With a suitable location to spend the night already chosen, the next step is to build a fire. The subject of primitive fire-making techniques is covered in depth on our Making Fire page, but I will touch on it briefly here. Suffice it to say that this is one of the skills where practice will pay off. I can explain in a few paragraphs how to build a fire using the bow and drill method. I can explain the same in a few pages, with 10 or 20 photographs to supplement the text. But reading and looking at photos is not doing. Learn this skill before you need it- practice and become proficient in the use of the bow and drill now if you ever plan to use, or even think you might- don't wait until your life depends on it.
Another, more simple method for fire starting is the use of the metal match, commonly referred to as flint and steel.
True flint and steel is nothing more than a piece of flint- the rock- and a piece of steel. These will not be discussed here. Artificial flint, or the metal match, is an alloy rod that creates a spark when steel is run along its length. I have attached to all my survival knife sheaths a small, two dollar Boy Scout "flint" rod. It easily gives a spark and is good for a thousand uses. You may want to opt for a larger "flint" than this one- Light My Fire makes its Swedish FireSteel in three sizes, the largest of which is good for 12,000 sparks and is a couple of inches long by about 3/8 inch in diameter. I recommend carrying one of these with your knife as well- buy one today and tie it on with a piece of 550 cord. It is efficient, very simple to use and requires less practice than other methods. But you must practice this method as well. Do not expect it to work for you on your first try, and do not make your first try a time when you really need it.
And of course the easiest methods for starting a fire would be matches or a lighter. I never go anywhere without a small Bic butane lighter in my pocket, especially into the wilderness. Do the same- get into this habit now and if you find yourself needing to build a fire, you will have the lighter in your pocket.
Tinder, Kindling and Fuel
Any of these fire-starting methods require a tinder bundle for your spark, kindling and fuel. Spending the time to create the perfect tinder bundle, to collect up the perfect pile of kindling and a sufficient pile of fuel for your fire will mean the difference between using one match or wasting matches.
Some of the best materials for fire building are available in nearly every canyon I have ever been in. Bark from the Juniper is the best tinder available. It is easy to find and remove from any Juniper you come across. My second choice is the hairlike, inner material from dry cottonwood bark. Chunks of dry cottonwood bark are usually found at the base of larger cottonwood trees; look for those that have large, dead branches. Either material should be twisted in the hands, or pounded between a couple of rocks to break it up and create the fine powder that is so easy to ignite. Of course there are countless other materials that can be used for a tinder bundle. The idea is to find something that can be reduced to fibers, and pounded nearly into powder. Other plants to look at include sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and some grasses if they are fine and very dry. After making your tinder bundle, simply direct the spark from your "flint" into the bundle by holding your knife stationary and pulling the flint away (or by holding the flint stationary and pushing the knife blade down the length of the flint rod), transfer the spark that you have created from your bow and drill into the bundle, or flick your Bic as they used to say.
Fire Making Tip- If you find yourself in a survival situation, or you have put yourself to a primitive living test, collect up enough Juniper bark (or other tinder) for at least a few fires. Keep it tucked away in a plastic bag, or in a jacket pocket where it will stay dry. This is especially important if you are threatened with rain. Juniper bark is much easier to light if it is very dry, especially if you are starting your fire with a metal match and steel. Just a bit of dampness makes it quite a bit harder to light. Keep this in mind when you get set up to start your fire. Make sure that all your materials are laid out on a very dry surface. The spark from a bow and drill is much more forgiving of damp tinder. And of course your Bic will dry out the dampness, to a degree.
Tinder bundle, or birds nest, of dry juniper bark ready to receive spark from bow and drill or flint and steel. Alternatively you could hold a match or lighter underneath for a second or two and it will burst into flame.
In the photo to the right a spark made with a bow and drill has been carefully placed in the center of the tinder bundle and is being blown into a flame. After your tinder bundle has burst into flame, carefully place your smallest kindling on it, equally distributing it all the way around the fire. Some of the best tinder can be found at the base of sagebrush- collect a couple handsful of the small, dry, dead branches. The best method for building the fire is to form a teepee with the sticks to allow oxygen to flow through. Continue placing larger diameter and longer pieces on the fire as the pieces catch fire, until finally laying on the larger pieces of fuel.
It all sounds easy enough. See our Making Fire page for more details on primitive fire-making methods. And be sure to PRACTICE these skills- remember that a survival situation is not the time to learn survival skills! If you have never built a fire- and I am sure there are people out there who have not- then you must practice this most basic skill. Do not worry about the bow and drill, or even using a metal match and steel before you can build a simple fire. And as you practice, try your skills under more adverse conditions. Test yourself by building a fire on a windy day, after a rain when you are forced to find dry materials, or- one of my favorites for testing skills- by giving yourself one paper match (try tearing it in half for even more of a challenge).
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Primitive Skills- Living Comfortably Off the Land
Primitive Skills- Learning the Basics, Water
Primitive Skills- Shelter
Primitive Skills- Fire
Primitive Skills- Food
Primitive Skills- Navigation
Primitive Skills- Primitive Weapons
Primitive Skills- Fishing
Primitive Skills- Flintknapping
Primitive Skills- Tracking
Desert and Wilderness Survival and the Survival Kit Page
Choosing Your Survival Knife