Whether for survival or just to cook supper on the beach, being able to light a fire is critical. Movies will lead you to believe that you can start a fire by rubbing sticks together for 10 seconds. While this could be good if you had no other options it’s infinitely harder than it appears and your arms may fall off before you reach ignition. Instead, follow a few simple steps and you’ll always look like the hero with ancestry steeped in the bush (almost)
- Prepare your material. Get all your material (wood, bark etc.) together before starting so you don’t have to run around finding wood to feed your fire, letting it go out before it ever really started
- Start small and work up. Exposed surface area is critical when starting a fire so split all your wood into thin ‘kindling’ approximately 1cm x 1cm and 10cm long. As the fire burns, add increasingly larger pieces of wood – once a fire has reached a steady-state you can add large (150-200mm) logs whole which will provide long-lasting and consistent heat.
- Candles. There are thousands of fire-starters on the market that all promise something but in reality a simple tea-light works as well or better than the majority, is easy to find anywhere in the world, and costs about $0.10. Candles will make starting a fire with wet or freshly-cut wood amazingly artless – simply light the candle and build a fire around it. If you’re cooking on the fire use something food-safe with simple paraffin or beeswax.
- Air. Fire needs air! Don’t smother the fire by throwing everything on in one big pile all at once, especially when you’re trying to get it started. Instead, build your fire like a small log house. With a small square box of kindling you’ll simultaneously protect the flame from wind, encourage airflow and increase the available surface area of the wood – all excellent ways to quickly build a fire.
- Dry out. If you only have wet, green wood, make your life easier by drying your supply of wood using your existing fire. If you don’t have fire pit with steel grates to hold the green wood just place it around the wood in a ring 6” away from the base.
Through 8 years with Search and Rescue, I can tell you that being able to start a fire is the single-most important skill once you’re lost. Fancy GPS and satellite phones are great tools, but being able to start a fire will keep you warm, give you light, allow you to cook and perhaps most importantly make you visible to searchers. Additionally, people would often tell me that a fire kept them company and kept them from giving up while lost alone. I hope you never get lost, and there are certainly thousands of other useful reasons to be able to effectively start a fire, but regardless of your reasons to learn it will be a rewarding experience.