Woodsmanship Skills: How to Build a Fire
If fires can start naturally in the woods without human help (hello, lightning strike!), everyone should have the skills and knowledge to spark one intentionally.
Knowing how to build a fire is a vital skill for all outdoors-folks. If you get lost or injured in the woods, a fire could save your life. You can use it to boil water, cook food, keep warm, dry clothes, make smoke signals, and keep predators away. Fires also provide great comfort during hunts in big country.
Troy Miller is an avid bowhunter, backpacker and Boy Scouts scoutmaster who teaches youths how to build fires. Miller learned to make a fire at age 12 when he was a Scout. He lives in Texas and regularly makes fires on trips and excursions.
Whether you bowhunt distant big country or stay within 20 minutes of home, you should carry at least two reliable fire-starters in your pack. Consider carrying waterproof matches, windproof lighters, and a traditional flint and steel set.
Miller suggests packing a backup to your backup, because you might drop your matches or run out of lighter fluid. “If you have room in your pack, overkill never fails,” Miller said.
Also pack lightweight tinder, an easily combustible material used to start a fire. Examples include dryer lint, newspaper scraps, paper towel shreds and, cardboard egg-carton cups. Miller likes cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly.
Miller suggests gathering tinder while walking to your hunting spot if you didn’t pack tinder. He suggests bark shavings from birch or cedar trees. “Put them in a zip-lock bag or a pocket under your rain gear. As you walk, your body heat will dry it out,” Miller said.
Build a Fire
Fire is the chemical reaction between heat, fuel and oxygen. Fire generates light and flames when a combustible fuel (like wood or gasoline) and oxygen heat to a specific temperature and turn into a gas. It takes all three components in the right combination to ignite. If you remove any of those elements, the fire dies. Follow this four-step plan to create fire.
- Gather Materials
Oxygen is present in the air, so you just need fuel and an ignitor — matches, a lighter, or flint and steel set — to start a fire. Dead grass, fallen trees, leaf litter, and other organic buildup are flammable fuels. To build a sustainable, long-lasting fire, use dried wood. Wet wood or other “green” materials won’t burn well, and freshly fallen leaves and other organic buildup often create more smoke than flame.
Expert fire-builders recommend using three types of fuel: tinder, kindling and firewood.
– Tinder is small pieces of wood.
– Kindling is small- to medium-sized pieces of wood, about pinky-size in width.
– Firewood is anything of forearm size and larger.
Gather at least a dozen foot-long pieces of each to start.
- Arrange Your Materials
Build your fire from the bottom up, starting with tinder and small pieces at the bottom to ignite the kindling above. You’ll add the larger firewood later, so keep them nearby. Most people arrange their materials like a log cabin or teepee to increase airflow. Miller prefers the teepee.
— The log cabin: Build a log cabin fire by laying two pieces of kindling parallel to each other, and a small tinder pile in between that can be easily lighted. Lay two more pieces of kindling atop the original pieces, and perpendicular to them.
— The teepee: Build a cone-shaped fire by leaning sticks (often with a fork at the top) together in a circle, so they resemble an upside-down cone. Place tinder inside the base of your teepee. Leave a wide sliver in the teepee so you can easily light the tinder.
- Light the Tinder
Once you establish the fire’s foundation, introduce the heat. Use your matches, lighter or the flint and steel set to light the tinder. To use the traditional flint and steel set, hit the flint against the steel striker at a 45-degree angle to create sparks. Aim the sparks at the center of your tinder pile. Once the tinder ignites, slowly add fuel.
- Add Fuel
Add kindling to build your flame. As the fire grows, add larger sticks more often. When the flame gets established, add firewood. If your fire slows, you likely added too much fuel, and the flame needs more oxygen. Use a stick to stir the coals to increase airflow. To create smoke signals, add green leaves or pine needles to the fire.
To extinguish the fire, douse it with water. Stir the coals and ashes, and add water until everything’s cool to the touch.
— Practice, Practice, Practice
Building a fire from the ground up is challenging. Miller suggests you “practice before your life depends on it.”
“[Building a fire] isn’t something you want to figure out when your hands are shaking and numb from the cold,” Miller said. “You have to play with this stuff, and get experience by learning the technique.”
Miller likened the fire-building process to archery: You probably won’t hit a bull’s-eye the first time you shoot your bow. You must practice regularly. You probably won’t create a sustainable fire the first time you try, either, so ensure your survival by practicing.
– Patiently Work Your Way Up
Miller suggests practicing on a hot, sunny day with a slight breeze. If you nail it, create a fire from materials you collect after a rain. Try building a fire with one hand wrapped in a T-shirt to simulate what you’d do with an injured hand. Building fires in varying weather conditions during unusual circumstances helps you prepare for the worst.
Only use tools you’ll carry when bowhunting. “Don’t cheat,” Miller said. “If you don’t carry a hatchet when bowhunting, don’t use one to chop firewood for your practice fire.”
– Use Good Fuels (And Gather Extra)
Miller said pine isn’t good for cooking or for long fires, but dried pine stumps, aka fatwood, start fires reliably because they’re soaked in dry sap. Dead hardwood trees or branches work well, too. Hardwoods — such as oaks, walnut, hickory and maples — burn hot and last a long time, giving you “more bang for your buck,” Miller said.
Most folks underestimate how much wood they’ll need to burn all night. That’s why Miller recommends collecting five times more firewood than you think you need. He also suggests collecting it in daylight to reduce your injury risk and the chance of getting turned around in the dark.
To learn more basic woodsmanship skills, read Bowhunting 360’s articles about purifying water, and using a map and compass.