Fire building is an ancient art. Once every human on the planet over the age of six could create a fire from just what was found in nature. Modern man has largely lost this skill and most modern people cannot create a fire without gasoline or charcoal starter. The fact is that a spark can be created from flint and steel, rubbing two pieces of wood together, a flashlight reflector, batteries and steel wool, and the list goes on almost endlessly.
Where most people fail, is what happens next. That spark, if it can be created, must be nurtured and coaxed into flame, and the flame into a fire. Whether that tiny flame is from a match or was coaxed from a smoldering ember, what it is put into makes all the difference. That skill is what I hope to teach you in this article
Step 1 in Building a Fire: Tinder for the Base
The base of your fire must be made of tinder that will easily catch fire and will burn long and hot enough to ignite the progressively heavier pieces of wood that will make up the remainder of your fire lay. It is called the base because it is at the bottom. Heat goes up, so a fire is created from the bottom up.
Your tinder must be fine, dry, and organized in a way that allows plenty of air into the bundle. Paper can be used, but nature provides many other choices as well. Cattail down, if properly fluffed, will go up like gasoline. Even in the rain, a standing bit of dead wood with the bark still on holds a lot of dry wood. All you need to do is carve down to it and then continue to whittle little curls of great tinder.
When I do this I will keep going till I have two hats full. Start out with far more tinder than you think you will need. If you are working old school, creating a spark takes a good deal of work; seeing all that effort flare and then starve is pretty demoralizing. Reeds, inner bark, paper birch bark (the oils in it make it water proof), grass, lichen, dry moss, and much more can be used for this vital step.
Step 2: Kindling to Get the Fire Going
Once your tinder bundle is created you will need to create something for that small, hot, but very short-lived fire to transition into. Kindling will be finely-split hardwoods, the small, dry twigs that are found hanging on the very bottom of any evergreen, or the tips of standing dead branches; all work well.
For this layer you don’t want anything bigger than toothpicks. After a 2-inch layer of this wood, go to pencil-sized wood, then finger size, then larger. All of these layers must be assembled and arranged carefully before your match is struck. Have plenty of 2-finger to wrist-size pieces handy to feed your fire once you are sure it has caught in earnest.
Arranging the Wood to Build a Fire
While there are many fire arrangements that work and are used for different purposes the two most common and most surefire (pun intended) are the cross-hatch, and the teepee.
The cross-hatch will start with two wrist-size pieces laid parallel to each other, 10 or so inches apart. Into the space created you will lay your tinder and kindling and then across the two base pieces you will lay your progressively larger pieces first east-west, then north-south alternating the layers with plenty of space between individual pieces to allow heat and air to percolate up through the entire thing.
This can be used to create a very large arrangement to use in ceremonial camp fires or for signaling, when you need your fire to catch and grow quickly. It also works well for smaller fires, and helps keep the larger wood from crushing your tinder and snuffing it out.
The teepee is just as it sounds. Tinder and kindling in the center and over that a forked stick is locked with another straight piece. Other wood is laid against this framework to form a triangle over the center of your fire. Leave a small opening that will allow you to put in your flame. This arrangement will burn up through the center and collapse onto itself leaving all your wood radiating out from the center in a spoke pattern.
Practice these skills. Work on it till it becomes second nature and you can reliably start a fire on a single match. In many situations that can spring out of nowhere a fire can mean the difference between life and death. Creating one reliably is a truly timeless skill that anyone can learn.