Outdoor Survival Skills: How to Start a Fire – Modern Homesteading – MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Outdoor Survival Skills: How to Start a Fire

Find out how to get a blaze going with these five fire-starting methods.

By Matthew Stein
March 28, 2011

when technology fails matthew stein
A comprehensive primer on self-sufficiency, “When Technology Fails” will give you the know-how you need to fend for yourself and your family in times of emergency or disaster.

The following is an excerpt from When Technology Fails by Matthew Stein (Chelsea Green, 2008). This excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Emergency Measures for Survival.” 


Free Fire Starters

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Your ability to start a fire is important for staying warm in cold climates, for cooking food and for sterilizing water. I’ll start with simple instructions for building a campfire with matches and paper, and then proceed through the more Spartan methods, ending with the difficult process of starting a fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Starting a Fire With Matches


I like to separate my materials into piles by size. Start by gathering a couple handfuls of tinder, about one-third of a shopping bag’s worth of kindling, at least half a shopping bag’s worth of small sticks (1/2 to 2 inches thick), and at least a shopping bag’s worth of thicker wood (2 to 12 inches thick).


Any kind of material that takes very little heat to start on fire can be used for tinder. Paper makes great tinder, if you have matches. If you don’t have matches and are attempting to build a fire with a spark (see “Starting a Fire with Flint and Steel,” below), you will need extra-fine dry tinder. Dry pine needles, fine dry grasses, shredded paper, birch bark, dried moss, bird down, mouse nests, cotton balls, wood shavings, pulverized dry pine cones and fibrous inner cedar bark all make good tinder.


Kindling must catch on fire within a few seconds from burning tinder, yet burns for only a few minutes to ignite the larger pieces of wood. Dry pine needles, still stuck to branches, are perfect. Small twigs, 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick, are also excellent. Test the sticks to see whether they are wet or dry. If the sticks can be bent and twisted without snapping, they are wet and will not do for kindling. If all available kindling is wet, you can still burn green pine needles, but otherwise you must find standing wood, which can be split with an axe or shaved down to find a dry core. You can make “feather sticks” for kindling from larger sticks of wood by carving many shallow cuts with a knife to create fine, curved shavings protruding from the side of the sticks.

Positioning the Fire 

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