The hardest part of building a fire is getting it started. Once you have a nice bed of white-hot coals, keeping it going is a piece of ashcake (bad joke, I know). But getting to that point can be frustrating…unless you use some kind of fire-starting magic. And indeed, there are many tricks you can use to induce ignition. Some are store-bought, others are natural and still others are homemade.
Store-Bought Starters **
**(1) WetFire: These small, individually packaged dry pellets of compressed fire starter can be shaved into a tinder bundle or broken up and spread among kindling. They instantly catch and hold a fire when either a flame or strong spark is applied, regardless of altitude or nasty weather conditions.
Pros: Burns very hot (over 1,300 degrees), even when wet.
($5.95 for eight pellets; 800-292-4707; survivalinc.com)
**(2) Fire Paste: **This is an effective commercial imitation of pine sap. Smear it into a tinder bundle or wipe it on some kindling, then pile more kindling on top and light it. The paste is volatile and will catch a flame quickly and hold it long enough for the tinder or kindling to dry out from the heat.
Pros: Like WetFire, this stuff works every time, regardless of the bad weather or extreme temperature.
Cons: The tube is bulky and can be a bother to carry in your pocket.
($3.95 for a 3.75-ounce tube; 204-284-9550; coghlans.com)
(3) Fire Sticks: These sticks, which imitate natural pitchwood, are made of compressed sawdust and infused with an accelerant to help the solid material catch and hold a flame. Break up the sticks and insert them into a pile of loosely stacked kindling, or crumble them and add to a tinder bundle.
Pros: They will catch fire even after being submerged in water.
($1.79 for a dozen 5-inch sticks; 204-284-9550; coghlans.com)
**(4) Candles: **Some folks like to carry an emergency candle, as it will hold a flame after a match has died. One of the benefits is that the melted wax can be dripped into other fluffy tinder materials to augment their flammability.
Pros: The wick is easy to light.
Cons: A candle will blow out with the slightest puff of wind. Also, candles can be bulky.
[pagebreak] Natural Starters
(5) Pitchwood: When sap floods into a tree wound, permanently saturating the root, trunk or limb fibers, the wood becomes heavy and brittle as pitchwood is formed. (Commercial substitutes, such as Fatwood, are available at many hardware stores.) A few slivers of pitchwood stuck into a tinder bundle or in among the kindling almost guarantee success in starting a fire. Sap itself works well, too.
Pros: Burns even when wet.
Cons: You have to find the stuff, which can be difficult. Look for an old, injured tree. Dig into a decaying stump and, if you’re lucky, you might find the hard, dark, heavy pitchwood. Sap is easier to find.
**(6) Bird’s Nest: **If you can find one, these are ready-made tinder bundles.
Pros: As long as it’s dry, a bird’s nest is hard to beat as a natural fire starter.
cons: Birds don’t build their nests within reach of ground-based animals. If you do find one, make sure it isn’t inhabited.
(7) Dry Grasses: You can make your own bird’s nest by twisting dry grass stalks together into a tight bundle.
Pros: You can find grass everywhere.
Cons: The grass must be absolutely dry or it will just smoke when lit.
**(8) Shredded Tree Bark: **Some trees, such as juniper and cedar, have an inner bark layer that can be shredded and also twisted into a tight tinder bundle.
Pros: The pliable bark is easy to work with.
Cons: These trees aren’t in all forests.
**(9) Pine Needles: **Scrape together a mound of the driest needles and pine duff you can find. If there’s sap on them, so much the better: It will make the needles catch fire more readily. Pros: Easy to find in most forests.
Cons: Sometimes the smallest pine needles can be difficult to ignite.
Homemade Fire Starters
**(10) High-Powered Cotton Balls or Dryer Lint: **For this trick, you can use either cotton balls or lint you’ve pulled out of the clothes dryer filter and made into a cotton-ball-sized wad. Saturate the ball with melted candle wax, then compress it into a marble-sized pellet and store it in a plastic bag or a plastic 35mm film canister. An alternative is to saturate the ball with petroleum jelly. When the pellets are lit, they will burn hot and long. Cotton swabs work, too.
Pros: Small and lightweight; easy to stow in a pocket; not volatile.