Stuff You Should Know's Guide to Proper Adulthood: How to Build A Fire

Charles Bryant

This week in the Guide to Proper Adulthood we'll be covering how to start a fire. Not a pinot noir in your ski condo kind of fire you flicked a switch to start. We mean a real fire, like in the stranded without a match in the wild and your life depends on it kind of way. Or maybe a post-apocalyptic future has none of those cushy utilities you enjoy and you're forced to do as your ancestors did. It's a skill every adult should know.

Before you start your fire you should have a good understanding of the myriad benefits it provides in a survival scenario. Warmth, for one. Light is another big plus, as is the ability to produce safely cooked food and potable water. You can use fire to scare away unwanted visitors, be it animal or human, and send smoke signals to facilitate your rescue. How about some warm, dry clothes for your body? Thanks, fire. And on top of all of that, the sense of comfort and security a fire provides does wonders for the attitude and spirit of someone in a desperate situation. It's no wonder man has been controlling and using fire for about a millions years.

So now that we've established that fire is just about the best thing ever, let's make one.

There are quite a few methods of starting a survival fire, some easier than others. First things first, you need to pick out a good spot. Find a place that is flat, near some fuel (wood), blocked by the wind, and close to your shelter. Then gather your fuel (wood) in three varieties - tinder, kindling and fuel (wood). Your tinder is what gets it all going, so look for stuff that is light, dry and easily ignitable -- brown pine needles, brown leaves, birch bark, bird feathers, cotton balls, lint and dried moss. Kindling consists of small dry sticks and twigs, and your fuel (wood) should be log-like in appearance. Fallen trees are appealing, but rot is no good for fires so don't bother unless it's newly downed. Gather as much wood as you think you'll need for the night, and then double it.

Once you have your fuel (wood) it's time to create a flame... FROM THIN AIR. Well maybe not thin air, but by using various tools you either have on you or can semi-easily fashion. If you happen to be stranded because you've crashed your car, you're in luck, provided that you still have use of your hands. Utilize your car battery and some wire to create a spark onto your tinder. Just wrap a wire around each terminal and touch them together, or even use your jumper cables to the same end. Boom -- you have your fire. The same goes for your boat or small plane battery as well. If you have gas in a can, resist the urge to use it as starter because, well it's just dangerous and you should be able to start your fire without it.

What if you haven't crashed your car and you're just a dumb lost hiker? If you wear glasses or happen to have a magnifying glass on you from an entomology excursion, you're in luck. Use the tried and true "lens method" you probably messed around with as a kid to burn ants (which should never be done). This works by harnessing the sun's rays from about a foot away into a small focal point of heat directly onto your tinder. It should literally take seconds to see some smoke and smolder. Gently blow on it to get your flame, and then carefully build from there with more tinder and kindling. You can also make good use of a disassembled camera or binocular lens for this method, or if it's wintertime, freeze some water in a shallow container, shave away the cloudy ice and use the clear section as your lens.

Finally, let's say you don't have a lens or a car battery and you're starting from scratch. Do not lose hope, for as long as you have fuel (wood) you have a potential fire. You might remember Tom Hanks employing the "fire plow" method in the movie Castaway. We'll go over it here, but cue up the movie or at least that scene and give it a gander, because Hanks actually does a bang up job of demonstrating how it works. Then watch Bachelor Party because it's awesome. The plow technique requires some patience and determination but your life depends on it, so quit complaining and give it a shot.

  • Find a piece of softwood for your plow board, about 18 inches long and roughly 2 inches wide. Willow and poplar trees work well and are commonly found near streams and rivers.
  • Carve a groove 1 inch wide and 6-8 inches long in the center of your plow board, about two inches from either end. Use a knife or the sharp edge of a rock.
  • Find a hardwood stick for your plow. It should be about a foot long and come to a point on one end.
  • Lay the board flat on the ground and insert the plow into the groove.
  • Rub the plow back and forth with moderate pressure to create small bits of wood dust.
  • Once you have a moderate amount of dust, raise the top end of the board up and rest it on your knee, allowing the dust to collect at the bottom.
  • Then rub as fast as you can with heavy pressure to create friction and heat until the dust smolders. Pick up the board and gently blow until you have a flame you can transfer to your tinder.

Those are just a few ways to start a survival fire without a match. Once you've practiced and mastered these techniques, congratulations, you are now one step closer to proper adulthood. Now you can do your best to get stranded in a dangerous situation to try it out for real. Actually, don't do that. But if you're a regular camper, maybe practice next time you go before you resort to whipping out your lighter and fuel-soaked fire starter. Or just try it in your backyard -- you'll be eating char-roasted squirrel in no time. But don't do that either, squirrel tastes pretty nasty. That one was free.