Wilderness Skills: How to Start a Fire

Learn how to start a fire using a homemade bow drill as well as best types of firewood including tinder, kindling, squaw wood and large firewood.

| January/February 1982

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     To make tinder, work some light dry wood (such as this cedar bark) with your hands.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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     To make tinder, work some light dry wood (such as this cedar bark) with your hands until the fibers loosen (you can soften any particularly stubborn fibers by pounding them between two rocks).
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    A flight fluffy bundle like this well worked cedar makes perfect timber.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    To complete the bow drill the bowstring is wound once around the drill.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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     The fireboard, drill and handhold are vital parts of the bow drill.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    This is the perfect firestarting form.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    Add the tinder-wrapped flames to the tipi of kindling to start your fire.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    Perfect fire-starting form... Blowing the tinder-wrapped coals into flame... and thrusting the lighted bundle into a prelaid fire.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
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    Blow gentle on the tinder-wrapped coals in order to start a flame.
    Photo By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff

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Tom Brown, Jr. was brought up in the ways of the woods by a displaced apache name Stalking Wolf. Today, he is one of our country's leading outdoor authorities, author of 17 books and fieldguides, and head of one of the largest tracking and wilderness survival schools in the U.S.Tom has agreed to do a series of special features for MOTHER EARTH NEWS, articles that will help all of us learn how to survive—in comfort!—in the wild. -MOTHER 

In the first two articles in this series, Build a Wilderness Shelter  and Finding Water in the Wilderness  dealt with ways to secure shelter and water . . . the two most important requirements for anyone facing a survival situation. On the other hand, one seldom needs a fire in order to stay alive. But because a good blaze can be used to cook food, sterilize water, create tools, and — of course — keep a survivalist warm and comfortable, I've placed firemaking third on my list of valuable wilderness skills.

It's important to know how to ignite a fire without the aid of a cigarette lighter — which is simply a modern form of the old flint-and-steel system — or matches. After all, you might unexpectedly find yourself thrust into a situation when you have no supply of purchased flame starters. Or, if you're camping and your matches get wet or lost, you might be forced to end your trek early if you're unable to get a blaze going without artificial aids. What's more, no self-respecting outdoors purist would want to be dependent on a finite supply of matches.

In my school I teach 17 ways of building fires. In my opinion, however, the best overall flame starter — and the one I'll share in this article — is the bow drill. Learning how to work with this tool will give you a lot of satisfaction, and add to the security you'll feel when traveling through the woods.



Before I go into the details of making a fire, though, let me emphasize that whenever you practice this — or any other — outdoor skill, it's important to do the best job on the task that you can possibly do. Consistently careful craftsmanship — even in rehearsals — will not only insure good results but also improve your ability to get the job done under adverse conditions. Most native Americans aimed at this same perfection of skill on an everyday basis. They felt that anything — including, but not limited to, living plants and animals — that they took from the Earth Mother was a gift from the Great Spirit. Of course, doing a shoddy job of employing the gifts would, in effect, be showing disrespect for the Spirit's generosity, so they tried to make works of art of all things. Such actions were an integral part of these people's religious beliefs, and served the purpose of greatly increasing their survival abilities.

Preparing the Firemaking Site

 Of course, before you can make a fire, you have to choose a spot for it. Your site should be free of any combustible brush, dried grasses, or leaves . . . away from low overhead branches . . . and not in an open, breezy area or on an exposed ridge. I also recommend (as I pointed out in my first article) setting your fire some six to ten feet — depending upon wind and weather conditions — away from your shelter entrance.



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