Fire Starting Skills and Tips for the Trail Hiker

Out in the field, a fire can be the difference between comfort and distress.  Fire can provide so many things - light, heat, means to cook, security, signal [if you're lost] and a fire can also keep the mind occupied during survival situations.  I don't take to the trail without at least two failsafe means to start a fire and I always light a fire at my campsite.  It's a huge part of the enjoyment of the trail for me and the benefits the campfire brings are many.

So, having the means and the skills necessary to create a fire no matter the weather or time of day is important to any trail hiker.

The number one key to success in building a fire is preparation.  By and large, the more time spent in proper preparation, the higher your likelihood of success in building and maintaining a fire.

Every fire needs three basic 'elements' in which to ignite and thrive - oxygen, tinder and fuel.  The lack of any of these results in sub par success or even failure.

Oxygen - Note that you'll never want to build a fire in a completely enclosed area.  Fire consumes oxygen as do you.  Open flames in tents and other enclosed areas will rob your body of oxygen and can be extremely dangerous.  Building fire out in the open keeps it the most manageable, the most safe to you, the most visible [in the event you are trying to signal] and keeps that primary element, oxygen, in the most abundant supply.

The number one key to success in building a fire is preparation. 

Tinder - As I mentioned, preparation is critical to success so you'll want to spend a fair amount of time gathering and getting your fire site ready.  Tinder is that super fine wood about the thickness of pencil lead.  Grass or leaf material works too but all of it needs to be completely dry.  Gathering large amounts of tinder isn't as important as gathering quality tinder.  The drier and smaller your tinder, the more chance of success you'll have in starting a fire quickly.

Gathering wood and grasses that are not in contact with the ground ensures that they'll be the driest.  If it has been raining,  dig into brush and leaf piles to find the dry tinder underneath.

Fuel - Tinder ignites quickly, burns hot and extinguishes in a very short time frame.  Although gathering that tinder is important, also mission critical is gathering a large amount of fuel wood of pencil diameter and larger to feed that fire once you've got it going.  Once your tinder is ignited it's important to feed your fire with wood about the diameter of a pencil [pictured on top of the fire above].  Building a strong fire that thrives continually requires you to feed it with wood of increasing thicknesses.  Feed it too fast with fuel that's too large and you run the risk of smothering the fire or waiting much longer than necessary for that fire you need.  Feed in stages for that well established, thriving fire.

That campfire can provide some of our most basic survival needs - light, heat and security.  Let's examine one more crucial aspect of the campfire before moving on to a few failsafe methods I use to build my campfire when I'm out on the trail.

Site Selection - One of the most important aspects of fire building that can be over looked is site selection.  Our top priority is always to select a site that keeps us and the environment safe.  Choosing a site with no overhead cover is critical to your safety as well as the safety of the surrounding environment.  Even though that large pine tree may provide some great overhead cover, building a campfire, no matter the size, under the overhead boughs can be life threatening.

Reflecting Fire - Although the campfire is great for providing light and ambiance during those leisurely outings, there could be times you need that fire for warmth, especially in survival situations. Most often we think of campfires as being completely exposed and open and this does provide the most visibility and safety, however it is not the best type of campfire for warmth, especially when fuel is scarce.  Instead of building the fire in the middle of an exposed, open area, instead build a horseshoe shaped pit with three walls built of either wood or preferably stone.  The horseshoe shaped wall will reflect the heat back toward the open side giving you maximum warmth.

Building the Fire Pit - Clearing a never before used site is important for the safety and management of the fire.  If you don't clear your site, the firs can quickly spread to loose tinder on the ground and your fire can spread faster than you can extinguish it.  To ensure your safety and that of the surrounding environment, select a site of at least 20 feet in diameter with no overhead trees or structures and clear the ground of loose tinder and debris in that circle.  To help in visualizing that area, think of a clock with your fire at the middle.  The distance from the center of that fire to the numbers on that close should be equal to the distance from the tips of your fingers to your toes when your hands are placed overhead.

Rock Selection - Rocks make an excellent barrier or fire ring and are normally found in abundance out on the trail.  Never select rocks however, that are in or near stream beds or other water sources as they contain a great deal moisture that will explode when heated rapidly next to your fire.  Instead, search for rocks on high ground when lining your fire pit.

Failsafe Measures for Building Your Fire - Once you've selected and cleared your site, gathered your tinder, kindling and fuel, building the fire comes next.  If you've brought along man made fire starters like matches or a lighter then you should have little trouble providing you've done your homework with gathering the proper tinder.

Its always fun though, to learn a few more techniques that aren't a huge time investment but are also easy to carry along with you [lightweight and cheap] and that can start a fire quickly and easily.

Dryer Lint - Common household dryer lint os one of the most combustible yet safe, fuel sources I've used.  It's normally in great abundance, doesn't cost a dime and it only takes half a handful to start a fire.

Cotton Balls - If dryer lint isn't available, cotton balls make an excellent substitution.  They too are extremely affordable and ignite very quickly and safely.  And even 1-2 of them can ignite a fire that can be the difference between comfort,warmth and safety and the latter.  If I'm not carrying a handful of dryer lint with me then I've got a dozen cotton balls in my pack.  Both work great.

Flint and Steel - A small bic lighter will ignite most tinder if it's small enough and it certainly will ignite dryer lint or cotton balls.  Another option that is a fun tool to own is flint and steel.  The spark created by striking steel on flint is in excess of 5,000 degrees F and although I've had difficulty igniting tinder directly, dryer lint and cotton balls never fail to light right up.  I used the word "striking" but it's really rather dragging the steel across the flint that creates a more effective spark.  That small fragment of flint ignites as it is scraped off the flint stick and if it lands in the cotton or lint it ignites every time.

Hand Sanitizer - Another excellent fire starter that is lightweight and inexpensive is Hand Sanitizer.  I've seen a few squirts from one of those small sample bottles make easy work of lighting a fire even on kindling.  It burns fast and hot and ignited with flint and steel or a lighter.  It's a great alternative and a bottle or two should be in everyone's pack.

The next time you're out on the trail, try some experimenting.  Build a fire with a method you haven't tried before and have fun with it.  If it's just not going well, revert back to what you know works and try it next time.  The campfire is one of the most enjoyable parts of the trail experience for many trail hikers and building your knowledge and experience with several type of fire making skills is smart.

See you on the trail!


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