Home Survival StrategiesFire & Shelter Foolproof Fire Starting Tips

Foolproof Fire Starting Tips

by Ryan Dotson

One of the scariest scenarios most people can imagine is being stranded in the wild during the winter. Hypothermia is the number one reason why people die during survival scenarios. However, this issue is not limited to freezing during a blizzard in the mountains.

Hypothermia can set in with temperatures as warm as 60°F if you are wet. A wet body will lose heat 20 times faster than a dry body, so this makes ecosystems like the jungle or rainforest an issue. In addition, you could hike through the desert all day while sweating through your clothes only to freeze when the temperatures plummet at night.

Diagram about the signs and symptoms of hypothermia

It is said that a man can die from exposure in as little as three hours in the wild. This makes fire a top priority. However, fire starting for survival is one of the most difficult skills one can learn. If there is any moisture on the wood or tinder, it can be downright impossible.

I think back to my first winter survival challenge. I started working on my fire a few hours before dark, but it had snowed all day. I had what I felt was good tinder and had my ferro rod, but it simply would not catch.

Over and over I tried to get the fire started until my hands started to cramp up and become useless. That night I curled up in my shelter and tried to endure the cold, but my body temperature was dropping. The air temperature was -1°F and the wind chill was -20°F. If my body temperature dropped to 95°F, my life would be in danger.

At about 2am I made the tough decision to tap out and leave the challenge. I was worried that I would fall asleep and never wake up if I did not. It took me three days to get warm again afterwards.

I was quite frustrated that I had failed, and immediately planned what I would do differently in the future. The following weekend, I set out to try again. I spent much less time working on my shelter and much more time on the fire. Thankfully I found some birch bark that worked much better for tinder.

It was still just as cold, but with the fire going I was fine. I abandoned my shelter and laid by the fire all night, getting up every 30 minutes for squats to keep blood pumping to my toes. This time I was successful, but only because of my fire.


One common mistake many people make when building a fire is in the preparation. This happens with both the amount of wood gathered and with the type of wood gathered. I have heard it said that you should collect however much fire wood you think you need, and then double it just to be safe.

I can tell you from personal experience that the wood goes faster than you would think.

Tinder is small, fluffy material that can catch a spark or ember to get the fire started. This is the most important material that you will collect as the wrong tinder will prevent you from even starting your fire. It must be dry in most cases, but there are types of tinder that light despite being wet. This would include birch bark, pine resin, and other evergreen sap.

These materials have a flammable chemical inside that could mean the difference between fire and no fire. Other materials to watch for are bird’s nests and cattail heads. These items stay dry on the inside despite rain or snow. You can also bring a small pencil sharpener with you to create shavings from sticks that act as a good tinder.

Person in gloves preparing a fire with sticks

Kindling consists of small and medium sized sticks that will take your fire from a small flame to a real fire. Always try to collect these sticks from the dead branches still attached to trees. Pulling sticks off of the ground gives you a better chance of them having moisture inside.

Your large wood is going to be several inches thick, and will keep the fire going all night. If you find large enough wood, you can split it to expose the drier wood on the interior. As a general rule, you want a bundle of tinder large enough to barely fit both hands around it. For kindling, your bundle should be large enough to barely fit both arms around it, and you should have a knee high stack of large wood for fuel.

Accelerants and Fire Assistance Products

There are plenty of additional materials you can use in order to make survival fire starting easier. If you are in a SHTF scenario, you can raid garages and storage sheds for fluids like gasoline, kerosene, aerosol cans, or bug spray. Anything flammable will help if it is wet outside.

During my very first survival challenge, I soaked a piece of my shirt in an alcohol based topical medicine to help get my fire going. In addition, there are fire assistance products you can purchase to pack in your bug out bag or camping pack.

Pack of UST wetfire tinder

WetFire cubes allow you to shave off a small pile of shavings and light it with a single spark. You can then put the rest of the cube on the flame to keep it going for several minutes in wet or windy conditions. These is also a wind and waterproof product called Fire Sticks that require a flame, but will stay lit for over 20 minutes allowing you to skip over small kindling.

Finally, there is always the option of bringing your own DIY fire assistance products. Cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly make for a great waterproof and windproof tinder. You can fill a toilet paper roll with dryer lint as an alternative.

Hands holding a pile of tinder with some cloth

You can also make char cloth. This is a piece of cotton fabric that is partially burned off eliminating the impurities. To make it, cut a piece of cotton cloth into small pieces. Shove them in an Altoids tin, and punch a very small hole in the top to allow smoke to escape. Throw it in the fire for about 20 minutes, and it should be finished.

Fire Starting Methods

Lighters – When packing fire starting supplies, you should think short term and long term. A lighter is the best short term option that you have, and there are two primary types I recommend. A zippo lighter is sturdy, windproof, and can be refilled with any flammable liquid. This allows it to bridge the gap between a short term and a long term fire tool. If you take care of a zippo, it can last a lifetime. However, they can be relatively expensive.

A Bic lighter is a less expensive option that is still very reliable. You cannot refill this kind of lighter, but they are cheap enough that you can afford to buy several. Torch lighters and electric arc lighters are good to have, but neither is ideal long term because the torch must be refilled with a specific type of gas, and the arc lighter needs electricity to charge.

Matches – There are many types of matches that you can bring with you in your pack, and they are some of the most affordable options out there. Paper matches and standard wooden matches can work, but they cannot get wet. In addition, wind is likely to be an issue.

Waterproof matches have a wax coating that will allow them to work even when wet, but they are still not windproof. There are even steel matches you can buy that are reusable and rely on a small amount of liquid fuel on the end, but they are not all that reliable.

Ferro Rod – Striking two metals or rocks together to create sparks is the oldest form of human fire starting. It remains my favorite because a ferro rod is windproof, waterproof, and requires no fuel at all. It is an idea example of focusing on long term fire starting. You can reuse a ferro rod for a lifetime, and they are very reliable.

Person in gloves using a ferro rod to start a fire on a log

For a striker you just need a piece of high carbon steel. There are times I have as many as four ferro rods on me at a given time in case I lose one in the bush. You will need very fine tinder to catch a spark, so I normally bring char cloth with me for this fire starting method.

Fire Lens – Magnifying heat from sunlight is one of the most challenging ways to start a fire. You must have a sunny day with very few clouds in the sky. You also must have perfect tinder, so I suggest bringing char cloth for this method. Adjust the angle of the blade so it is exactly perpendicular to the sun’s rays. Then adjust the distance from the tinder to get the smallest focal point possible.

You need to remain very still, but eventually you should start to see smoke. If you do not have a lens with you, you can disassemble different types of optical equipment such as binoculars or reading glasses for a lens. You can also make one with a chunk of ice, a plastic bottle, a plastic bag, a condom, or a reflective, concave surface.

Fire Piston – This device uses air compression to create an ember. To use it, you place a small amount of fine tinder in the end of a piston. Then you place the end inside another cylinder and slam the two pieces together. The rapid compression of the air makes it heat up considerably. When you pull the two pieces apart, you should have a glowing ember ready to transfer to your tinder bundle.

Friction Fire – There are several different ways to create friction fire, and they are all difficult. This should be one of your last options unless you have a great deal of practice and have brought your own kit. If the wood is wet or of the wrong hardness, you will not be successful.

The bow drill is the most widely used version of friction fire. You will first need a fire board, which is a flat piece of wood with a notch cut in the side. Then an indentation is carved in the top at the end of the notch for your spindle. The spindle is a short, round stick normally between four and ten inches long. A handhold can be made of wood or rock and has an indentation for the spindle.

Finally, you need a curved stick about three feet long. Attach cordage to each end of your curved stick and you have your bow. Place your left foot on the fire board to hold it in place. Use your left hand on the hand hold to stabilize the spindle on the fire board. Then place the cordage from the bow against the spindle and twist so it is wrapped around the spindle. Use your right hand to move the bow back and forth rotating the spindle. You should start to see smoke, and eventually will have a glowing ember in the notch of the fire board.

Final Thoughts

Fire is one of the most important priorities in any survival scenario. It can keep you warm, cook your food, purify water, ward off predators, repel insects, and provide light for your camp. Most importantly, it is a great way to boost morale. There is nothing that can lift your spirits at the end of a hard day like a warm, crackling fire.

However, do not underestimate how hard it can be to start a fire and keep it going. Bring as many supplies as you can, and give yourself plenty of time before dark. Camping trips are a great way to test out your fire starting skills. Take the time to master these skills, and you will be that much more likely to survive when SHTF.

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