10 Mistakes Newbie Fire Builders Make
Avoid these common pitfalls so you never spend another night freezing in the backcountry
None of us were born with all the skills and knowledge needed to be a master fire builder. We had to learn them. There are many times in the wild that you need to be able to make a fire quickly, and you don’t want to be unprepared, especially when your survival depends on it. Practicing this skill is an essential part of good woodsmanship. If you are just getting started, here are the mistakes to avoid.
1. Picking Materials Off the Wet Ground
Here in the damp Eastern Woodlands, I often jolt my survival students with a timed fire-making exercise when they all start looking too comfortable and confident in class. Out of the blue, I’ll tell them that they have 10 minutes to make a small fire and I’ll start the countdown on my phone. This test has two purposes. The first is to assess the fire-making skills of the class, and the second is so that each person has a benchmark to assess their progress. After a lengthy struggle to create a sustainable fire (or 10 minutes of failure), most people are eager for the tips I share. If I had to identify the main reason that most people fail the test, it is that they collected their sticks and tinder off the damp ground. Many people are conditioned by signage and training to gather loose dead fuel that’s fallen down, but in an emergency (or any other time you’d like to have fire-making success), you’ll have better luck breaking off the dead branches, twigs, crunchy leaves, and brown pine needles from standing woody plants, shrubs and trees. This is typically the driest fuel in any environment.
2. Don’t Use Rotten Wood
The two main groups of organisms that break down woody plant materials are bacteria and fungus. These are often at work before the leaf or branch dies, and they may even be the cause of death. As plant materials succumb to these organisms, they turn back into the dirt from whence they came and the circle of life continues. Here’s the problem with woody plant decomposition from the perspective of a fire builder: We’re losing fuel value as the material breaks down. Every step closer to dirt that the materials take, they are another step away from being firewood. There are some exceptions, as a select few materials are improved by rotting. Inner tree bark becomes more fibrous after a few months of decomposition, for example. Logs can also become punk wood, which can be used as a smoldering fuel. Unfortunately, most materials are just getting worse as they break down. For this reason, build your fire starters and your firewood pile with wood that isn’t rotten yet. Sticks should splinter when they break, not break off in blunt-ended chunks. You’ll also want to avoid branches with fungal growth, like shelf fungi, mushrooms, witch’s butter, wood ears, etc.
3. Choosing the Wrong Ignition Method
There are many different tools that can start a fire. From ancient methods like friction fire to modern methods like batteries and steel wool, these ignition methods can help us to produce a flame. Some ignition methods aren’t as versatile as others. For example, when using a magnifying glass to start a fire on a sunny day, white cotton balls are a terrible fuel choice. These bleached white fibers bounce away the heat you are trying to focus. This reflective quality makes it almost impossible to start a fire with that combination. As another example, consider spark rods. Ferrocerium spark rods can light many different fuels, but these need to be fluffy or fibrous fuels. Twigs aren’t likely to light from sparks alone, though an open flame may make them light. Flame-based ignition sources are the most versatile form of heat, but even these have vulnerabilities. Matches are easily blown out in the wind, and butane lighters can lose their gas if the button is pushed in storage. In the end, you’ll need to have an ignition method that’s compatible with your fuel materials.
4. Failing to Use Enough Tinder
I’ve seen so many big beautiful fire lays become charred hollow structures when students failed to use enough tinder in their tipi or other structure. One or two dead leaves won’t cut it. For ordinary circumstances, I recommend two big handfuls of tinder material as a foundation, and a third heaping handful on the side as a backup. If you’re really in trouble and need that fire, get even more tinder. Materials like dead crumbly leaves, brown pine needles, crunchy dead grass and fibrous inner tree bark are some of my favorites. Like the sticks you’d collect, your tinder should be dead and dry – but so long-dead that they are not rotten.
5. Lighting Fire Lays Into the Wind
Don’t move lit matches around a lot while trying to start a fire. A better strategy is to light the fire structure in just one well-chosen spot. Since air fans the fire, we’ll typically want to light the fire lay on the side that the wind is coming from. This will allow the wind to blow the fire into the fuel, rather than blowing the flames out into open air. We’ll also want to light the fire lay very low to the ground. Since heat and flames climb, lighting the structure low will allow the fire to climb up into the fuel. If we light it at the top, like a candle, the fire will be reluctant to burn downward. Finally, you’ll want to light the tinder inside the structure, don’t try to light the sticks. The burning tinder will light more sticks and twigs than a single match can. Let the tinder do its job.
6. Bad Locations
Before you shave that first spark from your ferro rod or strike that match, consider whether the conditions are even safe for a fire. Every summer wildfires consume acreage across western lands, some of which have been caused by human negligence. All it takes is a little wind and a spark to unleash hell on earth in a field of dead grass or a dry pine forest. If you have any doubt about the potential to start a wildfire, think twice before starting that fire. If you don’t really need the fire, don’t light it. If the conditions are hazardous, don’t light it. And keep fires small and under control. This means never lighting a fire too big for you to extinguish. And always make sure your fire is out cold before leaving camp.
7. Refusing To Change Your Strategy
I see stubborn people in my classes quite often. They throw match after match into a crappy, damp fire lay until the box is empty. They don’t give up, but they don’t get a fire either. I see tenacious people struggle too, but their “never give up” attitude takes them down a different path— they try different tactics. They change the shape of the fire lay. They add another material. They light it in a different spot. They keep trying, and they’re more likely to succeed than the person who keeps trying the same thing and hoping for different results. Don’t be a stubborn person, refusing to change or adapt. Be a tenacious person, refusing to give up and trying every trick in the book to accomplish your goal.
8. Know Your Gear
We’ve all bought something new and taken it on a camping trip to try it out. It might have even been in its original packaging, tucked down into your backpack along with your trusted gear. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually a risky plan. If you’re new piece of gear is something you really need, like a fire starter, you’re going to be in big trouble if it fails you (especially if you didn’t bring a backup). That latest and greatest piece in your kit may turn out to be a piece of junk. Or it may have been high quality, but it was broken or defective. Or you simply may not know how to use it (not every product comes with an instruction booklet). The risks of hitting the backcountry with untested gear are significant. Get to know your gear and practice using it before you’re in a situation where you are reliant on that gear. This seems like a no-brainer, but I encounter people doing it all the time.
9. Forgetting Backups
There is a good chance you’ve heard the phrase “two is one, one is none.” Different military branches claim to be the point of origin for that catchy phrase, but I think we can all agree that important systems are safer with redundancy. If your main weapon jammed, and you had no backup, you went from “one” to “none.” But if you had a backup weapon, you’re not out of the fight when your primary malfunctions. This concept is helpful in wilderness survival too. If you only had one box of ordinary matches and they got wet, you’re in for a cold night. For this reason, I recommend that my students carry three different ignition sources in separate places. You could have a spark rod on your key chain, a lighter in your pocket, and some matches in your backpack. Hopefully, you don’t lose your keys, backpack, and your pants—then you’ll have at least one way to make a fire on a “bad luck” day. Similarly, we can’t always expect to find dry fuel in the wild, so bringing a backup fuel source, like WetFire cubes or cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly, can save the day when conditions are wet, windy, or otherwise difficult.
10. Don’t Get Comfortable
It’s easy to fall into a rut. You eat the same meals, hike the same trails, and light your fire the same way with the same materials over and over. There’s comfort in the familiar, but what happens when you don’t have access to those familiar things? If you only know how to light a wet weather fire with petroleum jelly cotton balls, then you’ll be in trouble when the jar turns up empty. Now there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Some things are good just the way they are, but don’t let that stop you from trying something new. Not only should we learn to operate different ignition tools, we should learn to use different materials for fuel. Did you know that most high-fat snack chips will burn when you apply an open flame to them? Cheetos, Doritos, Fritos – if it ends in the sound “itos,” it’s going to burn like a torch. Oily paper napkins, greasy cotton fabric, drier lint and wax-soaked paper towels will also burn like a champ. Of course, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the things you shouldn’t be using in your experiments (poison ivy vines, for example). Also, know the flammable fluids in motor vehicles, machinery, and aircraft, but only burn them if you have no other choice.