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How to: Basic Firecraft

Posted by on 2011/04/04

Associated Guides (coming soon):  Tool-Making, Rope-Making, Knife Use, Campsite Chemistry, Make and handle White Phosphorus, Urban Firecraft,  Make and Use Thermite, Make a Fire Piston.

There are, thankfully, a number of different ways to start a fire in the wilderness.  Fire is the most useful shit in the world, the ability to make and control fire is the gateway to awesometown. Without fire we can’t deep fry twinkies, smoke weed, dispatch witches,  make clay coffee mugs, or dry our wet socks on a rainy afternoon.

What is it?  If you already know, feel free to skip down.

Fire is a sneaky bastard, it’s voracious, and will continue to eat so long as it can reach food; and to fire, the  whole world is just a buffet.  Fire has been historically associated with loss, destruction, hope, and safety; so it’s fairly safe to say it’s a changeable, bi-polar, schizophrenic, dangerous bastard.

Science people, firemen, and internet spiders would have us imagine the ‘fire tetrahedron’, that fire is composed of four constituent parts that support its existence.  The parts of the fire tetrahedron are: Heat, Fuel, Oxygen, and Hatred.  By hatred, they mean, sustaining chemical reaction that produces flame.  Fire first arrived on earth in the age of the gods, when prometheus stole it from zeus and gave it to Moses, or Jesus, or Willam Dafoe or something.

Young fire, the kind that comes from kindling, matches, and the mouths of baby salamanders, is lazy as a newborn and just as easy to kill, but once that shit grows up, it can be a badass.  The professional humans who’s job it is to control fire have a system for classifying it.

Ordinary fires, which we’ll be focusing on, like campfires and shit, consist of basic solid combustable materials, like branches, starbucks cups (empty), copies of the wall street journal, baby strollers, pants, dog shit,  and other things that you may or may not want to cook over.

The other classes are: Flammable liquid and Gas, Electrical fires, Combustable Metals, and cooking-oil/fat fires are all important, amazingly awesome and dangerous, and really hard to control; so we’ll save those for later, when we might need to use them.

Okay… Firecraft:

Use common sense, when you’re building your fire, keept it away from important shit you dont want to accidentally ignite, like your hair, fields of grass, canopies of dry leaves, libraries, and fireworks.

Ignition methods: You need a spark to initiate the chemical reaction, so these are the best ways to get it.
Single Purpose Aid (Matches, Cigarette lighter, Lightsaber) – Self explanatory.
Solar (Convex Lens) – Takes a certain kind of lens, we’ll look into this at another point.
Improvised (Gunpowder, Battery, Ectothermic chemical reaction)  This is the fun stuff, details below.
Martial Arts (Chi-fireball, Flaming Uppercut) – This is pretty advanced, we’ll get into it later.
Primitive (Flint and Steel [or pyrite], Fire Drill, Fire Plow, Fire Piston, Fire Bow)  All things we must learn, details below.
The SWK Standard: Magnesium – Every Survive Whatever Kit includes a $5 Magnesium Fire-starter, that will help to start hundreds of fires before it needs to be replaced.

Tinder: The next piece of the puzzle, this is what you’re going to ignite to get your fire started.
Dry pine needles, leaves, or grass: Easiest to find, and effective enough to get started.
Thin wood or bark shavings: Requires a knife or sharp stone, the thinner, the more effective.
Bird Down, nests:  Right, establish your superiority, screw those lesser life forms.
Shredded paper, Cotton, Tampons, frayed cloth, Frayed Rope: If you’ve got it, great.
Dry, rotten wood:  Tricky to find, also called ‘punk wood’, nice and slow burning tinder, can be powdered.
Steel wool, shaved magnesium: Best case scenario, hardest to come by.  Magnesium is especially useful, more later.

Kindling: The next stage in firecraft, once your tinder catches, you want to then use that fire to ignite kindling.  Kindling will bridge the gap between tinder and fuel, the way that Jeff Foxworthy bridged the gap between a southern blue collar audience and a new york based entertainment network that features a significant volume of high brow satire and a small amount of subversive content.  Good kindling should be dry, and easily combustable, like a british comedian impersonating michael jackson.  Wood is the go to here, branches less than an inch thick broken and assembled into a loose bundle.  Scraps of cloth, cardboard, plastic, and tree bark also work, but wood is the best choice. The best kinds of wood are branches of evergreens and other soft woods, the pitch (tar-like sap) of the wood is an accelerant.

Fuel: Everything burns, man, everything; some things just require a lot more heat to ignite.  Good fuel is slow burning, and easy to ignite, again, dry wood is the obvious choice here.  Once your fuel is lit, you’re pretty much in the clear, it becomes more of a concern to put your fire out than keep it going.  Pretty much most of what you throw in there is going to burn, so don’t sweat it.  To keep your fire manageable you want to use logs or branches that are about a foot long and no more than 6-8 inches thick.  Prepping fuel usually requires tools like a knife or an axe, but you can make do with some diligent scavenging in a wilderness setting.  Alternate, useful types of fuel are animal shit (really),

Accelerants: Flammable liquids or powders are commonly employed by arsonists and other sociopaths to facilitate a fire growing in size and intensity. If you follow basic firecraft you shouldn’t need to employ these substances; however, sometimes, when survival is at stake, you may need a helping hand. Accelerants have some use in wilderness survival, but we’ll learn more about them when we get to urban survival scenarios, however here’s a short list of the most effective ones you might be able to work with:  Camping stove fuel, Gasoline, Pitch, and Alcohol, we’ll get into the rest later.  For now, the important ones to remember are pitch and alcohol. Pitch and Ethyl Alcohol are accelerants we’ll be able to manufacture in the wild. Making alcohol isn’t easy – it’s an exhaustive and complex process, but the benefits are immense.  This subject will be covered in it’s own how-to guide.

Using Alcohol as an accelerant – Ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH) has a flash point of  55 degrees F and an ignition temperature of 689 degrees F. What does that mean? The flash point of a volatile liquid is the lowest temperature at which it can vaporize to form an ignitable mixture in air. An ignition temperature is the minimum temperature to which a substance must be heated before it will spontaneously burn independently of the source of heat.  What this means is that Ethyl Alcohol will ignite with the application of fire, but presents no reasonable danger of self-igniting.  Oh god this is boring…  Moving on. Apply your alcohol to your kindling or your fuel to act as a flux, the fire will spread faster from your tinder, and may erupt in a sudden flash as gasses from evaporating alcohol will ignite in the air, so yeah, look out.

Using Pitch as an Accelerant: Pitch is easy to come by wherever there are pine trees, fir trees, or other softwood evergreens.  It looks like a yellowish waxy glob that forms around scars in the wood, sometimes big balls of it will form near the base of young pine trees.  It’s extremely flammable, and can be used as a powerful accelerant in the wild.  Pine and fir branches will sometimes be so saturated with pitch that they’ll light very easily and burn hot and fast; but you can also take the raw pitch and apply it to your fuel to act as a flux to help ignite it. Careful though, this nasty shit will stick your hands and your clothes and make you extra flammable also.  You can treat pitch to make ‘pitch sticks’ and other useful bushcraft shit, but we’ll get into that some other time, maybe.

Alright, finally, building a fire.  This is what you have to learn how to do in order to survive in the wilderness.

Site Prep: You want to clear all flammable materials from the site where you are building the fire.  Encircling your fire with stone is an added safety measure that has a few other advantages.  It helps if your fire is on flat even ground or in a slight recession.   You also want to keep something at hand to help extinguish the fire quickly, like water and a pile of loose dirt. Fire is a tricky fucker, and can spread while you’re not looking, so make sure there’s plenty of room around and above your fire.   Stone is your friend, natural rock formations and earth basins will help keep your fire from being whipped into an Elizabeth Berkely in Showgirls type frenzy by the wind or by Kyle Mclachlan.

There are different approaches to fire building depending on conditions, requirements, and available materials; these are the basic wilderness fires: the cone, the pyramid, the lean-to, log cabin, and the pit variation of the cross ditch.   (I’ll come up with some pictures eventually)

The Cone: commonly referred to as the teepee, to make a cone, you pile your tinder in the center  on either the ground or on a small stack of fuel.  Then you form a teepee or a cone of kindling around your tinder, so that when you ignite the tinder, the flame spreads easily to the kindling.  Surround the Kindling with a second layer of thicker kindling or fuel.  The heat will radiate out from the center, and as the kindling and fuel ignite, it will all collapse inward. This is a quicker method than the pyramid.

The Pyramid: The pyramid is actually just a technique of layering fuel to maximize airflow and sustain the fire ‘tetrahedron’.  To build a pyramid, lay your thickest fuel logs down all parallel to each other to make a square ‘floor’, then take a second set of smaller logs and lay them perpendicular to the first set, to make a second smaller square floor… continue the process until you’ve made four or five levels of diminishing size.  Between the top and second layers, you can stuff your tinder between the spaces in the fuel and kindling, and start your fire on the top.  The fire will gain intensity as it burns down, and should burn evenly without too much further attention.

The Log Cabin: To make a log cabin structure, take your thick fuel logs and arrange them in a box of alternating cross beams around a small central patch.  Pile your kindling in the center of the patch so it loosely fills your box, place your tinder in the center of the kindling and let it rip.  The log cabin structure is best used when you want to dry out your fuel.  If you use thick enough or green enough fuel logs as the ‘structure’ you can use the structure as a platform to cook on early in the life of the fire, and once the fire is nice and hot, you can add more fuel into the center, and let it be for the night.

The Lean-t0: This tactic is best used when your resources are limited and you need to use damp or live wood as fuel, also it’s pretty quick, and works on a small scale.  Take a thick branch and stick it into the ground at an acute angle, creating a ramp.  Then lay your kindling against the branch near  the base and stick your tinder in the pocket you create, essentially, this will look like a tent made out of kindling, housing a small pile of tinder.  Dry kindling closest to the tinder will ignite, and dry out the damp wood as it grows in intensity, continue to add kindling and smaller fuel until you have your bed of heart-fire.

The Pit:  This is the safest and most useful method, but it requires more preparation than any of the others.  Essentially you want to dig a shallow basin where your fire will be contained, and an X shaped trench in the center of that basin extending outward a few feet to facilitate airflow. Keep all that loose dirt nearby to help extinguish the fire later. Build a cone or a pyramid in the center of the basin, above the trench, and you’ll find that the fuel will burn evenly and steadily well through the night, also, having your fire ‘in the ground’ as opposed to on it, will protect it from the wind and make it easier to extinguish. Also, suspending things like cooking pots above the fire becomes easier if your fire is beneath ground level, like hell.

Fuel rule: You may think you have enough fuel, but you don’t.  Running out of fuel in the middle of the night is devastating; trying to gather more in the dark is dangerous, and you’ll have to fight wolves to get it, every time, wolves.



Getting a fire started is the real trick.  You can make all the tinder and kindling you want, gather all the fuel in the forest, and build a pyramid to rival Giza, and you’ll still die of exposure if you can’t make a spark.

Now, we aren’t idiots, so I’m not going to explain the simple shit.  If you’ve got a lighter, your good.  Even if its out of fuel, you can still strike sparks with it to start your fire.  Lets start with the weird shit, get into the boy scout stuff, and call it a day.

Alright, Improvised firestarting, this is the cool mr. wizard shit.

You can start a fire with a battery.  A normal alkaline battery.   There are a few ways to do it.
1. Steel Wool.  This is really straightforward, stretch out a small section of steel wool so that you can connect each end to a pole of the battery, the center of the wool will heat up quickly and ignite.
2. Cell Phone Battery.  High capacity batteries like lithium ion batteries used in cell phones and laptops contain enough energy to explode with significant force, so don’t be an idiot, but by connecting the terminals through two conductive wires, when you touch the ends of the wires together gently, you should create a small spark, provided there is sufficient charge left in the battery.
3. Alkaline AA battery and a staple.  Theres a video for this one, it’s pretty cool, some guy did it.

Gunpowder.  Right, obvious huh? If you’ve got a bullet, you’ve got fire.
Carefully remove the bullet from the casing, very slowly, very gently, to reveal the powder within and spill it onto your tinder in a small pile. You’ll still need a spark to ignite it; which you may be able to coax out of the primer cap in the back of the bullet.  The TV show mythbusters was unable to successfully start a fire with this technique, but survivorman could, so I guess it’s an acquired skill.

Convex Lens: There are a lot of different ways to concentrate the direct rays of the sun into a pinpoint of burning magic power. Here’s one that might come in handy if you’re the kind of person who keeps a condom handy.  Unroll the cocksleeve and fill it with clear water, force excess air out and tie off the end into a knot.  You want the condom to take on a spherical shape.  Hold it about two inches from your kindling in direct line with the sun.  It should focus the sunlight into a small bright spot that you can use to ignite your tinder. Get comfortable, it takes a few minutes.

Ectothermic Chemical Reactions: We’ll save this for Urban survival; but we’ll fuck around with some campsite chemistry in the guide:  How to make White Phosphorous.

The Primitive Methods:

Fire Drill:  This is a tedious and time consuming method which requires tools and preparation.
Straight Forward, four components.  A smooth round stick (spindle)  with a rough point, a flat plane of wood (fire board) with a notch about the same size as the point of your stick, a hand brace, and a fire bow.  The bow should be a curved length of spry wood, sturdy enough to hold its shape with some pressure applied, with a length of rope just long enough to  hold the bow taut. The hand brace could be a stone or peice of hardwood that you place in your palm to brace the spindle it should have a divot for the spindle to rest in so it can spin without sliding around.  Place the spindle in the notch on your  fireboard, and place your tinder around the notch; wrap the bow’s cord around the spindle, and hold the spindle in place with your brace.  As you move the bow back and forth, the spindle should spin, and generate friction at the point of contact with the fireboard, after a short while it should heat enough to ignite your tinder.

Fire Plow: This is the one to master, it’s the easiest to manufacture, and the simplest concept. Your materials should be as dry as possible. It’s literally rubbing two sticks together to produce fire.  Here’s what you need.  A wide plane of a hard wood, about a foot long and a few inches wide, a few inches thick with a groove dug down the length of it; also a length of a slightly softer wood, or broken to a stiff dull point.  As you vigorously rub the point within the groove, you’ll generate friction and heat and eventually produce a smoldering coal which you can transfer to your tinder to start a fire.  This one requires practice, and you’ll eventually learn the desirable qualities of both elements.

Flint and Steel: It requires raw materials, but it’s as reliable as a match.
Flint- You don’t need true flint; any kind of quartz-rich rock will work. Quartzite is sandstone that has been pressurized over time to become crystalized. Flint is usually translucent, white, gray, black, or bluish; it may be chipped, flint will chip easily.  Flint is a type of chalk, so chalky stones may contain flint. It’s common near fresh water sources.
Steel- You can test to see if a rock is flint by striking your knife against it; if it produces a spark, you’re done.  If you don’t have a knife or another piece of steel, then you’ll need to find some iron ore or pyrite. Pyrite is more common than bubblegum pop in the 90s, you can find it all over the world, it has metallic luster and a yellowish color, like gold.   By rubbing pyrite and flint together, you can generate sparks.  Cave men did it, which means you should be able to also.

The SWK:  Every survive whatever kit we put together will contain a Magnesium Fire Starter, an inexpensive reliable solution for fire starting in the wild.  Magnesium firestarters consist of a small block of magnesium and a strip of steel.  Use the steel to scrape off shavings from the magnesium and strike the block against the steel to generate sparks.  The sparks will ignite the shavings which will burn very hot and ignite tinder and kindling with ease.    Magnesium shavings can also be used as an accelerant to ignite fuel, and is the easiest way to ignite thermite which we’ll learn how to make when we get to urban firecraft.

Am I forgetting anything?  Hell yes, but fuck it; the internet is a big place and there’s plenty of material on this subject out there already. I’m including this how to guide because I’m going to reference it frequently in other guides.  I’ll add pictures or diagrams in time, and I may expand this document further in the future.




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