Being able to build a fire is a critical skill to have when maneuvering around the backcountry or the wilderness. It serves as a source for cooking, boiling/purifying water, heat, light, and if the situation comes down to it, an emergency signal. I’ve found that the times that I’ve needed a fire the most are when conditions aren’t so great. Like when I’m hiking during the winter or when it’s been raining. You’re cold, you’re tired from the hike, and you just want to cook some food, warm up, dry out, and hit the hay. The more you practice fire building in various conditions the better equipped you’ll be. However, there are going to be times that your surrounding conditions just aren’t going to allow you to start a fire. It’s important to recognize those conditions and not waste your precious heat and, instead, focus finding or building a shelter.
- Conditions – Is it raining, snowing, or windy? Depending on the conditions of your location, your access to fuel (a.k.a dry firewood) and ease of starting a fire could vary.
- It takes more energy to ignite wet wood than it is dry dead wood. Access to dry wood may be limited depending on how heavy rain conditions are or if it’s been raining for several hours. Try to take dead tree limbs from the base of trees instead of limbs that have fallen to the ground. These are less likely to be soaked.
- In windy conditions, try to find a rock or spot that shields you from the wind. You can also build a shield for your fire with downed limbs, trees, or bigger stones. If you’re at the summit of a hike, you may have to hike down a bit to shield yourself from the elements and find better access to fuel resources.
- If snow pack isn’t too deep then dig down to expose the ground before building your fire. Otherwise, you’ll need to build a platform to have your fire sit on. If you don’t, you’re fire will melt surrounding snow, making it difficult to keep the fire going, while causing your fire to sink further into the ground.
- Environment – What is your surrounding terrain like? Are you up at elevations where trees are sparse or small and you’re more exposed to the elements or are you in a heavily wooded area? When you’re evaluating your environment you’re also evaluating the resources you have accessible to build your fire.
- Equipment – What do you have in terms of fire starting tools? You should have access to no less than two methods to start your fire. Whether that be matches, a flint stone fire starting kit, or a lighter you need to be able to have access to another tool in case the other fails. I find that lighters can be finicky in the winter or when they’re wet and the same goes for matches as well. Be sure to seal your tools in a ziploc bag or dry pack. I typically carry a lighter and flint stone fire starter.
Key Points when Building a Fire:
- Small to Big – You’re going to want to start your fire with fuel that ignites quickly and gradually add larger, more slower burning fuel. Starting off with larger fuel sources means that you’re going to need more energy, in terms of heat, to ignite that fuel. Ever try to start a fire in your fireplace with just large logs and a roll of newspapers? Takes forever! Going from smaller to bigger sources of fuel will allow you to gradually increase your heat output to create embers, which will help keep your fire going.
- Let it Breath - In order to have a fire you need three things: heat, fuel, and oxygen. When you have a fire, the heat is rising, but also pulling oxygen in to continue the process of combustion. Don’t pile all your wood on at once. Instead, build it in a way that will optimize airflow between your fuel.
- Have your fuel handy – There’s nothing worse than getting your fire going then having it go out while you look for fire wood. It’s a waste of energy. Have your fire wood collected before hand and put them in a neatly accessible pile. Usually, I’ll make a pile for kindling, another pile for slightly larger sticks, then a pile for larger sticks.