The first time we camped in the mountains of Colorado we brought several lighters with us, just in case one was bad. Well, guess what? None of them worked! Thankfully our friends had matches and we were able to use those, but it was a good lesson in having several fire starting options available in the wilderness, especially at higher altitudes where lighters just won’t cut it.
Then, in 2013 we camped near Chinns Lake trail and because of a fire ban that year we couldn’t have a campfire. Talk about misery! It was July but at 11,000 feet there was snow, so it was freezing – BUT not too cold for mosquitoes, of which there were millions due to our close proximity to water. With no fire to keep them away, even bug spray didn’t help. That trip emphasized the joy of having a fire when camping.
So, as long as fire is permitted in the area where we camp (we always check Forest Service or Ranger info beforehand), following are my favorite fire-starting methods that we carry with us into the woods. (In addition to these, of course, are old school friction fire starters like the hand drill or bow drill – however, this post is about higher-tech and [in my opinion] more reliable items).
Lighter – inexpensive and easy to use. Works well at low altitudes. Does not work at higher altitudes (which, in my experience, is about 8,500 feet and above).
Matches – inexpensive although “waterproof” matches cost more. May take several matches to actually light a fire, especially if there’s a breeze.
Tinder – Jute twine – go to any crafting or home supply store and get a big roll of jute twine. Pull it apart to fluff it up and you’ve got yourself easy tinder that will readily ignite with a spark. I pack an old prescription bottle full of jute twine to keep it dry and ready when needed.
Tinder – Cotton balls/petroleum jelly – this is a super easy and inexpensive tinder prep method using stuff you’ve probably already got on hand. Simply coat some cotton balls with petroleum jelly and store in an old prescription bottle.
Tinder – Char cloth – this is natural fiber that has been heated until it turns to charcoal. Char cloth ignites very easily and is a great part of your tinder package. You can buy char cloth, or you can make your own by putting some natural material (like cotton) pieces into a metal container (such as an old Altoids tin). Poke a hole in the container and then heat it until the cloth inside turns to charcoal. This process will create smoke so it’s best done over a fire outside.
Pocket bellows – by no means a requirement, this handy little tool is a way to aim air at the base of your fire to get it going. You blow through the tube, sort of like a reverse straw.
Flint and steel – this tool is a flint rock and any piece of steel that, when struck against the flint, will create a spark. Do this over/into tinder (such as jute twine) and the spark will quickly become a flame.
Ferro rod and striker – Ferro is short for Ferrocerium, which is a man-made metallic material that produces sparks when scraped with a rough edge. Ferro rod/strikers are pretty common at outdoors or sporting goods stores, but you get what you pay for. Spend a little more for a quality product because some of the el cheapo Ferro rods just won’t work. Also of note is that most Ferro rods come coated to prevent oxidation so you may have to scrape a few times before a spark is produced the first time you use it. The striker (also called a scraper) usually comes with the Ferro rod and should have a super sharp edge, which you’ll scrape quickly against the rod to produce a spark, aimed at your tinder. This takes practice, but practice makes perfect.
Magnesium and Ferro block – this is a block of magnesium with a Ferro rod attached to one side. Using a sharp object (I recommend a good pocket knife), scrape some magnesium onto a bundle of tinder. Then use your knife to scrape against the Ferro rod to create a spark, toward your magnesium/tinder bundle. This takes practice but the good thing about this method is that you can start a fire in damp conditions.
Fire piston – this is a handy tool that in my experience takes quite a bit of practice to use successfully, but it’s yet another way to start a fire. Basically it’s a hollow cylinder that is sealed at one end and open at the other. Then a piston with a seal is fitted inside the cylinder; the piston has a notch on the inside end, in which you place a small piece of char cloth. To use, after placing the char cloth in the notch and inserting that end of the piston just into the cylinder, you then slam the piston the rest of the way into the cylinder at great speed to create a compression of air hot enough to ignite the char cloth. I have found this method to take the most practice of any listed here because you’ve got to be so quick about slamming the piston in and then removing it from the cylinder immediately to get the spark into your tinder before it goes out.
And there you have it - 10 tools to help you to get your fire going! Practice building fires every chance you get and it’ll be second nature at camp or in a survival situation. We like to practice with various fire-starting methods at home when lighting the fireplace or chiminea, because when you’re in the woods and it’s cold and dark is quickly setting in, building a fast fire makes camp a lot more comfortable.
Do you have a favorite fire-starting method? Share comments below!