Reliable Fire Building Techniques for Your Survival: Learn These Now

Last Updated on December 29, 2021 by John Martin
Fire-Building Techniques

Why you need to learn how to build fires now

You know this: learning fire-building techniques could save your life someday. Hypothermia is called the #1 killer in the outdoors and the “killer of the unprepared.” Why?

Sadly, most people put off learning this skill until the very moment their life depends on it. Yes, you could be a pyromaniac and a procrastinator too. And even if you live in the tropics, there are literally hundreds of likely situations where you need to know how to build a fire that won’t fizzle out.

Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire would scare most people into at least looking into it. But there are no words to emphasize enough how important it is to begin the path to mastering this skill… before you need it.

Googling this will not help you when…

  • You’re cold, shivering and wet. Which means you’re already slipping into hypothermia.
  • You are dying of thirst. You only have swamp water and you need to be 100% sure all the nasties in it are dead before you drink it.
  • Wild animals are circling and you need a fire hardened sharp stick.
  • A helicopter is coming and you don’t have any rescue signal.
  • You’re starving but your only food is still wiggling. (Yeah, you don’t want to get sick, so you need to cook that thing.)

Just follow the fire-building techniques below. They’ll nearly guarantee you a successful fire

Nearly guaranteed? Well, if you lose all the fire-making tools you packed in your go-bag or get home bag, you’ll need to know how to make and use a hand drill or bow drill. That’s advanced fire-building, not the simple fire-building techniques listed here.

Don’t try learning those advanced skills until you’ve mastered the basics you’re going to learn here.

Choose your fire design

Before you light your fire or gather your materials, choose which of these types of fire you are going to build.

Choose a teepee fire – they’re great for cooking and warmth. Try to stack sticks nearly vertical, leaning against each other in a teepee shape. You can make a bigger tripod of logs above the fire to hang your cookware from.

This is the most common camp fire.

A long log fire keeps you warmer in cold weather. This is especially important if your shelter has an open front, like a lean-to or tarp. Stack body-length logs far enough from your shelter opening for safety, but close enough for warmth.

Long Log Fire

This is also a good fire for when you have large logs for the fire, but no effective tool to cut them to a shorter length.

A log cabin fire burns quickly and is great for signal fires. Stack sticks like a jenga tower or log cabin. When an aircraft is near, add green branches to the fire to create a column of smoke visible from the sky.

Log Cabin Fire

A Dakota fire pit is great if you want to hide. It burns efficiently so there’s little smoke and no visible flame. To leave no trace when you’re done with the fire, simply cover the holes with ground cover.

Dakota Fire Pit Illustration

Determine the wind direction. Dig 2 holes about 18 inches apart and 1 foot deep so that the wind blows in the direction of the smaller hole toward the larger hole. The larger hole is 12 to 18 inches in diameter and the smaller hole is 6 to 8 inches in diameter. Dig a small tunnel to connect the two holes.

If you don’t have a shovel, use a stick about as big around as your forearm for digging.

This kind of fire is not the best for warmth but it’ll work in a pinch. It’s good for cooking, though. Place a flat rock, green sticks or a grill over the larger hole as a place for your cooking pot. Just don’t completely cover the hole, as you want air flow.

To be prepared for emergencies, you’ll want to practice making all four of these different fire-building techniques.

Know the basic parts of a fire

Spark or heat source. This can be the spark/flame from a lighter. Or matches. Or sparks from a ferro rod struck with a knife. Or the sparks/flame from shorting a battery. Or heat from a chemical mixture. Or the heat from a magnifying glass in the sun. Or the coals from a previous fire. Or the ember from rubbing two sticks together.

Even an old broken lighter you find laying around can still make a spark.

I personally carry a USB rechargeable lighter (and a ferro rod as backup.)

Accelerant. This is an option that can be mixed with tinder to make your fire come to life and burn faster. Examples are alcohol and pine sap. And of course, good ‘ol gasoline is an accelerant too.

Extender. This is an option that can be mixed with tinder to make your initial flame last longer so it can ignite kindling with greater success. Examples are animal dung, candle wax, tinder fungus (shown here) and petroleum jelly.

Tinder Fungus

Tinder. This is the first fuel for your spark or heat source. And it has to be dry. (Unless it’s mixed with an accelerant or extender.) Fibrous (like the thin fibers of a frayed rope.) Or light and fluffy like fluff from a cattail. You want the lightest, most combustible material available.

Certain tree barks can be frayed and scraped into fibers. Others like pine bark contain sap that is a fantastic fire accelerant. Shredded paper works. Or cotton (but it burns very quickly.) Mix the cotton with petroleum jelly for a very effective tinder. In a pinch, you can scrape your blue jeans with your knife to make small amounts of tinder.

Your hair works well as tinder too. Or pull apart and fluff the cottony fibers of a tampon to make good tinder. Coffee grounds will smolder and work well when mixed with other tinders. Steel wool makes a great tinder if you touch it to a battery. Or if you find an oil-based marker, pull out the fiber ink reservoir and use it for tinder.

If you have a small flame, light the paper wrapper around a crayon and the wax will act like a candle, which makes a great tinder. Or duct tape shredded into strips. Or oily corn/potato chips.

You can use tire rubber, plastic bags and gunpowder from shotgun shells as tinder…but beware. These can be a bit dangerous to your health.

There’s no need to make an  exhaustive list here of all the types of plants you can find in the outdoors to make tinder. Just look for dry, fibrous or fluffy stuff that will be easy to burn. The color black helps too, as it absorbs heat. So look for darker colored tinder.

You should pack commercial tinders like Wet-Fire (make sure it’s not expired) or Tinder-Quik or Spark-Lite in your survival go bag and your get home bag. (I carry a small bag of Tinder-Quik.) These almost guarantee a great start to your fire.

But it’s also essential you learn how to gather and scavenge for tinder in case you ever don’t have any of these commercial tinders available.

If you’re gathering tinder in the woods, you need lots of it. To ensure success, get as much tinder as the size of your head! Especially if you’re using something like fast-burning cattail fluff.

You see, the purpose of tinder is to burn long enough and hot enough to set your kindling on fire.

With some types of spark/tinder combos, you may have to gently blow on the tinder to bring it from smoke to flame. The more smoke you see, the more you can blow on it. Once the tinder bundle bursts into flame, you can place kindling on top of it.

Super important: if you’re ever in a survival situation without any tinder, make extra sure you gather and store tinder as you travel and before you need a fire. Especially before any wet weather when it’s hard to find completely dry tinder.

How to Gather Tinder

Yet looking for dry tinder in wet weather is very hard, even for experts. And often ends in failure.

This is why I don’t take chances with my tinder. I carry TinderQuik in my go bag and my get home bag. This stuff is awesome for starting fires! It’s fluffy like a cotton ball but it burns like it was soaked in gasoline – and yet it’s dry. And it will ignite in the wettest conditions. You get a whole pile of these in a bag. Frizz up a couple of these and start up a rip roaring fire.

As a backup, I also carry a stick of fatwood. What is this? It’s pine wood with the resin (that also burns like gasoline!)

Just take your knife and cut off a small pile of fine pieces at the moment when you need the fire. This stuff is powerful tinder. Land a spark on one of these smaller shavings and you have an instant flame that burns hot and long. And this fatwood stick will last you as you make many fires.

You will need kindling too. But likely you can’t carry in your backpack enough to really get even one fire going. So as you travel, gather enough tinder and kindling. Don’t wait until you find a place to build a fire! If you get dumped on by rain, you now have another emergency – probably one you could have avoided.

Kindling. This is the fire fuel ignited by the tinder. It’s made of twigs and branches, no bigger around than a pencil. But mostly look for anything as big around as a toothpick.

To ensure success, gather a bundle of kindling as big around as another person. Yes, as big as another person! None of these fire-building techniques will help you.. unless you gather enough kindling!

Dead, dry grass and leaves can be used as kindling, but it may burn more quickly so you’d need more of it than if you’re using twigs.

The purpose of kindling is to get your larger sticks and logs burning.

Just like tinder, you want dry, dead wood! You can’t just break branches off live trees. Live wood is 50% water. A fire will put energy into vaporizing the water before it burns anything else.

So a small fire that’s just getting started will likely not have enough energy to continue burning if you put twigs from live trees on it!

Feather Sticks. Sometimes you may not find enough tinder or kindling. Or it may not be completely dry. Feather sticks can help.

Simply use the driest, dead sticks you can find.

Take a knife and shave off the bark and outer layer of wood to reveal the drier heartwood in the center of the stick.

Then shave thin curls of wood, still attached to the stick as shown.

Feather Stick Example

Smaller thinner curls are best.

Sticks and Logs. Soft wood like pine or cedar (any tree with needles instead of leaves) is great for when you’re first getting your fire going. Or whenever you want the fire to burn faster.

Hard woods (most North American trees with leaves) are harder to get burning and burn slower. Go ahead and get your fire hot, then add these hard woods to burn longer. These are ideal for those all-night fires.

Gather enough for several hours of fire. Enough to allow you to warm up, rest, use your fire and go looking for more wood.

Once again, dead and dry wood is the way to go.

How to build a fire (put all the parts together)

Super important: have all the non-optional parts (spark/flame/heat source and enough tinder, kindling and sticks/logs) gathered and nearby before you light anything. Once you light the fire, if you don’t have all the pieces completely ready, time will be working against you.

The number one main reason people fail to build a fire (or they start one that quickly goes out) is simply this: they didn’t really prepare all the pieces.

Create a fire platform. Your fire should not lose strength because it’s built on lots of wet ground or snow.

That’s why you need a foundation or base for the fire. You can use a large flat rock.

Or place a layer of green (live tree) branches/sticks next to each other as shown here.

Fire Platform Illustration

Backing Log. Place a larger log (at least 4 inches in diameter) against one side of your platform. This backing log prevents wind from interfering when you light your tinder bundle. And helps reflect heat toward you once the fire is burning.

Backing Log Illustration

Once the tinder bundle is lit, place it on the platform, against the backing log. This partially protects the tinder bundle from the wind.

After the tinder bundle is burning well, add some kindling by leaning it against the backing log, on top of the tinder. This allows more oxygen to surround the kindling and burn more easily.

Once both the tinder and kindling are burning well, add more fuel to the fire, based on the chosen fire design or “fire lay” you chose at the start. (Except for the Dakota fire pit design, of course.)

For the Dakota fire pit, you won’t need a backing log. And unless the bottom of the hole in the ground is really wet, you won’t need a fire platform. Simply place the burning tinder at the bottom of the large hole. Once it’s burning well, you place a few pieces of kindling on top of that. Keep feeding it until it is the desired size.

Carrying fire

Rekindling a fire is easy compared to successfully building a fire. That’s why you should also learn to carry fire.

That way, if you ever have to move camp, you can much more easily start a fire at your new location.

Here are 3 ways:

Apache Match. As you can see, this is kind of like  a bird’s nest. Place a burning ember from your fire into a tinder bundle, surrounded by grass, bark or other hard-to-burn stuff.

How to Carry Fire - Apache Match

You can even wrap this bundle with cord to make it easier to carry. As you travel, occasionally check your ember to make sure it is still smoking. Blow on it gently to keep it smoldering.

Just don’t blow hard enough to make it burst into flames. You wouldn’t be able to carry your fire any further!

But if you’re careful, you can keep an Apache match working for 4-8 hours.

Fire Bucket. Simply place an Apache match in a container. Maybe an old coffee can or a bucket. This shortens the max life of the match to approximately 2-6 hours, if you’re careful. But a container like this sure makes the whole thing easier to carry.

Torch. The best torch material is a pine branch saturated with resin/sap. Find one about wrist diameter and about 4 feet long.

Locate the end of the branch that was closest to the trunk. Carefully create a split that runs about 6 inches down from this end of the branch. And then split it again so the last 6 inches of the branch are split in fourths.

You can jam a couple twigs in the cracks to keep the splits a bit separated. This will allow more air around the end of the stick so your torch will more likely stay lit. Again, if you’re careful, this kind of torch might last 1-4 hours.

Fire safety

Use these fire-building techniques for good, not evil. Some of the largest blazes ever to hit the US were started by campfire accidents. Here are some basic safety suggestions.

  • Avoid building fires under hanging branches or near steep slopes
  • Clear any flammable debris in a large area around your fire (10 feet is ideal)
  • Have enough water nearby along with a digging tool to smother the fire with dirt
  • Never leave your fire unattended for any length of time
  • Minimize the size of the fire. (You can see how this helps avoid problems)
  • To extinguish a fire, pour enough water until the fire appears to be out. Then mix the ashes and pour on more water as you check for any embers. Leave none burning!
  • Never just bury a fire in soil – it can ignite roots and other buried debris into an unexpected fire again
  • If it’s too windy, it’s too dangerous for most fires. Consider using the Dakota fire pit design instead

In conclusion…

Fire can be your #1 friend in an emergency. It’s comforting, mesmerizing, and calming. Even in the middle of a terrible crisis.

But the worst thing you can do is file this info for later.

How to Build a Survival Fire

These fire-building techniques will not help you if you simply pack a how-to manual and hope it’ll help you when you need it.

You’d never put a how-to manual in your glove box in case your kids needed to drive someday. Everybody knows you shouldn’t be on the road without practice.

You can’t get a license without a supervised driving test. Who cares if you can read about driving. They want to see you know it. After all, lives hang in the balance.

Seems everyone searches for “how to start a fire.” As if the starting spark will just blaze into a campfire. It doesn’t.

Almost anyone can start a fire. But then the flame turns into smoke and grows cold.

Most people could never start a real fire without using half a can of gasoline. But since you’ve read this far, I know you’re not going to be like that.

But don’t let all this overwhelm you. Even though there are thousands of hours of experience from countless people wrapped up in this advice here.

And I’m not going to pretend this article will teach you everything. After all, there are many books about this subject.

Just make your fire learning time into play time. Practice these skills in a safe controlled environment. Maybe your own backyard.

And please share this info with others. We both know there are still just a few unprepared people out there. Smile.

Let me know in the comments if you learned something here. Or how your practice sessions are going. Or what I missed.

Learning these fire building techniques is one of the most valuable investments you could ever make. Your experience will bring you a tremendous sense of freedom, accomplishment and peace of mind.