I originally wrote this post for The Bushcraft Journal and it was published in Issue 23 back in 2018.
So far we’ve looked at various ways of lighting a fire and some of the many tinders that are available to us, both manmade and natural. Now I’m going to show you how to light a fire. And I’m fully aware that if you ask 10 people how they light their fire you’ll get at least 11 answers, so what I describe, as ever, is what works for me. I haven’t invented any of this either, rather I’ve brought together elements that I’ve been shown by other people, tried in the woods myself and adapted over the years.
Fire lighting is all about the preparation, put the work in upfront and you’ll get a sustainable fire; take shortcuts and you probably won’t. When we first started running our bushcraft courses we used to have a fire lighting exercise as the last activity on our weekend courses. The idea was that it would be fun and send everyone home on a high. But what we found was that people would rush off to collect materials and some of them wouldn’t collect enough.
Why? I suspect because regardless of how much they’d enjoyed themselves, for some people their minds were on going home. For others it might have been competitiveness. Whatever the reason, people would rush and try to light a fire with too few materials that weren’t adequately prepared. And their fires either didn’t light or would go out.
Whilst I’m no psychologist there’s a lesson in there somewhere for all of us; I’d say avoid taking shortcuts and do things properly the first time, because the reality is that if you’re in the wilderness, well you’ll just have to do the whole thing again anyway, so why not just do it right in the first place.
Once I’ve selected my site I prepare the ground. I don’t want my fire to spread and so I scrape back any leaf litter or mulch until the bare ground is exposed. This is especially true in coniferous woods where there’re likely to be flammable needles on the ground and I avoid lighting fires on peat at all. I generally scrape back an area 3 or 4 times the size of the fire I intend to have. How big is the fire going to be? It’ll be big enough to do the job I need. If I need a fire to cook, well I don’t need that fire any bigger than the pot I’m cooking with.
This scraping back to bare earth is also imperative in terms of leaving no trace; when I’ve finished and I’m ready to move on I can cover over the area again.
Next up we need to start collecting our materials for the fire. This is all about quantity and quality.
Always collect more than you think you’ll need and then collect some more! And if it’s raining or windy, double what you think you’ll need and then collect some more! If it’s raining, we need to counteract the effects of the rain; if it’s windy the fuel will burn faster due to the increased oxygen supply.
I’ve never seen a fire go out because there’s too much firewood, but I’ve seen plenty go out because there isn’t enough.
Your wood needs to be dry. Sometimes you can get away with collecting wood off the floor, other times that isn’t the case. If it’s raining, or has been raining recently, I’ll avoid collecting anything off the floor and only go for wood that’s either standing dead or has fallen from the canopy and become caught up in the branches of neighbouring trees.
Once I’ve collected all of my materials I grade it according to size. I want 2 good hand sized bundles of match stick thin wood, then similar quantities of pencil sized, thumb sized and then a couple of other groups getting bigger each time. I keep the sticks about 50cm long.
As I said earlier, if it’s raining or windy then you’ll need more materials than you would ordinarily. And this is especially true of your tinder and the match stick sized kindling (I often refer to this as first stage kindling). If it’s raining or windy I typically double the amount of tinder and first stage kindling. Because the reality is that it doesn’t matter how many logs a foot in diameter you have, you aren’t going to get them to ignite, it’s the tinder and match stick sized twigs that will determine if you have a sustainable fire or not.
The ‘V’ Lay
In broad terms you can either build your fire lay and then insert some burning tinder into it, or you can light your tinder and build a fire around it. I go with the ‘V’ lay method which in some ways is something of a hybrid between the two.
I start by placing a layer of sticks on the ground parallel with the direction of the wind. The primary purpose of this ‘raft’ of sticks is to protect the fledgling fire from any moisture in the ground. By lining it up with the wind I can also get oxygen into the fire from underneath.
On top of this raft of sticks I then build a simple ‘V’ (hence the name). I build it so that the wind blows into the ‘V’.
This is because the ‘V’ isn’t there to act as a wind breaker, rather its purpose is to increase the flow of oxygen into the tinder. With that said, even on a windless day I still do this for 2 reasons.
- Fires like to burn up, the ‘V’ gives the fire added height.
- These things are habit forming. I always light my fires this way because it works. And the one time where I need a fire rather than just being in the woods messing about, the time where I’m cold, wet, hungry and not thinking straight, well hopefully habit kicks in, I do what works and have a fire.
Next up I put my tinder into the apex of the ‘V’ and light it.
On this occasion I used birch bark and a fire steel.
I then place the 2 bunches of matchstick thick twigs over the burning tinder, in the same ‘V’ shape as the fire lay. Sometimes I use my hand to gently push the twigs downwards a little to hold things in place and so that the flame doesn’t have to travel so far; use a stick if you are wary of this.
Once the matchstick thick twigs are ablaze I add the pencil thick twigs. The reason I keep the sticks about 50cm long is that I can now place them onto my fire exactly where I want them to go without having to resort to throwing them and hoping for the best.
And once they’re alight, I add the next layer of fuel and so on.
This method of fire lighting can give a lot of flame initially, and that seems a good thing to me, I don’t want to take any chances when I’m lighting my fire. But once it’s established and I have a glowing red heart of embers I can scale it back so that it’s fit for whatever task I want my fire to serve.
It’s important that you factor closing down your fire into your schedule. There’s no point in having a roaring blaze a couple of minutes before you’ll be heading off. So make sure to include closing down your fire in your routine.
I add all of the part burnt sticks back into the fire so all that’s left is a pile of ash.
I can then wet that ash down until it’s cold and scatter it over a wide area.
I then check that the ground is also cold before covering the area with the leaf litter I moved out of the way previously and finally inspect the site to make sure that I’ve left no trace.
For me the time to try out my fire lighting skills is when the weather comes in. So if it’s raining, get out and practice, that’s when you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t!
Sorry about the poor quality of some of the photos, it was overcast and drizzly for much of the day and then started to rain part way through taking them.