Camping & Survival

Survivor Skill Set 101: Building a Fire

Building a fire in an emergency is a skill set we all should have. In an emergency, fire provides warmth, a way to cook and boil water, keeps away animals, and is a way to signal for help. To light a fire you will need tinder, kindling, fuel, and a way to make a spark.

Before you start a fire, pick a safe spot, preferably as dry as possible. If you have time, it is always safest to build a fire ring or fire pit first. A safe spot for a fire is away from trees and low-hanging branches. To help contain your fire, either dig a small pit or surround the area with stones. Gather all the tinder, kindling, and fuel you will need to get started. Two handfuls of each should be a good start. Keep the kindling and fuel close, but a few inches away from the tinder so you do not ignite the kindling and fuel by accident.


Tinder is dry highly flammable smaller material that will catch a spark and create a flame quickly. You can use dried grasses, birch wood shavings, a cotton ball, or dryer lint. Your tinder bundle should be about the size of a softball. Start with one handful of tinder. Lay your tinder down in the middle of your fire ring. Light the tinder in many places. Once you have your tinder lit, lightly blow on it to get the flame to grow.


Kindling is dry, twigs and very small branches, no longer than the size of your forearm. A good rule of thumb is to look for kindling that is about the size of a lead pencil. Add kindling on top of the tinder. I like to make mine in the shape of a teepee. Kindling needs to be close enough together to catch the flames from the tinder, but spaced out enough to allow air to circulate. Fire needs air to continue burning.


Fuel will be the larger pieces of firewood you have to keep your fire going. Gradually add your fuel from the smallest to the largest pieces. By this time, you should have a good, steady flame going.

There are many ways to make a fire without matches, but I like the easiest route possible. I am going to skip over the friction methods like hand drill and bow drill. I believe any friction method takes a lot of practice, time, and patience. Not all of those are available during an emergency.

A surefire way to make sure you can start a fire is to keep a fire starter kit with you at all times. There are plenty of compact, cheap choices when it comes to striker kits. Magnesium striker kits and emergency tinder slip in your pocket and do not break the bank. If you do not have a kit, you can use the same concept out in the wild by finding flint, or any other quartz rock and use your knife steel to strike against the rock. Flint is a dark gray stone usually found in limestone. Some areas of the United States may not have flint, so you can substitute other rocks. Take your knife and strike it hard and fast against the stone to create a spark.

Remember as a kid burning ants with your magnifying glass? (Or was that just me?) Using any lens, even a water bottle can light tinder on fire. Any curved lens, from a magnifying glass, eyeglasses, your binoculars, or a camera lens when aimed correctly at the sun will ignite tinder. A water bottle can work in a pinch as an impromptu lens. Hold the water bottle upside down over your tinder in direct sunlight. This method may take awhile and you will need a sunny day for it to work. This may not always be the case when you need to start a fire in an emergency.

In my opinion, the most fascinating way to start a fire is using your flashlight batteries and steel wool. Again, this method does take preplanning on your part. As long as you have batteries and steel wool with you, you can start a fire. A kitchen brillo pad works in place of plain steel wool. The easiest way is to rub the contact points of one nine-volt battery on the wool. It will very quickly start a fire. The wool does not burn long, so quickly put it on your tinder. Regular AA batteries work, as well. Make sure both batteries are touching, and then touch the wool to both contact points at the same time. This will also cause the wool to catch fire. This is a good YouTube video on testing the different types of batteries and wool to start a fire.

Of course, the easiest way to start a fire is by carrying lighters with you. Disposable or a Zippo-style will work. Lighters will still spark even if there is no fluid left in the lighter. If you have enough room in your pack, Coghlan’s makes fire sticks and firelighters that help start a fire quickly and easily, even in wet conditions.

What is your favorite way to start a fire in a survival situation? Do you have a different way to start a fire that I did not mention here? Tell us!


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Comments (14)

    1. I like to use cotton balls rolled in a little bit of Vaseline. Roll it around so the Vaseline is mixed through the entire cotton ball. It burns hot and it’s relatively long lasting as fire starters go. Need to see if the water bottle lense would work to light it.

  1. The inside filler of Tampons works great to strike a spark into. Just pull some out, fluff it up and hit it with a spark. The filler burns hotter and longer than lint and will ignite wet tender if the tender is exposed to enough filler. The filler inside them is compressed, they are easy to store and can be stored indefinitely inside a freezer bag.
    A couple of them take up very little room, are very light and are easy to carry in a pocket or backpack.

  2. I always carry a couple of tealight candles and a lighter with me. Those little candles burn for a surprisingly long time and take up very little space.

  3. One great way I learned to make fire starters is to take lint from the dryer and stuff it into an empty cardboard egg carton (stuff as much as you can in each cup). Then, take the wax from candles that have been used up, melt it, and pour it over the lint, and let it cool. When you go to start a fire, tear off just one of the cups and light it, guaranteed to start a fire in short order.

    These firestarters work extremely well, and becuase they are made from scrap, cost absolutely nothing to make.

  4. Dried pine or Pinion tree sap makes good emergency fire starter to carry in your pocket. Break off chunks of dried sap next to an old tree scar or limb that a porcupine once chewed on. Experiment with your local sap producing trees by breaking off dried sap and test for flamability in a safe area. Note: Do not try to light sap still attached to a tree…two words…forest fire.

    A good waterproof kitchen match container is two fired shot shells. Fit open end to open end, I think 16 ga slides inside of 12 ga and 20 ga slides inside of 16 ga. I still purchase “strike anywhere” kitchen matches from the local hardware store. Strike on box only kitchen matches will strike on paper match book striker in a pinch.

  5. Lint from your clothes drier (as well as cotton balls), work great, for tinder. Make it better, by taking a couple of FISH OIL capsules, poke a pin hole in it, then start saturating your choice of tinder. To keep it “fresh”, and safe from self-combustion…ever seen those aluminum cigar tubes? They’re great & waterproof. Put your prepared tinder in a small baggie, roll up TIGHT, insert in tube. Next, do the same thing with your water proof matches, or “fire starter”, into the same tube. Compact and ready to go!

  6. the bottom of an aluminum soft drink can (a parabolic reflector ) when polished with whatever, choclate bar works, point it toward the sun, hold your tinder on a toothpick about an inch or so above the reflector in the bright light and it lights fairly quickly. char cloth works very good…..

  7. I keep a baggie with cotton balls that have been dipped in vaseline in my fanny pack emergency kit to use as starter for a fire. These work great for getting a fire going good. These will work well in damp conditions also. In my kit along with the cotton balls are wooden matches that have had their heads dipped in candle wax to keep them waterproof. Hopefully, you’ll never need to start an emergency fire, but be ready for that one time when you could. It my save your life.

  8. Another great idea to get a fire going is to carry a small, alcohol hand sanitizer for starting a fire. It can and will do double duty for anyone staying in the outdoors. The alcohol helps start the fire and helps it keep burning for a small time. It can be used to help with slightly damp/wet fuel. Always a great extra item for the backpack!

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