Survival Basics

Fire Building 101 – The Three Necessary Stages

You’ve probably been with someone, sometime, who just couldn’t get a fire going. It may have been on a camping trip or even in their home. They were wadding up newspaper and shoving it underneath those logs, but no matter how much paper they used, they couldn’t get the fire to jump from the newspaper to the wood. 

How fire burns and grows

The problem these people have is that they don’t really understand how fire burns and grows. They’re assuming that the burning paper is enough to catch logs on fire and may not have even bothered to split the wood. They might eventually manage to get that fire going; but then again… 

Obviously we can’t afford to be that person in a survival situation. If we need a fire for survival, then we need it right then, without having to spend a lot of time messing with it. So, we’re going to need to know how to get the fire started and growing with minimal effort. 

Fire Building

Start out with the right materials

More than anything, this requires starting out with the right materials. There are three stages of these materials used in starting a fire, all three of which need to be dry. They are:

  • Tinder – small, dry, readily flammable materials that will catch fire from a spark or smoking ember. Dry grass, char cloth, dry moss and many of the commercially manufactured “fire starters” work for this
  • Kindling – sticks of dry wood roughly the diameter of your finger. These need to be small enough to catch fire from the tinder, yet large enough to keep burning several minutes
  • Fuel – pieces of branches that are the diameter of your arm. It is important that they be split, as the bark of the tree helps protect it from fire

Building a fire

When building a fire, the idea is to use your fire starter to catch the tinder on fire. Once burning, the tinder can get the kindling going and that can then get the fuel burning. From this we can see that it is usually the kindling that those people are lacking, expecting their tinder (the newspaper) to catch the fuel afire. But the tinder can’t burn long enough to heat the wood up to burning temperature. 

This is an important point. It’s heat, not fire, which causes the wood to catch fire. The three basic ingredients for any fire are: fuel, oxygen and heat. The tinder doesn’t burn long enough, in the same spot, to heat the fuel up enough to cause it to burn. Even so, it can heat the kindling enough, because the kindling is smaller, with a lower thermal mass. Likewise, because the kindling burns longer than the tinder, it can produce enough heat to ignite the branches being used as fuel. 

Tinder box

In olden times, they carried a “tinder box” with them, which they would fill whenever they found good sources of tinder. That would also hold a flint and steel, ensuring they could strike a spark to their tinder. We’re more sophisticated now, with better fire starting methods, but it would still be good to carry tinder along, especially for starting fires in wet weather

How the tinder, kindling and fuel are stacked

The other important issue is how the tinder, kindling and fuel are stacked. There are several ways of doing this, but they all need to meet the same two basic requirements:

  • They must provide a means for the heat from each stage to ignite the next stage. That usually means putting the next stage over the flames, where they will gain the most heat. 
  • There must be plenty of access for air to circulate through the material, ensuring a constant supply of oxygen to keep the fire burning. 

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