Survival Skills: How to Light a Fire in the Wilderness

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When you find yourself in the wilderness, being able to start a fire can be a matter of survival. Whether you need to cook food, provide warmth, or signal for rescue, a fire can be a lifesaving resource.

In this post, we discuss everything you should know about how to light a fire in the great outdoors – from basic concepts to methods for igniting your fire to different ways to extinguish a fire.

Some fundamental principles and concepts about constructing, maintaining, and extinguishing a fire

Let’s begin with explaining the basic principles of a fire.

The concept of the fire triangle

The concept of the fire triangle is important in correctly constructing and maintaining a fire because it illustrates the three elements that are necessary for a fire to exist: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Understanding this concept can help you safely and effectively build and maintain a fire, as well as extinguish it when needed.

If any of these three elements are missing, a fire cannot exist. For example, if there is no fuel, there is nothing to burn. If there is no heat, the fuel will not ignite. And if there is no oxygen, the fire will not have the necessary oxygen to support combustion.

Campfire in the great outdoors
Knowing the basic principles of fire is essential

Photo by Martin Reinhuber

By understanding the fire triangle, you can ensure that you have all the necessary elements present when building a fire, and you can also identify which element is missing if the fire goes out or if it is not burning correctly. This understanding can also help you identify and address potential hazards, such as a fuel leak or an oxygen deficiency before they lead to a fire.

Overall, the fire triangle is a useful tool for understanding the basic principles of fire and how to safely and effectively use it.

Chain reaction

Once a fire is ignited, it can sustain itself through a chain reaction. In the context of fire, a chain reaction occurs when a small fire or ignition source triggers a series of events that result in a larger fire.

The chain reaction of fire involves several steps:

  1. Ignition: The fire is ignited by an external source, such as a match, a lighter, or a spark.
  2. Heat and fuel: After ignition, the fire begins to produce heat and consume fuel. The heat causes the fuel to break down and release gases, which contribute to the fire’s growth.
  3. Oxygen: The fire needs oxygen to continue burning. As the fire consumes oxygen, the surrounding air is drawn in to supply the fire with more oxygen.
  4. Combustion: The fire continues to grow as long as there is fuel and oxygen available. As the fire consumes more fuel and oxygen, it produces more heat, which can cause the surrounding fuel to ignite.
  5. Spreading: As the fire grows, it can spread to nearby materials that are combustible, leading to a larger fire.

The chain reaction of fire is a complex process that is influenced by several factors, including the type and amount of fuel, the availability of oxygen, and the temperature and humidity of the surrounding air. Understanding these factors and how they interact can help you prevent and control fires.

Extinguishing a fire

There are several ways to extinguish a fire, including removing the fuel, removing the oxygen, or lowering the temperature. To extinguish a fire in the great outdoors:

  1. Different types of fires require different extinguishing methods. For example, a grass fire may be extinguished with water, while a grease fire may require a dry chemical fire extinguisher.
  2. If possible, remove any nearby fuel sources to prevent the fire from spreading. This can include leaves, branches, and other combustible materials.
  3. The fire needs oxygen to burn, so cutting off the oxygen supply can help extinguish the fire. This can be done by covering the fire with a blanket, tarp, or other non-flammable material.
  4. If the fire is small and the fuel is wet or damp, you can use water to extinguish the fire. Pour the water over the fire and continue to add more water until the fire is completely extinguished.
  5. If water is not available, you can use dirt or sand to smother the fire. Cover the fire completely with a thick layer of dirt or sand, making sure to get all the embers and hot spots.

It’s important to be careful when extinguishing a fire, as fires can be dangerous if not properly handled. If the fire is too large or out of control, do not try to extinguish it yourself. Instead, call for help and evacuate the area as quickly as possible.

Firefighters extinguishing a large fire in the wilderness
Large fires cannot be extinguished easily

Photo by Matthias Fischer

A step-by-step guide to lighting a fire in the wilderness

Below is a step-by-step guide that will help you lay a fire even if you’re a novice in this.

Gather materials

To start a fire, you’ll need three things: tinder, kindling, and fuel.


Tinder is any small, dry material that can be easily ignited. This could be things like dry grass, leaves, or even birch bark. Tinder is used to help start a fire. It is typically dry, highly combustible, and easy to ignite. Tinder is used to initiate the fire by providing a small, concentrated heat source that can be used to ignite larger, less combustible materials such as kindling and firewood.

To start the fire, you will need to create a small, protected area in which the fire can burn. This can be done by building a small fire pit or by using a fire starter, such as a fireplace or wood stove.

Once you have your materials and a safe place to start the fire, you can begin the process of lighting the tinder. This can be done using a variety of methods, such as using a match, a lighter, or a fire starter. Once the tinder is ignited, you can gradually add kindling and firewood to build up the fire.


Kindling is small twigs or branches that will help the fire spread once it’s been ignited. It should be absolutely dry and slightly larger than the tinder, but still small enough to ignite easily. Kindling is used to build up the fire once the tinder is ignited, as it is slightly larger and takes longer to ignite than the tinder.


Fuel is the larger logs or branches that will keep the fire burning for an extended period of time (fuel burns slowly and steadily). Once the tinder and kindling are burning well, you can add larger pieces of firewood to sustain the fire.

Find a dry, flat spot; create a fire pit

Make sure you find a dry, flat spot that’s away from any overhanging branches or other flammable materials. This will help prevent the fire from spreading and reduce the risk of accidents.

How to find a site and prepare

Before building a fire, it’s important to carefully consider the site selection and preparation. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Choose a safe location

Make sure you select a safe location for your fire away from flammable materials like leaves, grass, or overhanging branches. Make sure the fire is at least 4-5 meters or 15 feet away from any tents or other structures to avoid accidents such as burns or carbon monoxide poisoning. If you’re in bear country and want to use the fire to cook, multiply by a factor of 15-25 or more – you want the fire to be at least 50-100 meters away from your tent. Note that bears have an acute sense of smell so cooking too close to your tent could draw them to you. It’s also a good idea to choose a spot that is sheltered from the wind, as this will help the fire burn more efficiently. It’s also important to choose a site that will concentrate the heat in the direction you desire.

  • Clear the area

Before building your fire, make sure to clear the area of any debris or flammable materials. This will help reduce the risk of accidents and help the fire burn more efficiently.

  • Create a fire pit

If possible, create a fire pit by digging a shallow hole in the ground. This will help contain the fire and make it easier to control.

  • Consider the weather

Pay attention to the weather conditions when selecting a site for your fire. If it’s raining or the ground is wet, it will be more difficult to start a fire and keep it burning. In these conditions, you may need to use additional measures to keep the fire going, such as using a fire starter or building a fire shelter.

  • Check for local regulations

Depending on where you are, there may be local regulations or guidelines for building fires. Make sure to familiarize yourself with these rules and follow them to avoid any legal issues.

Arrange your materials

Place your tinder in the center of the fire pit and surround it with kindling. Then, arrange your fuel around the outside of the pit, keeping it at a safe distance from the fire.

Ignite the fire

There are a few different ways you can ignite your fire, but some of the most common methods include:

Using a lighter or matches

If you have these items with you, they can be a quick and easy way to start a fire. Just make sure you keep your lighter or matches dry, as they won’t work if they get wet. A great solution suitable for all-season use is having waterproof matches. Designed to be used in wet or damp conditions, such as when camping or hiking in the rain, they are especially useful in survival situations where dry tinder or other fire-starting materials may not be readily available. Waterproof matches are a type of match that is coated with a special waterproofing agent such as paraffin or wax to make them resistant to moisture. The coating helps to protect the match head and the striker from moisture, making it possible to light the match even when it is wet.

To use waterproof matches, simply strike the match on the striker strip as you would a regular match. The waterproof coating on the match head will help to protect it from moisture, allowing it to ignite and burn.

Matchbox with matches
Matches won’t work if they get wet so keep them dry

Photo by günter

It’s important to store waterproof matches in a dry place to ensure that they remain effective. Make sure to keep them in a waterproof container or a waterproof bag to protect them from moisture. Additionally, it’s a good idea to carry extra waterproof matches in case the first ones do not work or you need to start multiple fires.

Using a fire starter

Chemical fire starters are another option for laying a fire even in wet or damp conditions. A fire starter is a small, compact, and portable device that uses a chemical reaction to produce a spark or flame, which can be used to ignite a fire. Some common fire starters include:

  • Magnesium fire starters: They work by using a small piece of magnesium alloy, which can be easily ignited with a spark from a ferrocerium rod or other ignition source. To use a magnesium fire starter, you typically shave a small amount of magnesium onto a dry, combustible material such as dry leaves, twigs, or paper. Then, using the ferrocerium rod, you create a spark near the magnesium shavings. The spark will ignite the magnesium, which will then ignite the dry material, eventually resulting in a flame. Magnesium fire starters require the use of a ferrocerium rod or other ignition source. Thus they may not be as reliable as other methods in some situations.
  • Ferrocerium rods: Also known as ferro rods or fire steel rods, they are tools that are used to create sparks for the purpose of starting fires. They are commonly used in outdoor and survival situations where access to other forms of ignition may be limited. Ferrocerium rods are made of a special alloy that produces a shower of hot sparks when struck with a hard, sharp object such as a knife blade or the back of a spoon. To use a ferro rod, you simply hold the rod with the sparks facing downward and strike it with the sharp object to create a spark. The spark can then be used to ignite a fire starter such as dry leaves, paper, or magnesium shavings.
  • Cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly: They are relatively easy to make and can be an effective way to start a fire when other methods are not available. To make cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, you will need cotton balls and petroleum jelly such as Vaseline. To make the fireballs, simply take a cotton ball and coat it with a generous amount of petroleum jelly. The petroleum jelly will help the cotton ball burn longer and more consistently. Once the cotton ball is coated, you can store it in a sealable container or bag until you are ready to use it. To use a cotton ball soaked in petroleum jelly as a fire starter, you can place it on a bed of dry leaves, twigs, or other combustible material and ignite it. The cotton ball should burn for several minutes, providing enough time to start a fire.

It’s important to be careful when using fire starters, as fires can be dangerous if not properly handled. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the specific instructions for your fire starter and to follow all safety guidelines when using it.

Using a friction method

If you don’t have any of the above items, you can start a fire using a friction method. The friction method is a method for starting a fire that relies on the heat and friction produced by rubbing two pieces of wood together. This involves creating a spark by rubbing two sticks together. To start the fire using the friction method, you will need to gather your materials (tinder, kindling, and fuel including two pieces of wood that are suitable for rubbing together) and find a suitable spot to build the fire. Then follow these steps:

  1. Create a notch and place some tinder inside: Carve a small notch into one of the pieces of wood, about an inch or two from the end. Then place a small handful of tinder in the notch you created.
  2. Place the second piece of wood on top of the first: Position the second piece of wood on top of the first so that the ends of the two pieces are touching.
  3. Rub the two pieces of wood together: Grasp the two pieces of wood firmly and begin rubbing them together using a back-and-forth motion. Apply pressure and increase the speed of the rubbing as needed.
  4. Check for sparks: As you rub the two pieces of wood together, check for sparks or embers and gently blow on them to help them catch fire.
  5. Add the tinder to the fire: Once the tinder is ignited, gently add it to the fire pit or fireplace. Gradually add more kindling and firewood to build up the fire.

It’s important to be patient and persistent when using the friction method to start a fire. It can take some time and effort to get the fire going, especially if you are using wet or damp wood. Be prepared to spend some time rubbing the two pieces of wood together and trying different techniques until you get a spark.

Tend to the fire

Once your fire is lit, it’s important to tend to it and make sure it stays lit. Tending to a fire means taking care of it and ensuring that it burns safely and efficiently. This means adding more fuel as needed and keeping an eye on the fire to make sure it doesn’t spread.

Burnt wood
Make sure that there are no hot spots when extinguishing a fire

Photo by Andra Berila

Here are some tips for tending to a fire: First, make sure the fire is contained in the designated area. Second, use dry, seasoned wood to fuel the fire because green or wet wood can produce a lot of smoke and can be difficult to ignite. Third, add fuel to the fire gradually, starting with small pieces of wood or kindling and gradually adding larger pieces as the fire builds. Fourth, check the fire regularly to ensure that it is burning safely and efficiently. If the fire starts to die down or smoke excessively, adjust the fuel or ventilation as needed. And finally, when it’s time to extinguish the fire, make sure to do so properly (as we explained in the ‘Extinguishing a fire‘ section above).

Do’s and Don’ts

Here are some of the most important do’s and don’ts of wilderness fire-building to consider:


  • Gather a sufficient supply of materials: Make sure you have enough tinder, kindling, and fuel to sustain your fire.
  • Choose a safe location: Select a spot that is away from flammable materials, sheltered from the wind, and follows local regulations.
  • Clear the area: Remove any debris or flammable materials from the site before building your fire.
  • Build a fire pit: If possible, create a fire pit by digging a shallow hole in the ground to help contain the fire.
  • Tend to the fire: Monitor the fire and add more fuel as needed to keep it burning.

Of course, there are also things you should not do:


  • Use accelerants: Avoid using accelerants like gasoline or kerosene to start or maintain your fire, as they can be dangerous and increase the risk of accidents.
  • Leave the fire unattended: Always keep an eye on your fire and never leave it unattended.
  • Build a fire in hazardous conditions: Don’t build a fire if it’s raining or the ground is wet. This can make it more difficult to start and sustain the fire.
  • Burn prohibited materials: Check local regulations to make sure you are not burning prohibited materials, such as garbage or green wood.

By following these do’s and don’ts, you can help ensure that your fire is safe and effective. Remember, always use caution when building and maintaining a fire in the great outdoors.

Alternate methods for starting a fire

While there are more ways for starting a fire, we’ll outline three alternate methods for laying a fire:

Using a solar reflector

A solar reflector is a device that uses the sun’s rays to focus heat onto a specific area, such as a pile of tinder. To use a solar reflector, you’ll need to aim it towards the sun and focus the beam onto your tinder. With enough heat, the tinder should eventually ignite.

Using a battery and steel wool

This method involves using the electrical current from a battery to create a spark and ignite the steel wool. To do this, you’ll need a battery, a piece of steel wool, and some tinder. Rub the positive and negative ends of the battery against the steel wool until it sparks, and then touch the sparks to the tinder to start a fire.

Using a bow drill

A bow drill is a simple tool that uses friction to create heat and start a fire. To use a bow drill, you’ll need a fireboard, a spindle, a bow, and some tinder. Place the fireboard on the ground and the spindle on top of it. Then, use the bow to rub the spindle against the fireboard in a back-and-forth motion, creating heat and eventually a spark. Once the spark is hot enough, it should ignite the tinder.


By following these steps, you should be able to successfully light a fire in the wilderness and use it to your advantage. Remember, always be careful when handling fire, and never leave it unattended.

The ability to start a fire is so important as fire provides warmth, light, and safety. It can be a huge psychological boost when you are in a survival situation in the backcountry. On extreme occasions, it can make the difference between living and dying. So, learn how to start and maintain a fire as long as you need it, and don’t forget that no matter which method you choose, it requires practice to ensure success.


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Hiking in the Rain – an Essential Guide

Basic Rules for Low-Impact Hiking

Vapor Barrier Liners for Cold Weather


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