How to Build a Fire: 4 Ways for Survival

When faced with a survival situation where human life hangs in the balance, heed these four ways to start a fire

A few decades ago, it would have been difficult to find an angler or other outdoorsman who couldn’t start a fire. Wood cook stoves and heating were part of most people’s lives, and a campfire was part of every outdoor adventure. Fire-building was part of everyday life.

All that has changed, of course. Push a button and you can microwave dinner. Turn up the thermostat and, presto, you have heat. Want a fire in the fireplace? Light a store-bought firestarter and you don’t even need kindling.

Not surprisingly, many people no longer can build even the most rudimentary fire. For most, this will never be more than a minor inconvenience. But should we find ourselves thrust into a survival situation, the importance of fire cannot be exaggerated. Fire provides warmth to stave off hypothermia. It can cook our food, purify our water and dry our clothes. It also can become a rescue signal or a night light, even a morale booster. A lost or stranded fisherman facing several cold nights in the boondocks needs all the cheer he can extract from his crisis, and a camp without a campfire is anything but cheerful. A fire warms not only the body but the spirit as well.

The smart angler always carries waterproof matches, a butane lighter or some other fire-starting tool. He knows to lay his fire where wind, water and other elements won’t interfere with its building. He knows to how to find dry tinder even in wet weather, and knows to build the fire in stages, beginning with the tinder and working steadily to twigs, branches and larger pieces of wood as quickly as the fire and conditions allow. He has practiced fire-building, even under adverse conditions, to assure he is prepared in case of emergency.

Now let’s suppose you are that person. But—uh, oh—you forgot the matches and the lighter. Or suppose your matches aren’t waterproof and they’ve gotten wet. Or the butane in the lighter is exhausted. Would you still be prepared? Could you build a fire if your life depended on it?

The following four methods of emergency fire-building are difficult to use, even under ideal conditions. But in a survival situation without any other means of lighting a fire, they could save your life.

Before beginning, have plenty of dry tinder, kindling and firewood close at hand. Never win a flame and then have to run around looking for fuel.

Good ingredients for tinder include lint (check your pockets and belly button), cotton threads, dry-wood powder, unraveled string, wool fuzz, bits of bird or mouse nests, dry splinters pounded between two rocks, dry shredded bark or pine needles and slivers of fat pine. Consider anything for kindling: dollar bills and other paper in your wallet, pine cones, twigs, wood shavings, split dry bark, dry-grass bunches.

The Empty Lighter

Don’t throw away your disposable lighter just because the butane is exhausted. Remove the metal hood surrounding the gas port, and the lighter can be used as a spark-thrower to ignite fine tinder. If you have it, a few drops of gasoline or grains of gunpowder mixed with the tinder may help in lighting it if you’re careful not to use too much.

Shelter the tinder in a small ball of dried grass, pine needles or cotton cloth, and strike the flint wheel to throw sparks on it. When a spark catches, making the tinder glow, blow gently to produce a flame. Continue sheltering the flame, and add bits of tinder and small kindling until the fire is burning.


When it’s damp or raining outside, fatwood, also known as lighter pine or pitchwood, can help you get a fire going quick. This type of wood, which contains highly flammable terpenes, is extraordinarily easy to light and burns very hot.

So how do you find fatwood? The best way is to find an old conifer stump and start digging through the rotten, crumbly wood. You’re looking for solid, reddish-colored wood in the stump’s interior, wood that will have a very strong pine scent and is very sticky. This is fatwood. Use a knife or hatchet to split pieces off, then shave some fine curls from the fatwood, which you can use to light your fire with a match, sparks from your lighter or sparks made with flint and steel. When the shavings catch fire, they will burn hot for a minute or more, providing ample time for kindling or additional tinder to ignite. Throw a few bigger pieces of fatwood on the first flames to easily get a fire roaring.


Every school child knows a magnifying glass can be used to focus sunlight and start a fire. If the sun is shining, a lens removed from a rifle scope, binoculars, a camera or a pair of prescription glasses sometimes can be used the same way.

Focus the sun’s rays through the lens to a pinpoint on some tinder, and it soon should start to smolder. Blow or fan gently to produce a flame.

If one lens won’t create a pinpoint of light, try using two together, turning and separating them until you get the proper result. Survivors have even been known to start fires using sunlight shining through a piece of ice or a water-filled watch crystal.

Vehicle Parts and Fuel

If your vehicle has broken down or you’ve been in a plane crash, chances are fire-starting items will be at hand, including, perhaps, highway flares or a cigarette lighter in the dashboard.

Gasoline can be used in small amounts to assist in fire-building. Remove the air cleaner, stuff a piece of cloth down the carburetor, then pump the accelerator pedal to squirt gas on the cloth. If necessary, larger quantities of fuel may be obtained by removing a fuel line, or in critical situations, by stabbing a hole in the fuel tank. A safer, more controllable source of fire is a 50/50 mixture of gasoline and oil. It tends to burn longer than pure gas.

If necessary, a piece of gas-soaked cloth can be ignited using sparks from the vehicle battery terminals. Strip insulation from the ends of a two long pieces of non-critical wire. Wrap one end of each wire around a terminal, then move as far as possible from the battery and quickly tap the ends of the wires together to produce sparks that ignite your rag. Use a stick to place the burning rag under some previously gathered kindling.

Be aware that sparks near the battery could cause the battery to explode. Attempt to draw sparks some distance from the battery in a well-ventilated area. Current flow at the time of the intentional short may rapidly heat the wires, causing burns, so if possible, wear gloves for protection.

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