the tinder and fluff for fire starting.  This is real important when you’re in a tight spot and in a hurry.  Get a decent pile sorted by size and then when you think you have enough, go get some more.
Over the years I’ve tried the magnesium fire starters as a back up to matches.  I finally adopted flint and steel, like the fur traders of yore, as my “go to” method for starting a fire.  Much quicker than magnesium and more reliable too, once you get the hang of it…  My grandkids picked up the skill in less than five minutes.



This summer I taught wilderness survival to Boy Scouts for a merit badge and we covered emergency fire starting. It was a humbling experience. Everything looks easy when reading about it in the book, but during actual live practice we learned firsthand that the subtleties can make or break you. Some real-world examples:

  1. Dryer lint: maybe this worked in the 60’s when everyone wore 100% cotton. Nowadays there are a lot of synthetic fibers in your lint that will smolder but not burn. Also, if you have a pet, your lint may be turn out to be 50% animal hair that again will smolder but not ignite.

  2. Magnifying glass: We tried eyeglasses and a 2 inch magnifying glass with no success. Not to worry, we switched to a 4"x3" Fresnel lens FROM A SURVIVAL KIT. Again no luck. Even though it was clear sunny day, the lenses we used could not gather and concentrate enough sun. Our estimate is you will need at least a 5" to 6" glass to gather and focus enough sun power for ignition. We had previously read that the bottom of a soda can could be polished and used to focus rays, and although we did not try this, I now have some doubts that this method can gather enough sun rays.

  3. Steel wool: We used a new 9V battery that would cause the steel to glow orange (not yellow) and ignition was almost impossible to achieve. We later learned that #3 steel wool is too thick and you really need to use #00 or #000 steel wool.

  4. Flint: when striking a flint the sparks spread out in every direction except towards the tinder. So in reality maybe 1-2 will actually go where you need them and the other 99% don’t count. On the plus side, a flint worked REALLY well with cotton balls dipped in vaseline.

  5. Tinder: A spark is crucial and so are pencil-sized wood, but the main thing is the TINDER. We looked high and low for dry tinder – anything from the ground is almost by definition going to be damp (due to moisture evaporating from the soil). Even when we found bone dry rotted wood, it was REALLY hard to ignite it with a flint – after 30 minutes we were dripping sweat all over it which was counter productive.

  6. Fire bow: We had 3 groups of boys try this using a fire bow with some pre-made parts (cordage and the spindle). They were able to get the point of the spindle hot but not glowing red. And this was not sufficient to light any fires.

The point of all the preceding is that you must TRY what you read and only based on EXPERIENCE can you then adapt it to make it workable.

I would agree with several other posters in this thread – scatter a handful of mini-BIC lighters throughout your gear. Why struggle to perfect esoteric skills that, with some forethought, you can simply buy for $1?

Jeffz - Flint doesn’t work by throwing sparks on the tinder.  You have to have char cloth, which is ignited by the sparks from sriking flint against steel.  Once an ember is in the char cloth, it is virtually impossible to extinguish, unless you douse it in water. The ember in the char cloth is then used to ignite the tinder.  I too taught survival skills in the Boy Scouts.  My troop used flint and steel when competing with other troops, who used matches,  in fire starting and water boiling contests.  My troop won more often than they did not.  Of course, the secret to that was confidence stemming from practice, and most importantly, gathering plenty of tinder before they even tried to strike a fire.
Aaron, an intrigueing comment you made in your excellent article that grabbed me was  “Are there tactical or situational factors that make a high visibility fire a liability?”

An issue like that probably merits an article all by itself.  There are situations when a fire will cause more trouble than the comfort it will provide.  In certain situations, you want to avoid broadcasting your whereabouts and you want to avoid inviting troublemakers into your camp.  Here are some preventive measures that I might take if I found myself in a dicey situation.  Would really like to hear from others on this subject:

1.  Don’t depend on a fire to keep warm.  Use a fire only for cooking meals and put it out immediately when finished cooking. 

2.  Living and sleeping quarters should be several hundred feet from any cooking fire.  If an animal is drawn to the smells, or an uninvited human to the smoke or firelight, at least they won’t find you sitting there with impaired night vision due to the light of the fire.

3.  Build your fire slowly, and only to the degree required to cook your meal.  This will minimize smoke, which can be seen and smelled for long distances.  Build fires only in heavily vegetated areas to limit visual line of sight and to disperse smoke.

4.  Carry a back packer stove for cooking in those instances where a fire might not be a good idea.  Otherwise, be prepared for a “cold camp” with no fire at all.



Good post Aaron. I’ve just started learning to make fires in my woodstove. It takes some practice to get a fire burning right. And I don’t know what we would do without fire. The other night I came home and my furnace was not running, temperature had dropped inside the house to 55. Without panicking, I got the woodstove going while I tracked someone down to fix the oil furnace. This is good stuff. My firepit will be ready in the spring to try this out. Thanks again!

…and for inspiration it wouldn’t hurt to read (or re-read) “To Build a Fire” by Jack London…