Common Mistakes When Lighting a Fire

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Photo by Pixabay/raedon
Sorting tinder, kindling, and fuel before lighting the fire will ensure that you have the right materials on hand as the fire starts.

Fire Making (The Experiment, 2018) by Daniel Hume is the story of one man traveling around the world, studying every method of making fire there is. Hume helps readers find every method imaginable to light a fire without a lighter, while giving a descriptive history lesson on the origins and uses of fire in countless cultures. In the following excerpt, he lists the most common mistakes made by those attempting to start fires.

Unsuitable Fuel

It is easy to make mistakes with fuel selection when you are inexperienced or working under stress in difficult conditions. Make absolutely certain that the wood you are collecting is dead and dry, not merely dormant for the winter or recently cut. Remember, when you saw firewood, the sawdust from the middle should float down and not be clumpy. As a rule, dry wood will feel light in weight relative to its size.

Being Too Slow

If you are too slow to add fuel, the fire may burn out before it has spread. There is a balance to strike here. You don’t want to smother the fire and exclude oxygen by piling too much fuel on, but on the other hand there is no need to add twigs one by one. Handle it firmly.


Many healthy fires are loved to death. They are extinguished by too much unnecessary titivation, especially during the lighting process. Prepare everything as described, put a light to the tinder, and resist the urge to interfere with it. It wants to burn! If you move sticks around too much in the early stages, you will spread the heart of the fire too thinly and it will die. Keep the embers together.

A Flat Fire

Flames like to burn upward. If you place firewood on the kindling and make the pile too flat, it will smolder and cause irritating smoke. Strike a match and hold it horizontally. Then hold it at a steep angle, and you will notice it burns faster and brighter. The same goes for a large fire: Lay fuel on at a slight upward angle.

A Tepee Fire

The opposite extreme to a flat fire is this common misconception of how to build a fire: a tepee-shaped fire. It is often seen in illustrations, probably because it is easy to draw. In reality, it is neither easy to build nor reliable. Although it is a shape that burns brightly when it works, it is not a style I would recommend. The sticks are leaned up against each other, and are therefore prevented from collapsing into the fire. This often results in the center of the fire burning out while the sticks leaned up on the outside are left merely scorched.

Packing Fuel Too Tightly

This can prevent a fire from burning efficiently, or even smother it completely and put it out. When you lay fuel on, make sure the flames have air space to lick up between and around each piece. A good example of this is when you burn old newspapers or magazines in a bonfire. Even if they are thrown into a raging inferno that lasts for several hours, once the fire has gone out you can often rake through the ash and find perfectly legible, unscorched pages.

Excerpted fromFire Making: The Forgotten Art of Conjuring Flame with Spark, Tinder, and Skill © Daniel Hume, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, The Experiment. Available wherever books are sold.