Fire Making Skills Tune Up
By Jon Yacapraro
Picture this. You are at a remote camp ground as a guest and you notice that your friend is having a really hard time getting the campfire going. He has a huge pile of wood in the fire ring that is giving off a little white smoke but he just can’t get the wood to light. He has already used every piece of newspaper and cardboard he can find and is about out of lighter fluid. The kids have the marshmallows and graham crackers out restlessly asking if they can make s’mores yet. Your friend, embarrassed and frustrated with the situation squirts the last bit of lighter fluid on the pile of wood. The sun dips behind the horizon as he lights his last match and flicks it onto the wood pile hoping for the best. The lighter fluid ignites for a few moments but quickly goes out. Disappointed he turns to you and asks for your help.
Would you be able to help him? If you are not confident in your fire starting abilities keep reading. I will lay out some very basic yet effective principles that can help you get a fire going in most situations. There are a multitude of ways to get a fire going so please do not think what I am about to describe is the only way.
Getting a fire started is much more about preparation than it is about the actual striking of a match or flicking a lighter. You want to have all of your materials in place before even thinking about striking the first match. Let’s get started.
First select a spot that is as dry as possible and away from things you don’t want to catch fire yet close enough to your wood source. If the ground is wet or covered in snow lay a few sticks out as a platform to build your fire on. These platform sticks do not need to be the driest wood you can find as they will just help keep your tinder from touching the wet ground or snow later on. If the ground is dry scrape the dry leaves and debris away until you are left with bare dirt.
Now that you have your spot selected you need to find some suitable tinder materials. Take a moment and scan your surroundings. Nature will usually provide everything you need within a short distance. As you look around look for dead branches hanging on nearby trees, and dead grasses that are still standing.
The driest wood will usually be on standing dead trees. In the summer and early fall look for trees that do not have leaves on them. During the winter look for trees that lack bark or have patches of bark missing. The key is to find thin dead branches that are not lying directly on the ground. Wood that is lying on the ground will usually be wetter than wood that has been off the ground. The second option is to find branches that are partially on the ground maybe leaning against a tree or other branch that has helped keep them partially off the ground. Branches buried in leaves should be avoided for the initial fire starting process but can be used later once you have your fire roaring.
An easy test for dryness is to pick a branch and try snapping it in two. If it’s dry it will usually snap cleanly with very little bending. Wet or live wood on the other hand will bend considerably then not break cleanly in two and will take some twisting to separate. The faster it snaps the better suited it will be for fire starting.
While you gather the wood keep in mind you are going to want three basic sizes of twigs based on diameter or thickness. From smallest to largest they are “toothpicks”,” baby pinkies” and “thumbs”. As these names imply, toothpick twigs should be about the thickness of a toothpick or smaller, Baby pinkies should be about the thickness of a small childs pinky but thicker than a toothpick. Finally thumbs should be about the thickness of an adults thumb maybe a little larger.
Once you have a nice pile of twigs and sticks that cover the three basic sizes you want to find even finer material that you will use as the ignition point. Some examples of this could be the dry hanging bark on wild grape vines, dead standing grasses, dead pine needles, “toothpicks” that you carefully split or if you are really lucky the bark from a birch tree. You will want to have a large handful or more of this material. Again you want to find these materials that are not laying directly on the ground.
Now that you have a pile of dry twigs, a handful or more of finer hair like or papery material and a good spot picked out let’s talk about fire for a moment. It’s important that you understand some observations about fire before we move on. As we arrange these materials we want to do it in a way that takes the best advantage of what the fire will naturally want to do. First off fire travels in a progression, it likes to burn thin dry materials first and as it gets hotter it will burn thicker less dry materials. Heat and flame will tend to rise from a lower position to a higher position. Fire is delicate when small but can become mighty very quickly. Once a fire has a sufficient base it can burn even the wettest wood.
So let’s get started. I like to frame the spot where I am building my fire with a larger log or piece of wood on either side in an inverted “V” shape. This provides some protection from the wind and holds some heat in as the fire builds. This also helps protect the fire in its early stages from being crushed as you add more sticks. Next take the finest and driest material and form it into a ball by rubbing it and crushing it in your palms forming a tinder bundle. Place the tinder ball in the center of your selected location between the larger logs. Next take some of the toothpick sized twigs and carefully lean them on the tinder ball in a rough Teepee shape. As you lean the toothpick twigs leave an opening for your match or lighter to reach the tinder bundle. Once you have a thin layer of toothpick twigs evenly placed around the tinder ball start adding the baby pinky sized twigs in the same manner. Loosely layer on some baby pinkies followed by some thumbs. Again as you layer on the twigs keep an area free of twigs just large enough to get your match or lighter to the tinder ball.
Now that you have the tinder ball covered with twigs of increasing size check to make sure you still have an adequate supply of sticks and larger wood to add to the fire once you light it. The smaller sized stuff will burn up very quickly after you light the tinder ball. You don’t want the fire to burn out while you are out trying to find more wood to burn. I like to have at least a few more dry branches of each size standing by as well as some about the thickness of my wrist in reserve before I light the tinder.
Now comes the moment of truth. Before striking the match or lighter wait for the wind to pause or block the wind with something. Move close and hold your breath lighting the tinder ball at its lowest point. As the tinder ball begins to burn, gently add more toothpicks until you notice the baby pinkies start to catch. As the baby pinkies begin to burn continue to gently add more baby pinkies and thumbs. It’s important at this point to not crush the fire with too heavy of a log and don’t add too much at once. That being said the fire will usually consume all of the tinder materials very quickly. Gradually increase the size of sticks until you have a roaring fire. I like to alternate the direction of the sticks as I add them which gives the fire more room for air to get in. Sticks larger than your wrist can be leaned against the “V” logs to keep them from lying directly on the tinder but will start the process of burning them. Once wrist size sticks and larger are burning the fire will be pretty hardy and should sustain itself for quite a while. This is where I would start using some of the less dry logs and branches you found lying directly on the ground. Avoid adding several wet pieces at once, alternate dry wood with wet wood at a rate of about one wet piece to each three pieces of dry wood. If the fire begins to fade stop using the wet wood until the dry wood is burning hot.
So what about the times that you are away from the campfire for a while and you come back and it looks like the fire is completely out? What now? Do I need to start over? Many times you can get the fire going again without using the lighter or match. If the ashes are still giving off enough heat that it is uncomfortable to hold your hand an inch or two over them, you should be able to get it going again. With practice you may be able to get it going even when the ashes are barely warm.
You will again want to gather the same kinds of tinder material as before. Find some fine sticks, dried grasses or toothpick sized sticks as well as some reserve wood. Once you have the tinder in sufficient quantities you can get started. I start by locating the hot spots. I hold my hand over the ashes trying to locate the warmest spot. Once I find the hot spot I use a stick to consolidate any other smoldering or hot coals into that same location. Next I will gently blow on that spot watching for the orange glow of hot coals. When I locate the hot coals I place the tinder ball on top of them. Place some toothpick size twigs on top of that. I also select two larger pieces of wood to place next to and not on the tinder ball, one to the right and one to the left within an inch or two of the tinder ball.
The larger logs do a couple things in this situation. They help concentrate the heat on my tinder materials. Secondly as my tinder materials begin to burn the larger logs will heat up and dry out even more which in turn will cause them to catch fire sooner.
Usually you will start seeing smoke rising out of the tinder ball within a short time. To speed up the process you can gently blow on the coals which in turn will help ignite the tinder ball. Once the tinder ball lights keep adding a few toothpick, and baby pinkie sized twigs at a time until you have a flame several inches high. At that point you progressively add larger sticks the same as before until you have a roaring fire.
If you apply the above principles at your next campout or weenie roast the kids should be enjoying s’mores and hotdogs in no time flat. As with most things in life there are often many ways to accomplish a task and fire is no exception. This article is not intended to be the final authority but many hundreds of fires have shown me that this method works. Keep practicing and stay safe.