Fire Starting

Amongst bandaids and tweezers, you should also have a little fire starting kit that you know how to use.

I don’t mean a magnifying glass, or the instructions for a bow drill. I don’t even mean flint and steel, unless you know how to use these really well. I mean a bic lighter. Simple.

Well, almost simple, but that’s my point, let’s keep it that way.

I’ve got a little short I made to accompany this, you can find it here. But also, here’s what you’ll find in my 10 essentials and how I use it.

Lighting a fire is a simple thing when you break it down, and if you break it down into patient decisive parts, you’ll be sure to get it right each time.

My fire lighting kit consists of a little snack size ziplock with about 8-10 vaseline filled cotton wool balls and a little bic lighter. I keep that in my day pack even. I also have a little lighter with my stove. So there’s that. And then, between you me and the internet, when I’m not guiding, I probably have a bit of weed with me (Vermont’s legal) and that little 11th essential also has a little lighter. So that’s three lighters, and that’s why I’ll never be Ultra Light lol.

You need a spark, tinder, kindling and larger wood to sustain a cooking fire or a fire for heat, light and socializing. Your bic lighter will give you the spark, and those cotton wool balls, just one, will be your tinder. But I’ll come back to that. Your kindling you’ll collect from around your fire site while clearing up, and the bigger stuff, like wrist size branches and up, that’ll be what you’ll be fetching all night long.


So, go get that wood, and lots of it, and start to sort it into piles. You’ll have a good bundle of very dry, very thin kindling. Thin, like fat hair. You’ll have another bundle of thin stuff, then another bundle of thicker… and thicker and thicker and so forth and so on… but the point is, over prepare. Have lots of thin dry stuff. And keep this all tidy, small, and lots of it. It’s key to keeping the fire going when it’s having a stuttering start.


Now for the tinder. Tinder is what the spark will light, and it’s what burns long enough for kindling to catch, And kindling needs to catch fast, but burn long enough for the next size up to catch. And you continue to feed it slowly and patiently until your fire is large enough to consume a wrist size branch with its flames and while catching the next wrist size piece. Ultimately, you’re building a fire to sterilize water, cook your food, warm you… whatever it might be, so build it and feed it until it gets to the size you need it. Then keep it there till you’re done. If you’ve got a team of people, great, someone is always on wood duty!

Still on the tinder subject: if you’re on a backpack trip and rambling your way through to a shelter where you know you’ll be lighting a fire, keep your eyes out for birch as you close in to your campsite. A healthy birch that hasn’t been stripped by an endless stream of unwitting campers should be shedding some curly frondy bark. This stuff is gold for lighting fires. Gently take a large handful of this bark from the trees as you approach and have it ready for lighting your fire.

Cotton Balls

Ah yes, the cotton balls, they’re amazing. Get a pot of vaseline, get 10 or 20 cotton balls, and commit to having greasy hands after for a bit. I did it at night and my hands felt lush in the morning!

Anyway, massage about a teaspoon of vaseline into each cotton wool ball. It’s smeary messy work, but smush it in until it’s a pasty little pellet of damp cotton wool. Deep in the middle of that, will be a tiny bit of dry cotton. When you fray this little thing open later in life, and light it, it will catch in a millisecond and then hold a sustained burn as the vaseline wicks the remaining cotton wool slowly. Perfection. I lit a fire on my very first solo night on a very wet evening and I nearly cried with elation and pride. Cotton wool balls and vaseline. Stash them all in a snack size ziplock, they’ll last you for.ever. Here’s a little video you can watch that will give you an idea of what you’re looking for here.

So, now you’re ready.

You’ve got tinder; a cotton ball maybe, some birch bark stripped up all fine and papery, and the kindling all processed and sorted. Sit down, calm yourself, and light it up.

Your cotton ball or birch or both should be frayed and thin, delicate fibers easy to catch, and you should have a good handful of kindling ready. As soon as your spark catches your tinder, be ready to add the finest of your kindling to that little flame, and to keep feeding it until you’ve achieved a reliable burn, big enough for the next size up.

You’ll move quickly through the kindling you’ve prepared and hopefully by the time you are nearing the end, the fire will be large enough to hold the burn as you add on the bigger branches.

It should be noted that climate change is causing wildfires internationally. It’s becoming more and more important to backpack with alternate fuel sources and minimize open flame. That said, knowing how to light a fire for survival remains a key skill and should be practiced and enjoyed.

Where you are lucky enough to backpack into a campsite with a fire ring, be that chick who lit it up. Fire brings people together, it feeds our stomachs and our souls, and for the time that your faces are lit around that space together, you all share a special camaraderie and community.

Some pointers:

  • Prepare your tinder by fraying your birch bark or cotton balls.
  • Prepare your kindling by processing it into piles of increasing widths, starting with very very thin pile.
  • Be ready to add thicker wood or continue to feed thin dry kindling if the fire is stuttering to a start.
  • Always choose dead standing and/or dry wood. Rotted or green wood does not burn.

Check this video short for me doing it in my backwoods last week!

Photo by Timon Wanner on Unsplash