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How To Light A Fire Safely

Updated on February 4, 2013

Man's Most Important Element

A photograph taken of a flame slowed down 4000 times.
A photograph taken of a flame slowed down 4000 times. | Source

Introduction

In bushcraft, there can be little doubt that the most important skill is the deceptively simple task of lighting a fire. Of all things, the ability to control fire is what makes us human; there are no other animals that possess this skill, not even in rudimentary form. Fire helps to dispel the darkness, thus improving our state of mind and calming us down, which is crucial in a survival situation. Just as important, it serves as a beacon; broadcasting our position far and wide, which can be a lifesaver if stranded or injured. It helps to drive away the cold, even in the most frigid of landscapes. Most important of all, fire helps to give us safe, clean water by killing harmful bacteria, and doing a similar job with food regardless of whether it be meat or vegetable. But how on earth do you turn fuel (often wood) into flame, without the aid of matches or a lighter. Below, I’ll outline how this can be achieved.

A Primitive Fire-lighting Kit

From left to right, a piece of flint, fire striker (bottom), charred cloth (top) and a piece of mushroom were all essential parts of a fire-lighting kit possessed by our ancestors.
From left to right, a piece of flint, fire striker (bottom), charred cloth (top) and a piece of mushroom were all essential parts of a fire-lighting kit possessed by our ancestors. | Source

Ray Mears Doing What He Does Best

Fire By Friction

Preparing the Fire

If you can, sight your fire as close to your fuel source as possible, so preferably seek the shelter of woodland, not only will your fuel source be within easy reach, but the trees will act as a useful insulation against the cold. Next you need to clear the ground, all the way down to bare earth if possible to minimise the risk of starting an uncontrollable fire, and also to prevent any possibility of you scarring the ground. Once you've done that, go and fetch maybe ten or so dead logs, roughly the same thickness as your arm and lay them on the ground side by side to create a platform. By doing this, the platform logs will burn early on, resulting in the creation of embers, thus giving good heart to your fire, and increasing the chances of success. The logs also help to provide insulation from the ground, which can be cold even in hot weather. Crucially, it keeps both the tinder and kindling away from damp or wet ground, and also allows the air to circulate freely underneath, meaning that the fire will burn brighter and longer.

Next you need to prepare your kindling, for this you need to collect a thick bundle of thin dead twigs, roughly the same thickness as your finger; then split the bundle in half, and place them on top of the platform in the form of the letter ‘X’.

Now, with your platform and kindling in place, the next stage is to prepare your tinder, the key to successful ignition is finding the right kind of tinder, namely anything dry or fibrous such as grass and dry bark. If available, select birch bark, as it is full of oil, and thus will make your fire burn really well. Once you've collected the tinder, use a sharp knife to shred the bark down, thinning out the layers, the thinner the bark the more likely that your fire will catch light.

You’re almost ready to ignite, but there’s still one more important thing you need to do. You must collect more thin twigs to add as extra fuel, but be careful not to overburden yourself. If you've picked a good site, then you will have a steady supply in close reach.

Even damp wood can yield flame

Personal Recommendations

Coghlan's Magnesium Fire Starter
Coghlan's Magnesium Fire Starter

Not quite a fireflash; but this gives you an idea of what they look like.

 

Starting the Fire

In order to start the fire, you need to be able to create sparks strong enough to ignite the tinder. Once again, if available opt for a piece of birch bark and scrape off the layers on the underside of the bark to create a pile of shavings that should easily catch a spark. The next step is to use a device called a fireflash, which contains an alloy of metals that helps to produce bright, white sparks. If you haven’t got something like a fireflash, then a piece of flint will suffice.

Next, place the fireflash/flint on the bark close to the shavings. Turn your knife around, so that you use the back of the blade and grip it close to the point. When ready, push forward with the thumb of your free hand. Once you’ve managed to ignite the shavings, carefully move the shavings and place them under your kindling. For safety, put your firelighting equipment away then proceed to add more fuel to your already growing fire. Once again, I must stress, make sure you only use dead logs, and also make sure that they’re no thicker than your little finger and no longer than your forearm. If you follow these instructions, then you shouldn't encounter any problems when spending a night or several out in the wild.


© James Kenny

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    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Jools, yes I often fantasize about being in the wild too. But if I was alone, and it was dark. Well, let's just say that it would be brown trousers time. I love to spend time in the natural world, but I'm too used to the comforts of domestic life. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      James, very interesting hub - I love Ray Mears and I expect lots of us Brits who have seen his shows would know how to do a few bits and bobs if we were stuck out in the wild - not that it's something I would WANT to do though :o)

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Suzette, I've always wanted to try and make a fire in the traditional way. But I think I'd need to go on some sort of wilderness survival course. I'd love to be able to live totally off the land in the same way that a hunter gatherer does. But admittedly it would be difficult in the modern world. Thanks for visiting Suzette.

    • suzettenaples profile image

      Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

      Great information on building a fire. It brings back memories of Girl Scouts for me. On camping trips we had to build our own fires and start them with rubbing flints or sticks together. We even had to pitch our own tents. This is really good information to know. It also reminds me of Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire."

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Daisy, nice to hear from you again. I felt it important to research the methods used by a true expert, and for me there are none more knowledgeable about bushcraft than Ray Mears. The methods I described here were the ones I observed him using in a documentary. So, I appreciate your kind words and the fact that you understood what I described. Thanks for commenting Daisy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Denise, I think a lot of people underestimate just how difficult it is to actually light a fire. I remember trying to do it with a match, and the wind kept blowing it out. I really admire people like Ray Mears who can just build a fire from scratch. In fact it was he, that provided me with the bulk of source material for this hub (not personally of course). Thanks for stopping by.

    • Daisy Mariposa profile image

      Daisy Mariposa 5 years ago from Orange County (Southern California)

      James,

      Thanks for publishing this very informative Hub. You've made things sound much easier and more efficient than the way I learned to start a fire when I was a Girl Scout.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

      I loved this hub, James. I grew up with a father who took us camping and loved to watch him build a fire. Later, I practiced that skill as well. But, the real skill is making a fire from almost nothing. I had the chance to participate in a woman's outdoor workshop through the Dept of Natural Resources while living in Alaska and it was a great experience.

      Thanks for sharing this well written hub: rated UP/U/I & sharing.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Phil, there's always a chance that your matches may become soggy if you get caught in a downpour, so its always useful to have the knowledge as a back up. But you're right, matches are the easiest method to use.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      Great explanation and a good video. Of course, if you're prepared and bring matches with you, all the better.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi tirelesstraveler, I'm a great lover of the outdoors too. Thanks for dropping, and thanks for the follow too.

    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 5 years ago from California

      Very good information. Love the outdoors.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks very much Teresa. I really appreciate your kind words.

    • Teresa Coppens profile image

      Teresa Coppens 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Wonderfully straight forward. So easy to follow. I like your style of writing. Voted up!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yep, you're right christopher. I'm also going to write an article on how to purify water, which will be another vital skill in a post apocalyptic world. Like you though, I hope they will not be required.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      This might be a very useful skill to have in the post apocolyptic world you wrote about in previous articles.

      I hope I never need to use it.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks pstraubie. What's even more amazing is that the first person to discover fire wasn't even a modern human. Apparently that honour falls to Homo Erectus. I appreciate you dropping by, thank you.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Starting a fire...makes me try to imagine how the first person felt when they discovered it. It must have been a truly amazing event. And how lives changed and have been so ever since.

      Starting a fire to me is a very satisfying experience every time it happens.

      Hopefully if others who read this follow your directions, they will experience the thrill of having a fire!