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How To: Build an Emergency Fire

You've done it now. Gone on a simple walk and gotten lost, or broken your ankle. It's cold. You didn't bring gear. Don't just curl up and wait. Get a fire going.
Photos by Jennifer Howe / Model: Julie Trevelyan
  • 1) Sure you can haul flint, steel, bow drills, sparkers, or waterproof matches, but a butane lighter is the cheapest, simplest, lightest (0.4 oz) emergency item on the planet. Cold? Warm it against your skin. If it's wet, dry it under your clothes.
  • 2) First step: Pick a spot out of the wind, where rocks, trees, or brush provide shelter and a heat reflector. It's best if wood and tinder are nearby. (Note: the pine needles on the ground here are all soaked.)
  • 3) Worry about small stuff not big logs. Starting your fire is the biggest hurdle, so look for dry tinder and gather plenty of small, easily combustible twigs, dead leaves, dry grass, or dead pine needles. Be as picky as possible.
  • 4) Dead, standing trees, and the base of thickly-branched trunks, often shelter lots of dry tinder. Gather fuel in three main categories: Tinder, then 'small stuff' up to one inch in diameter, then larger, long-burning wood.
  • 5) Dead, dry pine cones and finger-thick wood fall under the 'small stuff' category. They catch fire easily and create quick heat, but can't be used to light the fire itself.
  • 6) Lastly, go for thicker wood. For a full night out in cold, you'll need lots--about a waist-high pile. Gather it before darkness falls. If you're hypothermic, use the search effort to warm up, or gather added wood after you warm up with a small fire.
  • 7) Break larger sticks is by propping them against a rock or log and stepping down firmly. Avoid breaking wood over your knee or baseball-batting it against boulders. Now is not the time for injuries.
  • 8) Sort your fuel roughly according to size and pile it a convenient, arms-reach distance from your fire location.
  • 9) For a long overnight, gather excess tinder and shelter it carefully in case you need to re-start your fire. You can also use the fire itself to dry out wet wood or marginal tinder for later use.
  • 10) Make a platform to let you stick the starting flame into a wind-sheltered nook beneath the tinder. Lighting the top of a pile won't work.
  • 11) Heap alot of tinder and small twigs atop the platform so the initial fire is big enough to sustain itself. Keep the pile 'fluffed up' to allow air to circulate through it. Fire starts fail because of not enough tinder, aeration, or wind-protection.
  • 12) Prepare thoroughly, double check it, then fire up. If necessary, blow lightly against the base of the starting flame in a bellows manner.
  • 13) If you've done it right, and your tinder is relatively dry, a quick light should build into a fire. This took a 2-second flick of lighter. The photo was shot 30 seconds after striking. Pile lots of 'small stuff' onto it quickly without smothering.
  • 14) Once it's stable, keep your fire small but hot and clean. Smoke doesn't generate heat; flames do. For an overnight, you'll need about 10 times the amount of wood shown. Try and keep your impacts light, but this isn't about LNT; it's about surviving.
1) Sure you can haul flint, steel, bow drills, sparkers, or waterproof matches, but a butane lighter is the cheapest, simplest, lightest (0.4 oz) emergency item on the planet. Cold? Warm it against your skin. If it's wet, dry it under your clothes.
Image 1 of 14

1) Sure you can haul flint, steel, bow drills, sparkers, or waterproof matches, but a butane lighter is the cheapest, simplest, lightest (0.4 oz) emergency item on the planet. Cold? Warm it against your skin. If it's wet, dry it under your clothes.


Page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

All good advice, for a certain climate and vegetation community. Lighting fires in pine forests is, relatively speaking, easy. It's tougher in places with high winds, no shelter, little woody vegetation or high humidity that soaks fuel regardless of how high off the ground it is; how about a slideshow for those situations? And these photos definitely didn't really demonstrate how to do this with a broken ankle . .
— TD

Great detail on how to start a fire, thanks, and reference is made to keeping it small; however, I was surprised not to see anything about providing a clear space between the fire and other tinder. The fire is right on, and surrounded by, other dry pine needles that could catch and expand the fire to who knows what, should the hiker doze off.
— Greg

Nice fire circle... There's dead pine needles all around this fire! Might be a good idea to include some advice about how to not start forest fires..
— NL

Nice slide show and educational - but the idea is to get warm, not burn down the forest. Clear the fire site of combustibles before striking up. The pine needles in slide 14 might be wet at the outset, but they aren't going to be after that fire is burning for awhile!
— cdahiker

The forest floor around the fire is covered with combustible pine needles and branches - including the shelter area. Unless it's wet, the resulting fire might become a larger problem than the cold. Seems like clearing the area and having a fire fighting plan might be a good idea.
— ken

Author or readers comment back... In evergreen tree areas, I've had luck with adding resin (sap), especially older harder resin that gathers on old injuries to trees. It seems to burn hotter, and even burns wet. I bundle it with other tinder. Comments?

— Greenmantle

Good at the basics. The tinder and small stuff are essential for getting things started. These are dependent on the local area, so a prior knowledge of what will burn easily is essential if pine is not available. Birch bark and vaseline soaked cotton balls are a great way to start a fire.
— Dayve

How do you make a fire without a lighter? I have no use to have a lighter in my pocket. So then what?
— SW

It's interesting to me how most instructional videos and slide show comments on this site merely nitpick on every weakness of a simple presentation. i.e. If someone has to do this with a broken ankle, it means you hobble around to get it all done - or freeze. The terrain shown here looks stony and frozen, actually that's mentioned in caption 2. In many forests it's impossible to 'clear' an area of tinder down to dirt level, but you still need a fire. And if someone 'has no use' for a lighter in one's pocket, why would they carry another esoteric fire-starting tool? I mean, really.
— JT

Sure the bic throw away lighter is small but it still a throw away= garbage. How about a Zippo or some other refillable lighter and or matches in a water proof container. At one time the Zippo was standard issue in the military not just for smokes but it could be used to cook with and warm the fingers and hands on the spot. I always carry both matches and a refillable lighter doesnt add much weight to the load in pack or in pocket.
— JK


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