We are a small family-owned business. We sincerely appreciate your support!

Survival Tip: Starting a Fire in an Emergency

30 Oct, 1996

This article is from a submission by David Crane in Ohio: A Survival Tip: How to Start a Fire in an Emergency.

The crew at TheEpicenter.com thinks this is one of the best written visitor submissions we have received. The author, David Crane, has done a superb job in explaining one of the most necessary tasks we will face in an emergency or survival situation—How to start a fire! It sounds simple, but it might just save your life!

David is in no way connected with TheEpicenter.com.

Emergency Fire Starting

David says, "One of my favorite activities is ultra-ultra light camping/hiking trips. The colder and more inclement, the better the challenge."

An example is a climbing/rappelling trip I took with a friend to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky last January. The temperature during the day was up to 30 degrees (F), but at night it got down to around 10. There was 6 inches of snow on the ground. Other than the clothes on our backs we each had a military style butt pack full of survival supplies and a blanket. This is a true test of ones ability to improvise "survival" shelters and we have experimented with quite a few styles, some much less successful than others. Needless to say, in such circumstances a fire is a real comfort!

Even hot water can be a delightful drink! (unpretentious, yet with a subtly smoky bouquet) However, few things can be more frustrating than having your pyrotechnic skills thwarted by Mother Nature. If you have the pack room to carry dry kindling with you in a bag all is well - generally. But when you're going ultra-light, that is usually not an option.

I'm 35 [at the time of this writing] and have been "into" survival skills since I was 12. I've spent a few hours with a bow and drill, and a few of the other "primitive" methods, and discovered three things:

  • First, these are not the sort of things I want to be doing while kneeling in the forest in the dark and in the rain.
  • Secondly, if its just mildly chilly, these activities will quickly elevate your body temperature to the point that you no longer feel the need for an external heat source and loose all of your motivation.
  • Thirdly, these methods only work in ideal conditions or require lots and lots of time and effort. I feel that everyone should learn the "primitive" methods, but only so that they develop an appreciation for the ease and convenience of more modern methods.

Here is a list of fire-starting products and tips that I have learned. Some of these ideas are mine, but some I probably got from miscellaneous works of "survival" literature over the years.

Butane Lighter

OK, OK, not a revolutionary break-through, but it can't be beat and I never leave home without one. I used to wrap a rubber band around the top of the lighter and underneath the gas valve button to keep it from discharging in my pocket. Few things are more worthless than an empty lighter! All lighters now have an idiot proof safety mechanism that requires adults to seek the assistance of a child to operate!

Flint and Magnesium

This is a really cool product that has been on the market for a few years now and is an item that I always carry! It's a 3" x 3/4" x 3/8" block of magnesium that has a flint rod molded into the side of the block. It also has a hole in it and comes set up as a key-chain. I keep mace and a police whistle attached to mine in an outside pocket where its ready-to-hand. To use, shave magnesium from one side (of course I don't need to tell you to carry a knife) and collect the shavings. Then with the back of the knife blade, "shave" the flint so that the sparks ignite the magnesium shavings. Have your kindling handy! This heat is intense! But it doesn't last long, so you've got to get right on it with that kindling. It helps if you pile the shavings on something flammable.

Something Flammable

You can make your own all-weather (waterproof) fire starters at almost no cost. Cut the bottom off of a cellulose egg carton. Do not use Styrofoam egg crates!! Whittle shavings into all the "egg pockets." Melt paraffin or anything wax in a double boiler. Candles from second-hand stores work great for this. Pour the melted wax into the carton until all the pockets are filled. Ensure that all the shavings get a good coating of wax. (its OK if the shavings stick out so long as they soak up enough was to make them waterproof. Once the wax is cool and hard cut the pockets apart. You now have twelve emergency fire starters. Place on something flammable so that any melted wax that seeps out while this is burning is not wasted on the ground. Light one with the magnesium or a lighter then pile on the kindling. There is enough wax contained here to keep this concoction burning for about three minutes. The shavings and cellulose sucks up the melting wax like a candle with a really big wick. I carried the same one of these around with me on outings for two years before I needed it, but one dark and stormy night ...

Waxed Paper

That's right, waxed paper. You've got a roll of it in the back of one of your kitchen drawers where it was left behind by cling wrap, Tupperware, rubber-maid, zip-lock bags and Aluminum Foil. (the capitalization denotes the high regard with which outdoors-men should hold Aluminum Foil - don't leave civilization without some - but I digress!) Waxed paper can be folded up so that it takes up no space. It can be refolded and used as a cup. There are other uses, but the point here is fire. Fold a piece of this in half then fold back each "half" like making paper dolls. When half way stretched out, a view of the end should look like the letter M or W. Lay the paper down so that the two "ridges" of the letter M form a valley. Into this valley place your magnesium shavings and/or other kindling. Set this on fire and break out the vitals, Granny, Jethro's got an appetite tonight!

Fire Paste

This stuff is commercially available for about five dollars. It comes in a tube like toothpaste, but smells like Johnson's Paste Wax. It probably tastes like it too, so don't brush your teeth in the dark! Smear Fire Paste on a stick, roll the stick so that the paste is on the bottom, and light the paste. Next lay the stick on top of half of your kindling. Then cover with the rest of your kindling. The kindling on the bottom will be ignited as the hot burning paste drips off the stick. This stuff will make even damp wood dry out and burn.

Hexane & Trioxain Tablets, & Miscellaneous Other Fire Starters

These are all functional, and some are better than others. Compact collapsible "stoves" are available for use with the Hex and Triox Tablets. Unless you have a good supply of these don't try to cook with them, use them to start a "real" fire. The stoves that are available for these are little more than fixtures to keep the cup or pan off the tablet. One tablet will boil a cup of water, but won't heat a meal. Here's a better idea: With a stick or knife gouge or cut a trench about an inch wide and about two inches longer than the diameter of the base of your cup or pan. This will be a miniature fire pit. Light a tablet and place it in the center of the trench. Place the item to be heated on top of the trench. By adjusting the size of the trench and moving the cup or pan, you control the draft and thus the burn rate of the tablet. The main problem with the stoves provided for the tablets is that the tablet burns out of control and typically flames shoot up well past the rim of the container being heated. This is a waste of the little amount of fuel that you have. A tablet in a fire pit can burn two to three times longer than one on a "stove," and can heat about twice as much water or food. In a pinch I have snuffed out a tablet in the trench and placed it in a plastic bag for use a second time!

Wood Stove

If you really want a stove to provide your heat consider one by Sierra. My buddy got one. I berated him soundly. I told him he was getting soft. He did have to go to a larger pack to haul it, but I must admit, if you're going to wuss-out and go with a stove (stoves are required in areas that do not allow open campfires) this is the one to get. It has a three speed blower powered by an AA battery. (the same size battery as your Mini-Mag - use that same battery size in all the gear you buy) The air is forced through an ingenious baffle arrangement between the inner and outer walls of the burning compartment. This preheats the air for the combustion allowing more of the volatile gasses to be ignited. I was going to build one, but that baffle design has me stumped and my buddy knows better than to loan his to me. In any case, they're around $50-$100 and do not require costly fuel or fuel bottles. Just build a fire inside using any of the above methods, allow heat to build up for a moment or two then turn on the blower. Within minutes you'll have a stove that will boil water in four minutes and will digest WET fuel without hesitation.

Fuel can be anything organic - twigs, sticks, pine cones, moss, leaves, paper, cardboard, cloth, etc. Use caution when burning pine cones, this stove is capable of such intense heat that the pitch in the cones can explode from the heat before the cone "burns down." Be ready for some snap, crackle, and pop! As a "high tech" sort of person it takes a lot to impress me, but this stove did (or couldn't you tell).

A comment from David: "I do not own one of these stoves YET, and I am not affiliated in any way with the manufacturer of the Sierra stove or any of their marketing lackies or their families. I just know a good product when I use one! I've also seen lousy ones. I've seen guys spill their fuel bottles inside their tent and soak their sleeping bag and clothing... But that's another story and topic. My free-association composition style does have its limits - they're way out there, but I have 'em!"

Final Note

It should go without saying that GOOD JUDGMENT should always be used when starting a fire. But those type of assumptions could get you killed, and ruin thousands of acres of "our wild America." The name of the game in PREPAREDNESS is looking ahead and avoiding problems. Since you are reading this one would assume that you can to this

Look for potential problems before starting the fire.

  • Is it too windy?
  • Is it too dry out?
  • What is the ground cover (foliage) like?
  • What is the soil type?

If you haven't read an in-depth article on fire prevention, you have no business starting a fire. If you have no experience with fires, practice under controlled conditions before venturing into the woods.

Once on a canoe fishing trip in the Boundary Waters Region of Northern Minnesota, a lone man canoed up to our camp site and asked if he could get some water from us. Realizing from our stupefied looks that additional information was required (or that we didn't speak English), he launched into a explanation: He was the leader of a scout troop that was camped about a quarter mile from us. All the wood at their site was wet and they had been unable to start a fire to boil water to drink since the previous day. Being the helpful sort of folk that we are, we did not express our views that this inexperienced and skill-less man was an idiot if not criminally insane for bringing a bunch of inexperienced kids thirty miles into the wilderness by canoe. We did however, point out that the water in that area is clean enough to be drunk straight from the lake as we and the personnel at the outfitters did. (yeah, yeah, in spite of the Giardia threat, I toted a water filter and never used it) We also explained and demonstrated that birch bark "burns like gasoline," and showed him how to harvest it without killing the trees.

Bottom line — be prepared. Equip yourself, learn how to use your equipment, then learn how to get by without your equipment using ingenuity and your educated brain.

About the Author

David says, "I am 35 years old. My wife and I live in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. I manage the technical services division of an international industrial equipment manufacturer. My hobbies are hunting, fishing, reloading, fly-tying, archery, climbing, rappelling, hiking, camping, gardening, competitive rifle and pistol shooting, jogging, canoeing, mountain biking and reading. I have a teaching degree and although my current occupation does not utilize much of this training, I find myself constantly teaching people the skills I have learned while pursuing my hobbies."