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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Prof. Hike: The Ex-Pyromaniac's Guide to Fire

How to light an expert blaze every time

by: Jason Stevenson, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

Everyone can light a fire...and everyone should know how to. (JS)
Everyone can light a fire...and everyone should know how to. (JS)

professor hike
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This January, 49 out of 50 states were covered by snow (we’ll mail you some, Orlando). A week ago Denver kids waited for school buses on a minus-10°F morning. And you’ve probably scrapped enough ice from your windshield to create five dozen slushies. Face it—we’re stuck in the icy core of winter. At times like this, I like to imagine the perfect campfire. It would be a blaze hot enough to make my eyeballs sizzle, and fierce enough to create its own roaring wind. That’s the fire for this time of year.

Some people believe fire-building is an innate skill—like rolling your tongue or being double-jointed. Hogwash. Every Boy Scout I’ve ever met could ignite an inferno in less than two minutes. How did they learn? From other Boy Scouts. That means you can learn, too. Of course, Scouts like to augment their campfires with gasoline, aerosol sprays, and shotgun shells—accelerants that aren’t always available to backpackers, and shouldn’t be given to any kids wearing neckerchiefs, either.

Fortunately, is awash with excellent tips on lighting fires the old-fashioned way with kindling, a firestarter (a highly flammable trigger that burns long enough to ignite the rest of your fuel), and matches or a lighter. So instead of rediscovering fire, this post will warm up the existing advice by highlighting the most important elements. 

1. Start at home
There are several simple firestarters that you can prepare from household waste products. A potent one will maintain a strong flame in wet, windy, and cold conditions—exactly the times when you need a fire the most. has several great articles on making firestarters using dryer lint, sawdust, petroleum jelly, and cardboard egg cartons among other common household items. Additional trail-tested suggestions are posted in the forums.

My addition is to explain how to melt old candles using the double-boiler method. Instead of throwing out useless, stubby candles, drop them in a metal or Pyrex glass container (something you won’t be eating out of anytime soon), and plop it in a stove pot filled with two to three inches of boiling water. Once the candles melt, pour the runny wax into an egg carton, metal mold, or whatever forms the base of your firestarter. Using this method plus cardboard tubes, saw dust, and three months' of dryer lint, Prof. Hike’s wife turned last December’s Hanukkah candles into this year’s batch of firestarters. 

2. Prepare for ignition

Just like a rocket launch sequence begins before the countdown reaches zero, lighting a fire requires pre-ignition groundwork. If you want a fire to last for several hours, gather as much dead wood as you can. Then go back and get three times as much. Collect wood during daylight when it’s easier and safer to stumble around the underbrush. And when foraging, remember to look up as well as down. Dead branches snagged in trees are often drier than wood already lying on the ground. For a long-lasting fire, gather thick, dense logs and stumps the width of your arm or greater. But to ignite a blaze, you’ll need kindling—small, finger-width sticks of dry wood. To see how kindling works, watch Backpacker editor Shannon Davis’s video about lighting a one-match fire. Plus, did you notice how Shannon blew on the fire (3:50) to get it raging? A common mistake by novices is to smother the ignition source with too much kindling. This prevents air (and the essential fire ingredient oxygen) from fueling the blaze, and often results in a smoky squib. To keep the air flowing, leave gaps in the kindling pile, ignite the firestarter at its lowest point, and blow gently on the fire if necessary.

3. Stove-lighting tips

While campfires are great for creating ambiance or preventing hypothermia, we rarely use them to cook dinner. A combination of burn restrictions and convenience has let stoves conquer the backcountry kitchen. (But if you’re searching for flame-licked meals, check out these recipes for crescent rolls, trout, and steak). As a result, knowing how to use your stove in all conditions might be more useful than the intricacies of bonfire building.

First, Backpacker’s Camp Stove Shopping Guide explains how different stoves (canister, white-gas, and alcohol) can match your camping needs. No matter which stove you choose, always pack a cigarette lighter even if your stove has a built-in igniter. You never know when that piezoelectric thingy will go on the fritz.

Second, read this Gear School article by Kristin Hostetter on how to use and maintain white-gas stoves. These stoves work better in cold weather (under 40°F) than canister stoves like the JetBoil. However, if you rely on a canister stove to brew your coffee, you can improve its chilly-morning performance by warming the fuel in your sleeping bag overnight, and in your coat’s inner pocket prior to use. Kristin also suggests taping a chemical hand warmer to the side of a canister.

Finally, you can accessorize your stove by building a stabilizing platform and a ventilated windscreen. Just remember that windscreens should only be used with white-gas stoves containing a separate burner and fuel bottle. Placing a solid screen around a canister stove can overheat its components and lead to a spectacular explosion. Or so a Boy Scout told me.

What are your fire-starting tactics that work every time? Post a comment or send an email (no flames, please) to

—Jason Stevenon

idiot's guide to backpacking and hikingJason Stevenson is the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Backpacking and Hiking

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Star Star Star Star Star
Nov 15, 2013

I've always read, and followed, the "no wood bigger than your wrist" theory in the backcountry.

(Cotton and vaseline for me. Never fails.)

Star Star Star Star Star
Nov 15, 2013

I've always read, and followed, the "no wood bigger than your wrist" theory in the backcountry.

May 09, 2012

Well ill have all of you know i was a boy scout too and we used everything we could get our hands on that would burn to start a fire. My son is a boy scout now and i can promise it is still the same.

Prof. Hike
Apr 10, 2011

This is Prof. Hike. I see that my attempt at humor re: boy scouts and lighting fires with flammable liquids has generated some critical responses. Seems like that joke fizzled and went out. First, I'm a former boy scout (Troop #333, Great Trail Council). Second, while I witnessed all of those dangerous fire-starting practices at scout camp-outs and jamborees, I certainly don't condone them. Nor do I believe that all scouts are firebugs. Far from it. The BSA Handbook, merit badges, and both adult and youth leaders teach safe and effective fire-building skills. Scout camp is where I learned how to build a one-match fire (I never had the patience for the bow method... so tiring). I would trust a scout to light a fire before any one else. But kids, and especially young boys, are naturally drawn to fire. So scout troops and leaders must be careful to teach and practice good fire behaviors starting with the Tenderfoots--and quickly stamp out any unsafe behaviors. Experimentation is appealing, and scouts can learn unsafe fire behaviors as quickly as they can learn safe ones. And unfortunately, the unsafe ones are generally more spectacular to a 12 year-old. ~Prof. Hike.

Apr 04, 2011

I personally make it a matter of pride not to use or have any matches, lighters in my possession and not to use any accelerants when sarting a fire when I camp or barbeque...EVER! A firesteel w/flint, a swedish firesteel or a firepiston are spark sources of choice. Good tinder eg: cotton,lint or preferabaly charcloth which will hold a spark very easily and very,.very well and Hold it for a relatively long period of time plus burn hot if you blow on it. I have never seen a good waterproof/windproof match, nor have I been willing to risk my life on any of them.Charxloth makes fire starting an absolute piece of cake plus it is so easy to transafer a spark to it and hence to anything that makes good tinder, ie: try a birds nest of frayed hemp rope or sisal rope with cotton at the heart of it and a piece of sparked charcloth on it, blow on it while hoklding in your hand , when it flames, drop into your ready made kindling pile and you will beat anyone else not using the same technique. Practice makes perfect! Good luck!! PS Keep your cotton dry in a ziplock bag. .

Mar 04, 2011

Not to beat a dead horse, but not only was using any sort of accelerant absolutely not allowed in my boy scout days, but many of today's Leave No Trace practices were followed during my scouting time badk in the 70s. I think you might owe present and former neckerchief wearers an apology...

Feb 22, 2011

Hand sanitizer easily catches a spark if you're using a swedish firesteel or blastmatch. Sap from pine trees burns slowly as well.

Feb 21, 2011

Despite what Jason says, putting a fuel cartridge in a sleeping bag to keep it warm is bad practice. I like the idea of taping hand warmers to the side of a cartridge, although I doubt if the heat generated will be enough to fully warm a full can. Better bring the white gas stove if it is going to be cold.

Feb 18, 2011

I'll second Doug. The Guide to Safe Scouting clearly prohibits "using liquid fuels for starting any type of fire—including lighting damp wood, charcoal, and ceremonial campfires or displays". My Scouts are taught to build a fire with tinder, kindling & fuel wood and light it with two matches or less. Practice (and patience) makes perfect.

Feb 15, 2011

Our favorite ultra lite accelerant is Waxed Paper. Cheap, light and doesn't take up any room. Pack it flat, anywhere in the pack, and then ball up to fire.

Feb 10, 2011

I just want to let you know, not all boy Scouts learn how to make a fire with fluids. Our boys are taught not to use an accelerant. And we quite often do not even use a match.


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