Search and Rescue

Fire Starting Techniques

by Tom Russo and Mike Dugger

Cibola SAR requires every member to carry some sort of fire making materials in his or her pack, and we don't specify what type. Sure, most of us carry some matches, maybe some kind of tinder, and probably one of those magnesium blocks with a flint-and-steel. But when was the last time you tried using your fire starting tools other than matches?

Aware that few of us would be able to start a fire with a couple of sticks and whatever we could scrounge up in a moment of need, we decided to test out some of the techniques we've heard about, seen people attempt, or just thought might work. In addition, we've tried to pull together some thoughts on techniques we've seen people try with no success and which we'd be better off forgetting. Since using matches to start a fire is almost a no-brainer, we'll discuss those techniques last and concentrate for most of this article on what you might do should your matches become unusable (you do store your matches in a waterproof container, don't you?).

The basics
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, there are three requirements for fire: fuel, oxygen and heat. Remove any one of them, or provide it in inadequate quantities, and the fire dies. This balance is most critical when the fire is just starting; the heat generated by your initial fire is small, so your fuel needs to be small and the airflow to it must be good. For all of our test fires we chose a common configuration: we built a small square box out of dry twigs, and built our starter fire inside this (see figure). By constructing the box in this way we put a large quantity of small, easily ignited fuel near the starting fire, and the large gaps between the sticks provided excellent air flow. All that remained was to get the starter fire hot enough to ignite the kindling box.

The Attempts

The first fire we attempted to kindle was meant to be the type of fire you'd make if all you had was a flint, steel and some magnesium shavings, a good sharp knife, and an abundance of dry fuel.

Taking a dry twig, we made a quantity of tiny wood shavings. The intent was that these would be so small that they would catch a spark from the striker and burn well enough to get some more shavings burning, and by building the fire up from this humble beginning we'd get a comfortable blaze. It took a lot of work to get this anywhere, and in fact we probably would have been in trouble had we tried this when we really needed a fire.

For starters, the small pile of shavings didn't catch the spark and start burning; the shavings were too thick and would have needed more heat than a small, hot sliver of magnesium could provide. What was needed was some other tinder to catch the spark and hold it while the wood shavings were slowly added. In short, in trying this we learned that wood shavings make lousy tinder, but with some good tinder the shavings would have been a good step up to larger fuel.

Since time was rapidly slipping away from us, we abandoned the attempt to create a fire with no packed-in gear other than the striker.

As an attempt to salvage the wood shaving idea, we tried using steel wool as tinder. Steel wool makes excellent tinder, as it turns out, catching the spark quickly and burning very hot, very quickly. Unfortunately, our wood shavings were hopelessly scattered in the earlier attempts, and we didn't have enough in one pile to put on top of the hot steel wool before it was consumed. Lesson learned: make sure that you have all of your fire building materials on hand in copious quantities before you start trying to build it! The hot steel wool easily ignited the small amount of wood shavings we had left. Had we made a good pile of wood shavings before striking a spark into the steel wool, the steel wool would have been hot enough to kindle a fire in them, and that would have been a good starting point for kindling larger fuel such as dry twigs. Again, had we been in desperate need of a fire we'd have been in trouble using this technique without having learned that lesson first.

The next attempt was to fill the starter box with dried grass and use a cotton ball to catch the spark from the striker. Initial attempts without the magnesium shavings were unsuccessful, as the cotton did not ignite, but once magnesium shavings were put on the cotton all it took was a few strikes and the cotton caught fire, ignited the grass, and within a minute or two the entire starter box was on fire. The starter box burned hot and would have provided an excellent starting point for larger fuel.

Some of our members carry cotton strips soaked with wax which they intend to use as fire starters. To verify that this works, we modified the last starting arrangements by replacing the plain cotton ball with a strip of wax-coated cotton cloth. We were unable to get the cotton strip to ignite, even with the magnesium shavings; that's probably because you've got to melt the wax before it can ignite, and there wasn't enough heat generated by the spark alone. When the wax-coated strip was replaced with an identical strip of cloth without wax, the fire started easily with magnesium shavings.

The next type of kindling we tried was taken from the lint screen of a clothes drier. The lint caught a spark and ignited even without magnesium, but we found that it was pretty important to tease it apart to get good internal airflow or it would snuff out quickly. But with well-teased fluff, a spark, and a starter box we had a starter fire going in a minute or so (and this, of course, is why one is cautioned to clean the lint screen every time you do the wash!). One thing we noticed was that since the particular batch of fluff we were using was from a load of laundry with mixed cottons and synthetics, there was a tendency for the fluff to melt as it burned, and some of the melting synthetics formed a shell that could have snuffed out the embryonic fire. We concluded that it would probably be best to stick to fluff from all-cotton loads of laundry.

In our final flint-and-steel attempt we used a cotton ball soaked in petroleum jelly. This was placed on a loose pile of dry twigs inside the starter box, and a few magnesium shavings were added. The cotton ball ignited easily with a few sparks, and the starter box caught fire quickly.

Moisture considerations

These fires were all made in dry, clear conditions and clearly some consideration must be given to damp conditions. With even slightly damp fuel the need for a hot, sustained starter fire is even more pronounced, and the methods with accelerants such as petroleum jelly or wax are probably favored. While we were unable to get the wax-coated cloth lit with just a flint and steel, such a cloth would probably be a good thing to add to the initial fire once it is kindled to keep it burning hot for a long enough time to ignite your larger kindling.

Other methods

Most of us carry matches in some sort of waterproof container, but with a little work you can make waterproof matches with built-in accelerant!

Melt a quantity of parafin wax in a double boiler (I [T.R.] use an old spaghetti sauce jar for the inner part of the double boiler). Pour a small amount of this into the empty bottom of a cardboard matchbox. Allow it to cool slightly, but while it is still workable press a row of wooden kitchen matches into the wax. Space them out so that each pair of matches has almost a match-width of wax in between. Pour more wax over this row, and allow to cool some more. Continue this process, making layer upon layer of matches, and what will result is a block of matches sealed in a watertight package of wax. If you've left room in between the matches you can carve out one at a time, along with the wax around it, as you need. The match basically becomes a self-lighting candle.

With matches prepared by this technique, we were able to get our starter box ablaze with just a small pile of dry twigs and one of these matches; the wax on the match melts onto the twigs and burns hot for a much longer time than an ordinary match would. One thing I've noticed, though, is that the matches are somewhat harder to strike than usual --- I used "strike anywhere" matches, but found that "anywhere" pretty much had to be "anywhere on the striker that came on the box," as the strike-anywhere tip of the match just abraded away whenever I tried to strike it on a rock. Now I include a strip of striker in the waterproof container that holds my matches.

A method favored by some Cibola members is to fill spent shotgun shells with wax and a wick; this could be used to ignite the starter box as with the wax-covered matches or petroleum jelly soaked cotton. We did not test this method.

One method we've seen attempted often, but never seen work, is to douse a pile of dry wood with lantern fuel (kerosene). Sure, if there are some small dry twigs in there that the fuel can get going, it is possible to get larger logs burning this way. However, not only is this unsafe, but incredibly lacking in finesse. The reason it never works with logs is that the kerosene burns rapidly, but not hot enough or long enough to ignite the wood.

If you have been carrying around fire starting materials that you have not tried out, it would pay to see if you could actually make a fire that way. We had a few surprises, and it was better to have learned what didn't work this way than on a cold night in the field. Back to the Minilesson Page
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