Aside from acquiring first aid skills, having the ability to create a fire and keep it going, is one of the most important survival skills to learn. Being able to build a fire and maintain it is also one of those skills that truly separate man from the rest of the animal kingdom. Applying this skill in the wilderness may require the understanding and usage of very old, yet still effective, survival skills that our ancestors were intimately familiar with. A fire requires three components in order to ignite; heat, oxygen and fuel. To make the fire fit the purpose it will be used for, simply adjust any, or all, of the three variables. When in the wilderness, a properly built and maintained fire can be used for several things that are beneficial to survival:

  1. Maintains core body temperature. One of the leading causes of death in the wilderness is caused by the lack of core body temperature. Overexposure to the elements can, and often does, result in hypothermia setting in. If for no other reason, you need a fire to keep warm.
  2. Provides physical comfort and reduces mental stress. A fire, even when not being used to warm the body, still provides a physical comfort by being there if/when needed. It also alleviates some of the mental stress associated with the situation. It will no longer be necessary to worry about having a heat source.
  3. Provides signaling for rescue. Both the light emitting from the fire, as well as the smoke rising above the tree line, can be seen over great distances and may be just the thing needed to bring a search and rescue team to your location.
  4. Provides a level of security from predatory animals. All other animals in the kingdom have a natural tendency to fear fire. Regardless of size, untamed animals will tend to avoid a fire, and the surrounding location, for their own safety if nothing else.
  5. Dries damp clothing and gear. A fire will help you keep your clothes and gear dry during inclement weather conditions. Dry clothes, in turn, will help you maintain core body temperature.
  6. Provides a platform for cooking. Being able to consume hot food is something we normally take for granted. In a survival situation warm food will help regulate core body temperature and keep you healthy.
  7. Provides an adequate method of purifying water. Water found in the wilderness should always be filtered and purified before consumption. One of the easiest ways to ensure water has been purified is by boiling it for 1-3 minutes depending on altitude.
  8. Can be used for baking more than food. Depending on the length of the emergency situation, it may be necessary to use a fire for such things as baking clay pots and crockery.
  9. Fundamental in forging weapons. Again this will depend on the length of time the survival situation encompasses, however a very hot fire can be used to forge, and/or reshape metal for the creation of tools or weapons.


When we think of fire we often consider using such things as wood for the fuel portion of the equation; however, it should be noted that any item which can be oxidized will burn, or melt. That being said, there are several forms of fuel which can be used to get the fire going. The items you use for fueling a fire may provide different results. For instance, some fuels create dark smoke, which can then be used as a rescue signaling device against a light background, such as snow or when the sky is full of white cumulus cloud cover. Other fuels create light, or white smoke, which can also be used as a rescue signal when skies, or surroundings are darker, such as in a forest containing coniferous trees. The following is a traditional list of fuels capable of being used to get the fire going and keep it going when you need it most:

  • Tinder refers to any material, regardless of type and consistency, which has an inherently low flash point and ignites very easily. Any natural fibrous material that is completely dry, thin, and small should work as tinder when building a fire. Shredded bark, dry straw, hay and grasses, wood shavings, char cloth, petroleum saturated cotton balls, pocket lint, paper, and even steel wool, can all serve as tinder. Tinder packs and gear are also a viable option to have in your bug out bag.

Wet Fire Tinder

  • Kindling refers to material that has a slightly higher ignition point, and which can be added to the pile of tinder once it has caught fire. Kindling includes slightly larger combustible material, such as dry twigs, pine cones, needles and small branches. Kindling causes the temperature of the fire to rise. This higher heat and hotter fire allows fuel with a higher flash point to be added to the fire when needed in order to produce the type of environment desired.


  • Wood is by far one of the best fuel sources for starting a fire and keeping it going. Green wood, which comes from living trees, or recently living trees, can be used to fuel a fire. It should be mixed with other forms of wood in order to ensure the fire keeps going. Soft wood, which comes from coniferous trees, can also be used to light a fire and keep it going. Soft wood will burn at a much faster rate than green wood, or hard wood, and may produce more smoke. Hard wood, which comes from deciduous trees, is the most recommended resource for building and maintaining fires. Hard woods burn at a slower rate than everything but green wood in this category.
  • Additional fuel sources, such as dried animal dung, dried peat moss, and even dead and dried cactus, can be used to create a fire and keep it going if/when other forms of fuel are not readily available.


Now that we understand what it takes to actually build a fire, it’s time to discuss where to build the fire once we have gathered all of the materials needed to get it going. Selecting a site for a fire is an extremely important aspect of creating a fire for any purpose. An improperly placed fire could quickly rage out of control and result in accidental wild fire, which may cause an enormous amount of damage.

When selecting a site for building a fire keep in mind what the primary purpose of the fire is going to be. At a bare minimum you will need to use the fire as a source for boiling water, cooking food, to provide warmth for the body, and as a level of protection against predators. With this firmly in mind, select a fire site that is on flat ground, preferably in an area where overhanging trees are not present, or at least not in close proximity. Once you have the site picked out, it is imperative that the site be cleared of all combustible material. If you have a shovel, then use it to remove any and all dead, dry foliage in a large circular area. The size of the clearing circle will be determined by the size of the fire pit. Here are a few recommendations to follow when choosing a site for building a fire:

  • Choose a site that is sheltered from the elements, if possible. This will help get the fire going as well as keep it going, should the weather be uncooperative.
  • Avoid building a fire near the base of any standing tree, or stump, as either of them can catch fire quite easily and cause it to spread unexpectedly.
  • When clearing the site for the fire, make sure to remove all visible materials. Scrape away foliage until you reach bare soil.


  • If dry land is unavailable, consider constructing a raised platform to build the fire on. Use green logs as the platform base. Place the platform on top of the snow in the area you intend to build the fire on.

Campfire on Snow

  • If the weather is windy and unwilling to allow a fire to be started, then dig a shallow hole and start the fire below ground level. You can move the fire later if necessary.

Below Ground

  • Once you have the fire site cleared, dig a small shallow pit, and surround the pit with dry, non-porous stones, then build the fire in the middle of the pit.

Campfire Stones


Matches and lighters are the most often used instruments for getting a fire started; however, the majority of survival situations do not happen in locations where people have access to a lighter or matches. In certain situations, it will be necessary to use non-traditional methods of making fire. You need to know what options are available, and have the skills established for using them when needed; reading about them will not help you make it through an emergency situation, it will be necessary to practice as many of these options as possible, as often as possible.

Magnesium Rods and Striking Steel. Besides lighters and matches, a mag rod and striker will provide the easiest method of producing a fire in a survival situation. To use this type of gear you must have tinder readily available. Holding the mag rod in one hand, use the striking steel to produce sparks by striking the steel against the rod in a downward motion aimed at the base of the tinder bundle. When the tinder catches, blow or fan it gently, to get the flame going.

Mag Rod and Striker

Battery and Wire. Almost any type of battery in conjunction with a piece of wire, can be used to get a fire going. Touch one end of the wire to the positive post of the battery, touch the other end of the same wire to the negative post of the same battery, and the wire will begin to glow. Use this super heated section of wire to light the tinder bundle and get your fire going.

Battery Fire Maker

The Magnifying Glass. Any piece of convex glass can be used to concentrate the rays of the sun on a bundle of tinder. Hold the piece of glass in such a way that it captures the sun’s rays and focuses them into a very small, bright white dot near the base of the bundle of tinder until it ignites.

Magnifying Glass Fire Making Kit

The Bow Drill. This is by far one of the most difficult methods of starting a fire. Not only do you have to have the skills to manufacture the bow and drill, as well as the knowledge of how to use it effectively, but you also need to have access to the right type of wood. It is an exhausting exercise in survival, but one that should be given serious consideration. This is not a process that can be easily explained in print, it is something we recommend learning firsthand from someone who already has the knowledge and experience, such as a survival school.

Bow Drill

The Hand Drill. This method is slightly easier to use than a bow drill, but it will still be a testament to your resolve if you are able to use it well enough to get a fire going. This is also a method that should be learned firsthand from an experienced outdoorsman.

Hand Drill

The Fire Plow. This method uses friction to create fire, just as the bow drill and hand drill do, the difference being the wood spindle is rubbed through a grove on a separate piece of wood called the hearth. As the wooden spindle is rubbed through the groove it creates friction which produces a fair amount of heat. By placing the tinder bundle at the business end of the hearth, and using the spindle to create an ember, it is possible to eventually get a fire going.

Fire Plow


There are a wide range of fire formations that can serve a purpose in a survival situation. Believe it or not, how you build a fire will determine what it can be used for. Some fire formations work better for cooking, whereas other formations work better for providing heat to a specific area. Some of these formations will be more familiar to you than others, but they will all work if/when needed.

  • The Teepee Fire is one of the traditional standards as far as formations are concerned. It is constructed by placing tinder and kindling at the base of the fire pit, and then standing the fuel logs on end and leaning them against each other to fashion a makeshift teepee over the tinder bundle and kindling. This type of fire formation provides a significant amount of heat and will burn rather quickly due to the ventilation present in the configuration.

Teepee Fire configuration

  • The Star Fire is a configuration that is used when only a small fire is needed. It is created by arranging 5 logs in a star formation with one end of all 5 logs touching in the center of the circle. The fire is ignited in the center of the circle and as more fuel is needed, the logs are pushed in towards the middle.

Star Fire Configuration

  • The Log Cabin Fire consists of constructing a formation that resembles a square log cabin. Two fuel logs of equal length are positioned parallel to each other at the base of the fire, equidistant apart. The next layer of the log cabin is constructed by using two additional fuel logs of equal length positioned perpendicular to the first set, yet parallel to each other and equidistant apart. These layers are repeated as often as necessary to achieve the desired height. Tinder and kindling are placed in the middle of the cabin and ignited. This fire formation will burn very quickly and produce a high amount of heat.

Log Cabin Fire Configuration

  • The Inverted Fire is similar to the log cabin design described above. To construct this configuration, place a layer of 5-6 similar sized logs parallel to each other at the base of the fire. Arrange another 5-6 similar sized logs parallel to each other, yet perpendicular to the first layer. Repeat opposing layers to achieve the desired height. This is a slow burning fire configuration that will allow you to tackle other tasks while still maintaining the fire. It is ignited by placing the tinder bundle and kindling on top of the final layer and lighting it. As the tinder and kindling catch flame and begin to burn, they will bore a hole down through the center of the inverted fire configuration and ignite the fuel logs.



When a fire is no longer needed, or it becomes necessary to move the fire pit, or the entire camp, it will be necessary to extinguish the fire before moving along. The best method of ensuring a fire has been properly extinguished is to let it die out completely. However, it is not always possible to wait the extended length of time to let this happen naturally. When those situations arise, use an existing water resource, such as a river or lake, to draw water from and saturate the fire pit to the point of flooding. If an existing water resource is not readily available, extinguish the flames by burying them with loose soil, preferably not sand, and pack it down tight to ensure the fuel no longer receives enough oxygen to remain viable. Always practice fire safety techniques in order to reduce the possibility of causing wildfires.