Wha-? Build a killer campfire in seconds? To contradict Luke Skywalker — “That’s NOT impossible!”
It’s actually quite simple.
Reliably building a solid campfire quickly, in various conditions relies on three things:
- Knowledge and awareness of your surroundings (resourcefulness, materials, conditions)
- Carrying an appropriate modern firestarter
1 – Knowing and Understanding Your Surroundings
What lights best? Well, that depends, on a LOT of things. But here are some suggestions on what to look for:
- Dead, dry materials
- The finer the better (generally)
- Leaves, grasses, shredded bark, twigs catch well from a flame
- Materials OFF the ground will generally be drier than those on the ground
One of my favorite strategies to gather materials in a hurry is what I call ‘The Mess’. No log cabin or perfect tipi fire structure. I look for a dry, dead branch on a tree that includes everything you need: leaves/needles, fine twigs, thin branches, and a thicker branch. I grab it, snap it in half (or so), and drop it on the ground (in a fire-safe area), so that air space is still maintained beneath. I pull out my fancy firestarter and light it right up. Boom. Done.
Want to be more accomplished with fire skills? You may be interested in our article ‘How to Light a Match…Yeah, We Really Wrote a Blog on That’:
2 – Carry This
I am passionate about the so-called ‘primitive’ methods of making fire through friction: bow and hand drill, fire plow, fire saw, and so on. And I have beginning students practice with matches.
But when the moments count and you want to light a fire in a hurry (like when you just pulled your friend out of that frozen lake), I don’t know a single person in the world who would choose friction fire over one of the modern luxury firestarters we’re fortunate to have at our disposal today.
There are various products available (I prefer ones that have few to no moving parts and rely on gross, not fine, motor functions – that way you should still be able to use it when the adrenaline’s pounding). My personal preference is for the “Light My Fire Swedish Firesteel“. It falls into the category known as ‘strikers’ or ‘ferro[cerium] rods’. You could roughly think of it as a really cool modern version of flint & steel. You scrape the metal striker along the rod to rain down a shower of 3000-degree (Celsius!) sparks. A couple tips:
- Hold the striker in your dominant hand. Your thumbs should fit into the concave areas on the pieces. (Feel the steel striker carefully. You’ll notice that one side has a slight burr edge to it. When you hold the striker with your thumb in the concavity, the burr is naturally pointed away from you, better to peel sparks off the rod.)
- Place the striker against the rod and tip it forward (away from you) so that it meets the rod at about a 45-degree angle. (That burr should be perfectly poised to scrape the rod.)
- Instead of making fast, light strikes, press the striker hard into the rod and then let it slip forward aggressively. You’ll get much bigger sparks with one hard, forceful strike than with many light, fast ones.
One of the cool things about a ferro rod is that you can carefully scrape off shavings (without lighting them) to create a pile. (The ferro rod contains magnesium, which is flammable.) You can create a small pile in the center of other tinder (shredded bark, finely-carved kindling…) and light it from there.
To see a ferro rod in action, check out this video clip comparing bow drill, Stormproof Matches, and the Swedish Firesteel on a zero-degree day. Jump forward to 2:37 to be wowed by the ferro rod. It’s THAT simple.
But if you want to amaze your friends (and terrify your enemies), then carry some version of ‘techno-tinder’.
I prefer to make my own (shown in the above video):
- Balls Not Puffs – Buy a bag of 100%-cotton cottonballs. They’re about a buck for 100 to 200. (Cotton ‘puffs’ often include polyester or other synthetic materials that can melt instead of burn.)
- Fluff it Up – Pull out a cottonball and ‘fluff it up’. Pull it apart and put it back together, looser. You want air to be able to get through it.
- The Worst Part – Dip your fingertip in a jar of petroleum jelly (you want maybe a half teaspoon) and rub that into your fluffed cottonball. Massage it around – you want to coat the fibers. Pull the cottonball apart again and put it together. You may need to add more jelly, but beware that there is such a thing as too much. Then fluff the ball up again.
(You can prepare these ahead of time and carry them in an emergency kit to have when it counts. Three or four will fit in a 35mm film case (if you can still find one!), or use your own small, waterproof container like a pill bottle. Beware that, despite being coated in a petroleum byproduct, moisture will still affect their flammability.)
Drop your prepped cottonball on the ground (or under your ‘Mess’ fire structure) and give it one good scrape with your Swedish Firesteel. (I push students to be able to light it on their first strike.)
Voila! Fire in seconds. (And the Vaseline-cottonball alone will burn for up to four minutes! Giving you ample time to collect more material.)
- Add slightly larger twigs, then sticks, eventually up to wood 2″ to 3″ in diameter (split or whole, though split wood burns better)
- Don’t rush it and maintain the oxygen. One of the biggest mistakes I see beginners make is to do too much. Fire burns. That’s its job. It’s what its good at. By helping too much, we can choke out the fire or move the material so often that it never has a chance to ignite and burn.
- Maintain – It’s the Fourth Step in Fire-making (Ignition, Establishment, Application, Maintenance, Extinguish) – Not the hardest, just takes practice.
If you don’t like the mess of working with petroleum jelly and creating your own, WetFire Tinder by UST is also highly recommended. They come as small, individually-packaged cubes (somewhat resembling freeze-dried ice cream). You can scrape and use a few shavings or crush and light the whole thing in a real pinch. You can also light the block, put out the fire, and relight it later. Pretty fancy.
Before you blow a bunch of money on an expensive ‘survival’ knife, check out ‘Choosing The Right Survival Knife That Will Last’:
3 – Practice
The day I write this, it’s been raining for the past 8 hours. Excellent weather to practice your fire-making! (Sorry, but being able to light a fire on a 100-degree day with zero humidity doesn’t exactly turn heads. And besides, who needs (or wants!) a campfire on a day like that!)
But start slowly. Never built a fire before? Practice the above stuff on a warm, dry day when you’re comfortable. (Just remember to be safe – beware fire danger.) Once you get the hang of that, push your limits a bit. Use different materials. Use damp materials. Use less. Work toward being able to walk outside in the dark, when it’s been raining all day, and light a fire within 30 seconds.
I challenge you.
If you like what you’re learning (and how I explain it), try out a free 14-day trial of Gone Feral’s distance-based online study program, THE PACK: