3 Keys to Starting an Emergency Fire

If you find yourself in the worst wilderness situation, knowing how to build a fire could make the difference between life and death

Springsteen was wrong: You absolutely can start a fire without a spark, but it’s certainly a lot easier with one. That’s why the so-called “fire steel” has become so popular in recent years. But whether you are throwing sparks from a commercial ferrocerium rod or a pocket knife and a rock, the principles of fire-making are always the same, albeit that much more critical in an emergency. Keep these fundamentals in mind.

Spark

survival spark magnesium survival fire starter
A good emergency fire starter is only worth carrying if you know how to use it.SharpSurvival

Celebrity survival dudes like Les Stroud and Bear Grylls have sparked the imagination of pyros everywhere with their seemingly magical ignition of everything from cattail duff to dried leaves. Their secret weapon is the fire steel. No matter if the weather is wet and cold, or even if the fire steel itself is damp, proper technique will guarantee you a spark of 3,000 degrees or more. The most popular versions are made of ferrocerium or some combination of ferro and magnesium. Most are sold with an attached striker, and some even incorporate a compass and signal whistle. When lighters and matches get lost, left behind, or wet, a quality ferro rod won't let you down. Every sportsman should own one—and practice with it.

Tinder

pyro putty phone skope fire starter
The key to starting any fire is good fuel and plenty of oxygen.Phone Skope

Beyond the spark, getting an emergency fire going in dry conditions is a pretty simple proposition of adding dry tinder and oxygen. From thistle down to the inner bark of cedar, there is a nearly endless supply of natural materials that will take a spark. Just shred as finely as possible and massage it into a bird's-nest shape. Then set the tinder bundle on a dry surface and keep scraping the fire steel until a spark catches. Gently fold your tinder over the ember, and lightly blow into it. Wet conditions demand greater creativity in natural materials, such as scraping fine resin dust from a piece lighter knot. Or you can use any of the commercial fire-starting products that will ignite at the slightest spark.

Kindling

fatwood natural firestarter sticks
The key to maintaining any fire is making sure you don't smother it once its ignited.Steve Kaeser

The biggest mistake most people make when trying to get a fire going under pressure is smothering it right after ignition. Tending a survival fire is a delicate dance, and once you have that first flame you must resist piling on too much kindling too soon, especially if it is not absolutely dry. Split kindling wood with an axe, hatchet, or knife to get sharp corners on dry inside fibers that catch easily. Separate kindling into two or three piles of increasingly larger sizes and lay them on in stages to make sure that your initial flame has the continuous source of oxygen it needs to grow. Building your fire lay atop two sticks crossed at right angles will keep the tinder bundle off the ground and give you a way to lift the pile and aerate it as you add fuel.