Sunday, August 1, 2010

Me Make Fire!

The Fire Maker-Sheva Apelbaum

So you are in the wilderness with almost no supplies, you are thirsty and need to boil some water or maybe you have been lucky and just caught a fish. How do you boil water or cook your food? You need to build a fire.  If you’ve never done it before, it can be a bit tricky.  Last week in my survival camp we learned how to start a pilot light and build different types of campfires.  In this posting, I will share with you a few of the fire making secrets that I learned.

First, a few important safety rules…

  1. Make sure there is an adult with you when you are working with fire or an open flame.
  2. Never start a fire by pouring gasoline or any other fuels and igniting them.  Fuels are very volatile (they ignite quickly from a distance and can easily burn you).
  3. When lighting a campfire, make sure that there is plenty of clear space around it, and that flying cinders will not start a forest fire or light up your tent.
  4. Make sure you have a way to extinguish the fire before lighting it (a sufficient amount of water or sand).
  5. Never play with fire and always treat it with respect. You can easily get skin burns or have your hair catch on fire if you get too close.   

Fire Starter Kit Rules
Fire Starter Kit-2Fire Starter Kit-1
As it is almost impossible to light a large wooden log directly, so you will need to do it gradually using a starter kit. Your starter kit  can be  made up of dry grass, crumpled paper ( the thinner the better) potato chips, lint, steel wool, dry leaves, or any other material that will catch fire quickly.  You also want to make sure that you have plenty of very small twigs around to build-up the flame and help it grow.  If you are planning to be adventurous and start a fire by hand, you may consider buying pre-made starter kits that came in the form of fuel cubes.  These cubes ignite almost instantly and  burn at a very high temperature.

There are several methods for making the starter kit.  Three important things to remember are:

1. Place the the starter kit inside (or as close as possible to) the permanent campfire structure in order to minimize transporting the pilot light and taking the chance of extinguishing the flame. 

2. If you have to transport the starter kit, place it on a surface that you can hold and move safely back to your campsite, if needed. You can use a flat stone, or a flat piece of bark to move it.

3. Always gradually increase the size of the flame by feeding it fuel slowly without overwhelming it.

Creating the Spark
Using a Lighter
Just point the lighter under the base of the starter kit and light it up.  Any lighter would do but if you can, try to get a special campfire lighter as they have an extension that keeps the flame away from you fingers.

Using Matches

The best matches are the strike anywhere, wind proof and water resistant type.  The water proofing and strike anywhere capability insures that they will not be destroyed by moisture and
that you don’t need a special striking surface to light the match. 

Using Electricity
Start a Fire Battery To light the starter kit with a battery, you will need a 9-volt cell(or any other high capacity battery).  If you are using a 9-volt, just roll some steel wool into a long strand (long enough to bridge the terminals). 

Step 1: Place the rolled steel wool on top of your starter kit and touch it with the battery terminals.  Within several seconds, the rolled steel wool will turn red. 

Step 2: Blow gently at  the steel wool spread the flame below and to light the kindling paper.  Continue to add more fuel until you have a steady flame.

Using Sunlight 
Starting a Fire Lens Using sunlight to start a fire is relatively easy; all you need is a good lens and open sunlight (you can also use artificial light).  The trick in starting a flame using this method is to keep the lens focused and steady.

Step 1: When you focus the light onto the starter kit, make sure that the projected light is perfectly round (if you see an oval shape, it means that you are placing the lens at the wrong angle).  As soon as you see smoke coming out of the starter kit, put the lens down.

Step 2: Blow gently at  the steel wool spread the flame below and to light the kindling paper.  Continue to add more fuel until you have a steady flame.

Using a Spark
Starting a Fire MagnesiumStarting a Fire Magnesium-1

The easiest way to start a fire using a spark is to use a magnesium block and a striker (you can also use a traditional flint and a steel striker).  Before using this method you should practice your striking technique several time.  This will help you get the most amount of sparks per strike.  If your magnesium block is new, this will also help remove of the coating on it.   Once you feel comfortable operating the striker, you can point it at the starter kit and follow these steps: 

Step 1: Point the magnesium block at the center of your starter kit (it should be around 5 inches away).  Place the striker on the shaft at 45 degrees and push it down creating as much friction as you can.  Be careful not to hit the starter kit when you do that.  If you did it correctly the results will be a shower of hot sparks that will instantly ignite the steel wool.

Step 2: Blow gently at  the steel wool spread the flame below and to light the kindling paper.  Continue to add more fuel until you have a steady flame.

Campfire Construction Techniques 
When building your campfire, you can chose from 2 simple campfire designs, and 2 more advanced ones. We will start with the simple designs. 

1- Teepee:  The name should give you a hint as to how it looks. To build it, you first gather long sticks, and arrange them in the shape of a teepee.  Once you are done  building the frame, fill-in the space under the tepee with small twigs and other debris (make sure you leave enough space for the fire starter kit).

As the campfire burns, the logs close to the fire will  fall inward, feeding the fire.  As the fire progresses, you will have to continue to add more wood to keep the fire burning.  Because of the high temperature this campfire creates, it will burn well with even wet or moist wood.

Campfire Types-Sheva Apelbaum Illustration taken from chapter 7 of the U.S Army Survival Manual 

2- Lean-To:  To build this design, you first drive a long branch into the ground at 45 degrees or so (you can either excavate a hole or sharpen one end with an axe and drive the branch in with a large stone). Once the branch is in place, you pile a row of sticks against each side of the branch. Fill the under side of the triangle with small twigs and branches.  Leave enough room for the fire starter kit. 

This type of campfire burns very hot and very quickly. You will constantly have to add more vertical pieces to keep the lean-to burning.

3- Cross-Ditch: To build this design, you first draw a 30” X  in the ground.  Next excavate a trench that follows the outline of the X.  The trench should be around about 3” deep (the purpose of the trenches are to provide air draft for the fire). Once you have done digging, place a small pyramid fire (seen below) in the middle of the “X”.

4- Pyramid: To build this design, you need to build several cross layers of sticks (thicker ones go on the bottom).  Start with 2 large logs and space them 2 feet apart.  Next place 5 thinner branches at 90 degrees on top of the two logs.  Next place 10 thinner sticks on top of the 5 branches and so on.

You place your starter kit on top of the top layer and once the fire catches on, it will spread downwards (requiring no attention from you).  With this design you can build very large campfires that can be used to send signals many miles a way. 

Now, after all of this hard work  (it took me 15 minutes to start a fire from scratch), you can finally sit down to the chirping sound of crickets, howling wolves, and the hum of thirsty mosquitoes. Drink your water, grill your fish, and enjoy your hard work.


  1. This is all very interesting and well thought out and presented!!!
    But Honey, let's say I got lost in the wilderness somehow and I don't smoke, so I do not have a lighter, I did not bring matches and forgot the battery, I do not wear glasses, so I don't have a lens, and I never heard of that magnesium block and striker thing (I have to equip my survival kit with one now, it might be more important than the humus!), so I don't have that either - hm, what do I do?
    I went to Google to check out the stick rubbing method - and I was quite shocked: You need to make a bow, so you need string and a knife, you need to make some kind of board - in short, the instructions are endless! So, I am asking: if one is in a real emergency situation and has none of the above stuff, is there nevertheless a way to start a fire??

  2. Well, good question Yael, if you are in an area that has absolutely no resources in it, and you don’t have anything with you, starting a fire would be the least of your problems!

    The whole idea behind survival is to improvise using both items that you have and whatever you can find around you. Depending on the area that you are in, you can always find something. You don’t necessarily need “special” survival equipment. For example you can use the lens on your watch. If you are in a jungle, you can build a fire starter bow by braiding vines (for the bow string). If you are in a rocky area, you can also use flint stone or other hard rock to create a sparks. The rule is “never despair” there is always some clever way :-)

  3. I better won't get lost being all by myself! That would be not good AT ALL!
    But if I would get lost somewhere together with YOU I would not despair, I would trust completely in your guidance and we would survive! We would catch the fish, grill it on the fire we made with... oh, with one of the things we cleverly brought in our pockets, hum a song, listen to the birds and the bears, drink water from the creek... if there is a creek, and sleep under the stars! Oh, Shev, can I please get lost with you??????

  4. Yael, considering that you are an excellent cook, artist, story teller, and one of the coolest people I know, I think that it would be great to get lost together. Do you know any good fish recipes?

  5. Yes, we throw them on the fire we made with the magnesium stick and eat them with the dandelion salad!! Then make them swim in our belly with fresh cool water from the creek!!