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Survival Basics: Starting a Fire

Avatar for Gaye Levy Gaye Levy  |  Updated: November 24, 2020
Survival Basics: Starting a Fire

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It has been a while since I have written about living a strategic life.  For those of you new to Backdoor Survival, living a strategic life is something that I encourage everyone to embrace, prepper or not.  As a matter of fact, it is so important to me personally that I co-authored a book about it, 11 Steps to Living a Strategic Life: A Guide to Survival During Uncertain Times.

In a nutshell, living a strategic life means that you are able to take care of yourself and your family no matter what Mother Nature and the Universe decides to drop in your lap.  And while talking about a global collapse is dramatic sounding and the cause for major, life-altering concern, a  realistic assessment of the odds suggests that more commonplace emergencies and disasters are singularly the reason we prepare.

Survival Basics Starting a Fire | Backdoor Survival

This is not to diminish preparing for the likelihood of collapse, of course, but rather to focus on risks of life that can happen any day, any time, to anyone.

With that being said, throughout most of human history, man has learned that a few necessities can and do make the difference between life and death.  While emergency food stores, stored water, and the need for a good first aid kit serious medical training on how to use it are all important, today I would like to talk about something increasingly overlooked in our “modern” society:  STARTING A FIRE.

The Triangle of Fire

Fire is a big deal and a necessary component not only to our senses but to survival itself.  That said, most people have terrible fire skills.  It is not that fire skills are difficult to learn, mind you.  It is just that in today’s world of electronic cooking gadgets, pre-packaged meals, and grab and go dining, using a fire to do something basic like cook seems like a lot of work and a plain nuisance compared to get getting the job done with electricity, natural gas or, those plastic cards we carry around in our wallet.

Today I want to get down to the basics, namely the basics of simply starting a fire and getting it going with a minimum of fuss. Let us start with rule #1 of fire making.

There are three parts to fire:  Oxygen, Fuel, and Heat.  This is referred to as the Triangle of Fire.  For the visually oriented, it looks like this:

Triangle of Fire

Starting a Fire with Charcloth

Building a fire is something to be taken quite seriously and since we are talking about the basics, remember, never build your fire indoors, except in a real fireplace.  Every winter, dozens of people die of carbon monoxide poisoning due to indoor heating with charcoal briquettes.  When that happens, the victims simply go to sleep and never wake up. The point being that outdoors confined to a fireproof area or in a real fireplace is where fire belongs, period.

That said, the first step and some would say the most important step to having a good fire is getting it started.  You can purchase a variety of fire-starting tools ranging from waterproof matches to Bics to all sorts of pre-packaged tinder, but for Prepper types, nothing beats the reliability of a simple magnesium flint and steel (I like the Swedish Firesteel).

One of the oldest and more reliable methods to start a fire is to make some charcloth and have it ready to go in your survival kit.  Charcloth you say?  What the heck is that?  Well, to be honest, most city-dwellers have no clue what it is, how to make it, and even less how to use it. I know that three years ago, I did not have a clue.

But no worries. Here is everything you need to know about making your own char cloth.

1.  You begin by finding a pair of old jeans that you’ve ripped and patched for the last time. You’ll cut patches of the fabric just the right size to lay flat inside an empty Altoid can.

2.  Once you’ve about filled the can up, you make a small nail hole on both the top and the bottom of the tin.

charcloth jeans in tin

3.  The next time you have your BBQ fired up, toss in the denim filled Altoid can and let it cook for 20 minutes or so.

Charcloth Tin in Fire

Of course, if you can also toss the tin-containing denim into a real fire that is the ground or in your fire pit.   By the time the fire has cooled off to nothing the next day, the can will be cold and there no grill to clean. Easy peasy.

4.  Remove the tin filled with denim from the grill and let cool overnight.  If you used your BBQ, you will want to wash the grill off thoroughly when you are done since remnants of the burning paint from the Altoids can make an unsavory seasoning to the next piece of food thrown on the grill to cook.

5.  To start a fire using charcloth, you simply take ½ a piece of the cloth and tear at it a little bit.  Strike your flint so that the sparks land on the tufts of thread which are charred and catch fire extremely easy under a wide range of conditions.  All it takes is for the charcloth to begin smoking a bit.

6.  The next step is to take some very fine shavings of wood (picture shaving a match-stick to get some small shavings) and toss them on to the charcloth and blow the charcloth so as to push the burning part into the wood.  After a few tries, you should be able to get a fire going easily this way.

7.  Once you get a visible flame going, you need to start moving up in the size of material burned.  What you want to do is roughly double the thickness of the wood each time you step up a size.  A typical progression can be charcloth setting off a bit of tissue, which sets off a few matchstick sized twigs, which set off half a dozen additional dry twigs about 1/8th inch in size.  Once this catch well, move up to four or five 1/4-inch pieces, then 1/2-inch pieces and so forth.

True, you can go about it in bigger steps, but if you’re trying to get a maximum fire in minimal time, it is best to work up the size of your fuel source gradually but quickly.  The focus should be on keeping the big flame going.  And yes, a person can go from kindling to a shaved 2-by-4 but whether you could ever get that to a useful fire would be a long wait and “iffy”.  The reason being you want oxidizing surfaces next to each other so they feed energy into one another, creating heat.

Too much fuel, too soon, means not enough oxygen and no heat and no fire.  That is why you always stack your firewood in certain ways: popular X settings of fire burn primarily at the X because the one piece of wood heats the other and visa versa.

Other Fire Starting Methods

There are a number of other methods that can be used to start a fire.  Here are a few.

If your bug-out-bag or survival kit includes a magnifying glass, with practice you can learn to touch off your charcloth that way.  Another suggestion and one that I have used often is to soak some cotton balls with a smear of petroleum jelly then store them in a tin or repurposed prescription bottle until fire-starting time.

The fire-starter I currently use is made up of empty toilet paper tubes stuffed to the brim with dryer lint.  I flatten the heck out of them, seal the ends, then store them in my pack until I need to start a fire.  It only takes a small bit of dryer lint to get things started so a single TP tube goes a really long way.

Here is one more fire starting tip:  take one of those “One Hour Fireplace” logs and slice it into 1” chunks.  Put 4 to 6 of these chunks in a plastic sandwich bag.  When the time comes, take one chunk, slice off a piece the size of your little finger, get it going, lean the rest of the chunk onto it, and now you can move right up to little finger sized kindling.

There are a couple of useful subordinate rules to fire making:

The fuel has to be quick enough to oxidize so as to support combustion. A lot of people don’t know that a mixture of rusty steel wool and aluminum power or filings will cause a violent kind of fire called a thermite reaction. Compared to this kind of mixture (definitely not something to be trifled with) a tamer kind of readily oxidized fuel is much easier to manage; paper and small pieces of wood come to mind.

The other thing is that oxygen is rarely an issue unless you get up in altitude and the air thins out. Then, you may have a problem.

When to Build a Fire

There’s no hard and fast rule about when to build a fire; the simple answer is “when you need it.”

Say, for example, some sort of disaster has occurred, the power is out, and you have a local health warning indicating that you should “boil water before drinking”.  That would be a good time to get a fire going (but as I mentioned earlier, not indoors, please).  And yes, local authorities have been known to tell you to boil water even though they are well aware that the power is out.

When it comes to building a fire, the best advice I can give you is to begin honing your fire-making skills and practice this skill on a regular basis.  Learn to start a fire now, when you can do it for sport rather than necessity.  Practice the basics of getting your fire going either using charcloth, petroleum-jelly soaks cotton balls, dryer lint, or something else.  Also learn to use a fire-steel, even if you have plenty of matches and lighters.

The Final Word

Part of being on the path to being prepared is doing things in a purposeful way.  To that end, learning to effectively start a fire is a skill which will take only a few hours to perfect and which can, at some point become very useful to your well-being and ultimate survival.

Just remember that when you start your fire, go through the mental checklist:

  • Is it safe?
  • Will it be seen?
  • Will the smoke be an issue?
  • Are there things that could take you from your job of fire-tending?

An unattended fire is a problem just waiting to happen and the risk is three-fold if there are young children around.  This means you must be mindful and alert at all times.

I can tell you from personal experience that there is a huge sense of accomplishment that comes with being able to start a fire from scratch.  It is also one of those personal survival skills that will set you apart from those who make it and those that don’t should the worse happen.

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!

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Bargain Bin:  Below you will find links to the items related to today’s article plus some other perennial reader favorites.

Survivor Outdoor Fixed Blade Knife with Fire Starter: This knife has measured 7 inches long overall, has a full-tang stainless steel blade, is equipped with thick green cord-wrap handle, and has a nylon sheath plus a magnesium-alloy fire starter.  How does it work?  This is not a Kershaw, Gerber or another high-quality blade.  On the other hand, the fire starter works great (better than great) and is worth the price which is currently $6.27.

Swedish Firesteel:  Using this basic pocket fire-starter, you can get a nice fire going under almost any conditions. This is a small, compact version and is my personal favorite.

Magnesium Fire Starter:  This Campers’ Magnesium Emergency Fire Starter.

Coghlan’s Waterproof Matches 10-pack: There are 10 boxes of 40 matches each.  That is a good deal for 400 waterproof matches.

UCO Stormproof Match Kit with Waterproof Case, 25 Stormproof Matches and 3 Strikers:  The UCO Stormproof Match Kit is waterproof and holds 25 matches as well as spare strikers. The matches burn for around 15 seconds and are windproof, waterproof, and even continue burning underwater. An integrated striker is attached on the side of the matching kit and can be replaced when worn out.

2 Pack Survival Kit Can Opener, Military, P-51 Model:  These can openers makes a great addition to any survival, fishing, hiking, or camping pack. They are lightweight and robust and they just work.

Rothco 550lb. Type III Nylon Paracord:  An ideal all-around utility cord in the field, paracord is tough and long-lasting. It is made from 550-pound test nylon and features a seven-strand core for maximum strength. Also, it is manufactured in the United States.  Note that some colors may be more expensive than others.  Need ideas?  See 44 Really Cool Uses of Paracord for Survival.

12 Color Pack Bandana – Assorted Colors:  This is the #1 seller in the bandana category.  As of this writing, the price is $13.99 for the entire dozen.  I love these bandanas and you will often see me wearing them in photos here on the website. Be sure to read How to Use a Bandana to Save the Day.



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13 Responses to “Survival Basics: Starting a Fire”

  1. THE BEST FIRE STARTER IN NATURE. I have been reading numerous articles from Prepper sites and have never seen anyone mention using Cattails or bulrush as a fire starter. I learned this trick at a very young age from my Grandfather. He taught me that cattails are natures gasoline. He would harvest the fluffy tops whenever we would go on hikes. With a flint stick, the fluffy cattail ignite like gasoline (without the explosion). Try it out. I get the kids to light the campfire every time we go camping.

  2. I noticed you wrote the time to start a fire is “When you need it.” But you should really always a fire BEFORE you need it… Reason being, if its winter and you’ve waited to start your fire until you need it, there’s a good chance your fingers will be too cold &/or numb to fiddle around with the flint & steel or tiny pieces of tender… Not trying to correct you just making a suggestion from experience.

  3. Practice, practice, practice! You can read articles and watch YouTube videos, but unless you get out and practice you will be no better off then when you started. I teach fire building to a group of Scouts and I can tell you that even though I teach this class I still need to practice. Here’s a video that I made that might help you out. //

  4. Thanks Gaye
    This is one skill I’ve been wanting to learn. I’m thinking other skills are great but if caught away from home, this would be easy to carry in an EDC so if I couldn’t make it back home in a day, I could at least have fire. This is the added backup to other methods. I do believe if Murphy’s Law if/when disaster happens.

  5. I use the paper egg cartons, some dryer lint and cover it in wax. To start my woodstove, I just break off one egg section with some kindling and poof, fire.

    Thanks Gaye, I really enjoy reading your tips as well as other commenters.

    • I have used this method, only I’ve used old oil from cooking to soak the cartons. Works great too.

  6. I am new to this, and I have a question. Is there any danger in leaving the char cloth, petroleum jelly cotton balls, matches or lighters in the car in the hot Florida sun? Should they be stored in metal containers or plastic?
    I appreciate any feedback.
    God Bless,

  7. I am new to this, and I have a question. Is there any danger in leaving the char cloth, petroleum jelly cotton balls, matches or lighters in the car in the hot Florida sun? Should they be stored in metal containers or plastic?

    I appreciate any feedback.
    God Bless,

    • The petroleum jelly might be an issue but you can prep the cotton balls ahead of time. Dab some on each cotton ball and work it in to one end. Leave the other end just cotton ( no Vaseline/petroleum jelly) so it’s easy to light. You can work some into one end of the char cloth as we’ll, if you prefer that option. Store in a ziplock bag and the Florida heat won’t be an issue.

      As for matches and/or a lighter I don’t think it’s an issue. Matches are fine, for sure, and you could carry a fire steel as a backup. No heat issues there.



    • I use those plastic containers that 35mm film comes in and saturate cotton balls with vaseline, you can cram several in one. Works great with a lighter or a magnesium stick since the magnesium sticks to the cotton ball instead of falling on the ground or in the leaves and catches a spark nicely, just pull up a little tuft like a wick and it burns like a little candle. I carry a container in my pack as well as my coat pocket and they never leak. It also serves a dual purpose, if lost you may want to use it on your lips or where ever you may chap. Trekker Out.

  8. While char cloth is useful, and it works, it’s a lot of work to prepare. I use cotton balls with my fire steel, with a dab of Vaseline. They light instantly with a single stoke of my fire steel and the Vaseline keeps it burning long enough to get even tough wood burning.

    I fill an empty toilet paper tube with cotton balls and a small tube of Vaseline in a ziplock bag, along with some waterproof matches (with a striker) and a bic lighter. This keeps it dry, easy to carry and gives me several options for getting fire going ( if you don’t have a backup, you’re risking failure).

    Just thought I’d share this. Cheers


  9. ” a mixture of rusty steel wool and aluminum power or filings will cause a violent kind of fire called a thermite reaction”. Watch those kids on you-tube put aluminum foil in a blender to make powder and mix it. Then place it in an old car, then shoot it with a gun. A skill everyone should have. BOOM!!!

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