Being able to light a fire is a key bushcraft skill. It’s something you want to be able to do without thinking, almost on autopilot. And because I want to be able light a fire without thinking, I do things the same way every time. Then if I should ever find myself in a tricky situation, hopefully that autopilot will kick in and I’ll do what is my habit.
In this post I want to talk about the process I follow to light a fire, but not specifically the method of ignition. I’ve written posts on using fire steels, traditional flint & steels and other ignition sources, and other posts about tinders. What I want to describe here is the process of collecting and preparing the materials, sorting them and constructing a fire lay ready for ignition.
Lighting a fire in the woods is all about preparation. Trying to take short cuts seldom works, so do things properly the first time and you’ll save time and energy in the long run. The first part of the process is to collect tinder. I generally try to do this as and when I find tinder rather than wait until I want to light a fire. I then keep it in my trouser pocket next to my skin so that if the tinder is damp my body heat will dry it. Whenever you decide to collect tinder, or even if you’re using some that you brought with you, don’t scrimp on the quantity. Always collect more than you think you’ll need, and then collect some more. If it’s been raining, collect even more tinder.
If it’s raining, or has been raining recently, I collect my firewood from the branches of trees . Dead wood that is hanging in trees will be much drier than wood laying on the floor. I look for wood from matchstick thin up to 5 or 6cm; once my fire is established I’ll need larger wood and I’ll collect this on a second pass before lighting my fire. In particular I’m looking for at least 2 big handfuls of matchstick thin kindling. If I’m in a broadleaf woodland I’ll search out birch for this; look out for the purple tinged twigs. In a coniferous woodland I’ll gather the thinnest twigs I can find. This first stage of kindling is really important; once you get your tinder alight, you don’t want to put it out by adding firewood that is too big – a chief cause of a fire going out. The wetter the conditions, the more of this fine kindling I collect and use.
Once I’ve collected a plentiful supply of firewood I set about dividing it up according to size – a pile of matchstick thin, a pile about pencil thickness, a pile about thumb thickness and then a couple of other piles gradually increasing in diameter. I tend to keep my firewood at about 50cm long. This allows me to hold it at one end and place it onto my fire (without getting burnt) instead of throwing it in the general direction.
With my materials gathered and sorted, I clear a patch of ground of any leaf litter back to bare soil. I’ll generally clear an area about 3 times the size of the fire I intend to have, which is generally fairly small and fit for purpose.
I then lay a bed of sticks on the ground at 90° to the wind; this is to put some distance between my tinder and any moisture in the soil. If it’s particularly wet, I’ll put a first layer parallel to the wind and then put another layer on top at right angles to the first. Try to use straight pieces of wood and keep the gaps in between as small as you can.
Next I make a ‘V’ shape on top of the bed of sticks. I’ll position the ‘V’ so that the wind blows into it. This provides a chimney type effect and gets plenty of air to the fledgling fire.
In the video below, I use birch bark as a tinder and ignite it using a firesteel, but regardless of how I light a fire, I carry out the same process for preparing my fire.
Once the tinder is lit, I grab a bundle of matchstick thin twigs in each hand and hold them over the tinder. Once this first stage of kindling is going, I place the next size up onto the fire, then the next and so on.
This next video shows how to dismantle your fire when you want to move on, adhering to ‘Leave no Trace’.
We teach how to light a fire on our 5 Day Bushcraft Course, 2 Day Bushcraft Course, IOL Bushcraft Competency Course, plus most of our others. You can see loads of photos of all of our courses on our Facebook page.