By Tom Brown III:
Being a primitive skills instructor, I get to spend a lot of time around fires. I like to think I have a special relationship with fire and I know I have spent more time in front of fires than most people. I have also watched many people try and fail to build an adequate fire structure many times.
Fire is one of the most important tools humans have learned to use. There is evidence of our ancestors using fire as far back as 1.7 million years ago. Our pre-fire ancestors had relatively small brains. When we started to cook our food it made it possible for us to gain more energy from what we were eating, which allowed our brains to continue to grow throughout our evolution. The use of fire also allowed us to migrate into areas with colder climates. Fire has many uses. It cooks our food, provides heat and light, and turns clay vessels into pottery to name but a few.
Flash forward to modern times, fire is still an integral part of our lives. Without fire our cars wouldn’t run and our furnaces wouldn’t heat our homes. On paper, fire is a chemical reaction, but to me it is so much more. To me fire is a living being: fire needs to be fed, it needs to breathe, it moves and it creates waste. Anyone who has been in the woods at night without a fire knows that it can be a dark, lonely place, but once you get a fire going you feel like you have a friend there to help you out! Fire is a wonderful tool and resource, but if it is not respected It can easily get out of hand and cause great destruction.
Of all outdoor skills, one of the most often ignored is how to build a proper fire structure. It does not matter how many different techniques you know to make fire, whether it’s bow-drill or flint and steel, fire piston or a Bic lighter, if you do not have a proper fire structure to ignite you may end up being cold, wet and miserable.
Fire needs a few things to exist. There has to be heat, oxygen and fuel. If you remove any of these from the equation, the fire will cease to exist. A fire that is burning properly will be warm, provide good light and be nearly smokeless.
When you need to build a fire, material selection is everything. As with any primitive skill, if you take the time to select ideal materials, you will be rewarded by saving energy during the crafting process. First off, dry wood is critical. Whenever possible, I try not to gather wood that is on the ground. When wood lays on the ground, it immediately starts absorbing moisture and will be that much harder to get burning. I break dead branches off of trees, push over standing dead saplings and collect branches that have fallen off trees and gotten hung up on lower branches or shrubs in the forest understory.
The first thing you need is good dry tinder. Tinder can be made from any dry, fibrous, plant material or the inner bark of certain trees. Trees such as cottonwood, basswood, cedar, maple and poplar to name a few. When looking for tinder, I seek out fields or open areas to find dried grasses and the dried leaves of field plants. The key to good tinder is a lot of surface area for your ignition source to ignite.
Here in Oregon, I love it when I find a dead cedar tree because the inner bark can be shredded and made into great tinder. You can also use your knife or a stone with a sharp edge to scrape tinder from the outer bark of living cedar trees. I make it a habit to collect more tinder then I will need so I can have some in reserve to use at a later time. When it starts raining, you will be happy to have extra, dry tinder!
If you are in a wet climate there is a good chance your tinder materials may be damp. An easy way to dry these is to tuck it in between layers of your clothing as you are wandering around collecting materials for your fire. As you are moving around you will be generating heat and that will dry it out.
From my experience, finding good tinder in the wilds can often be the most difficult part of the process for building a fire. If you want to take a more modern approach there are quite a few different products we can buy that are easily ignited to help us get our fires going.
A good modern solution for tinder is to coat some cotton balls in petroleum jelly. Store them in a small, sealed container in your pack. It will ignite very easily even in the rain. Another thing you can make before heading out into the bush is called char cloth. In a nutshell, char cloth is made by taking small swatches of cotton fabric and putting them in something like an Altoids tin. Poke a small hole in the top of the tin and toss it in a fire for a little while. Once smoke stops coming out of the small hole take the container out of the fire and let it cool. When you open the container you will see that the cotton fabric has charred. This material is very flammable and a single spark will get it to burn.
Once you have taken care of tinder, you want to collect a large bundle of what I call “pencil lead” wood. Lots of small, thin, dry twigs or woody stalk plants which are roughly the circumference of pencil lead. When you start constructing your fire, these sticks will go around your tinder. Just like tinder, these sticks have a lot of surface area. Once your tinder gets going, these sticks will catch fire quickly.
The tinder and pencil lead thickness material will be the core of your fire structure. It’s now time to collect the outer layers. First off, gather a good pile of pencil-thick branches, and lastly, a bunch of thumb-thick branches as well. Once your fire is lit and is burning well, you can add wood that is even thicker depending on how big you need your fire to be.
Choosing a Location
When selecting a location for a fire there are some things to consider. I want the area where my fire will be to be “high and dry.” I do not want to build my fire in a low-lying area that might flood during a heavy rain storm.
For safety, it’s important to contain your fire. Once I have chosen a location for my fire I will look up to make sure there are no low hanging branches that may catch fire. Then I will clear an area that is at least 8 feet in diameter of all leaves and debris. Once the area is cleared I will dig a shallow depression about 6 inches deep and about 2 feet in diameter. I will then ring the depression with rocks to further contain my fire. Our goal is to make a small fire, not burn the woods down!
Building the Structure
Now that my fire pit has been built I want to lay my fire building materials by size so I can start building the fire structure itself.
We are going to build what is called a teepee or triangle structure. In my opinion this is the best fire structure because each layer of the fire is responsible for igniting the layer on top of it. The other benefit is that when built well, it will shed water. Even if the outer layer gets rained on, it will protect and keep the core of the structure dry.
Start by putting a decent tinder bundle in the center of your fire pit. If the ground is damp, you can set the tinder on a piece of bark or some dry leaves. Next, use bundles of the pencil-lead-thick wood to start surrounding the tinder. Make sure they are actually touching the tinder, and be sure to leave a small door open through the entire construction so you can get your ignition source to the tinder. After that’s done, start laying the pencil-thick wood around the structure. Repeat the process with the thumb-thick branches.
Lighting the Fire Structure
Now that the structure is built it’s time to light! Since you left a small doorway to the core of the structure, it should be easy to get your ignition source to the tinder at the core. Once the tinder is lit you can “close the door” with a small handful of finger-thick sticks. If you built the structure properly it will start burning at a steady rate.
Once it gets going, you can maintain the shape of the structure by adding larger pieces of wood. This style of structure burns great and puts out a lot of heat and light.
Personally, I try to keep my fires as small as possible. There is a misconception that we need huge fires to keep us warm and to cook our food. In reality, you can do a lot with a small, well-built fire. Collecting firewood can be very time and energy consuming. If you use your materials wisely it will benefit you in the long run. If you are going to be in the same spot for an extended period of time you would be surprised at how quickly you can deplete an area of firewood.
One thing I like to do is instead of collecting firewood close to my structure and working my way outward, I will instead start collecting far away and work my way in. By doing so I will have to work less at gathering wood, and if I were to injure myself, I have not depleted the closest sources of firewood to my camp.
Practice Makes Perfect
Now that you know the nuts and bolts of building a proper fire structure, it’s time to put it in to practice. Like any new skill, you must practice. What I have found to be an excellent practice method is a one-match fire. Build a fire structure and light it with one match. If you have done everything right, from tinder collection all the way through the construction of the fire structure, you should have no problem getting it to light. The way to get the most dynamic practice is to build and light fires in every season, in all weather conditions! Want to give yourself an even better challenge? Gather, construct, build and light a fire within 5 minutes.
This is one of those skills that may genuinely save your life one day. Practice it, perfect it and pass it on. You never know when you will need it!
Episode #: 97 (click to listen) and 98
Duration: 1 hr 18 min and 1 hr 24 min
Topics Discussed: Stalking tactics, tanning hides, fire-starting, wilderness survival, tracking, observation and more!
Bio: Tom Brown III, also known as “T3,” has been a life long student and practitioner of primitive living skills, wilderness survival and nature connection. Born in New Jersey in 1978, he grew up learning the skills our ancestors used to live close to the Earth from his father, Tom Brown Jr, founder of the Tracker Wilderness Survival School. Growing up at the Tracker School showed him the profound effect reconnecting people to nature can have not only on the individual but on the planet as a whole. After spending a few years wandering across America, he has spent the last 20 years passing on the skills he learned as a child. Currently Tom lives in Oregon and works with Trackers Earth as an adult educator and land steward. When not teaching or writing, Tom is an avid fly-fisherman, traditional archer and nature photographer.