To Build a Fire
by John Solomon
Learn to build a fire anywhere, anytime and in any situation.
Ever try building a fire when it’s 50 degrees, raining, and a foot of dense snow covers the ground? It’s not easy, and chances are you’re going to get cold. Fast. But understanding a few fire basics and some sample scenarios should keep you a little warmer this fall. As with most things, practice makes perfect. So don’t be afraid to build a fire when you go out. Just make sure you put it dead out before you leave.
Ignition: You need a spark (matches, lighter, and tinder—what you ignite to start flames.
Fuel: It’s what keeps your ignition ignited. It’s dry and divided into three stages: pencil‑thin, finger thick and larger. Add materials in that order.
Oxygen: Without it, a fire doesn’t breathe. Use a soda-can thick stick beside your tinder to prop small fuel against and ensure flames aren’t accidentally snuffed.
Rule of Three: Have enough of everything to build three fires. They will go out, so be ready.
Site Prep: Protect against ground moisture by clearing the ground to bare soil and use platforms (large slabs of dead bark, a raft of dry sticks laid tightly together).
To the Elk Woods
Elk country is diverse and surviving in it takes adaptability. Here are a few scenarios and how to build a fire in them.
Pacific Northwest, raining, 50 degrees
Use heartwood of a 3- to 4-inch diameter dead, standing tree. Often, the bottom foot or two will have translucent pitch hardened between the grains of wood, ranging in color from yellow to purple. It smells like pine and burns like gasoline.
Break the tree into 3-foot lengths, split pieces repeatedly with a hatchet, and separate them into three stages. Just before you ignite your tinder, whittle a softball-sized pile of shavings off a couple long straight pieces of pitch-impregnated wood. Light the tinder then add the shavings in a handful. They will grow your flames rapidly. Add fuel in stages.
Central Montana, October, 20 mph winds, blowing snow
Descend into a coulee or creek bottom where trees, brush and topography will help block wind. Kick a flat spot big enough for a fire into the leeward side of a slope, near the bottom, which will reflect the heat. Dead sage are excellent fuel. Plus, they are easily broken apart by hand. Even live sage plants will usually have small dead branches clustered near the bottom. A fistful of long stalks of dead prairie grass, firmly twisted like a licorice stick, also can be used as fuel. To ignite, use long, thick shreds of sage bark, wadded up into a softball-sized mass. Look for finer dead grass found on the leeward side of anything.
Colorado Mountains, November, 11,000 feet
Seek out small saddles and brushy flat spots below the ridge tops. They will offer protection as well as a likely fuel source. Conversely, you may find fuel somewhere that is just too exposed for comfort, so carry as much fuel as possible to a protected location. Working within the cracks and crevices of rock formations can protect both you and your fire. If necessary, move rocks around to make a windbreak that doubles as a fire reflector.
Dead aspen burn nicely below 11,000-feet elevation, as well as limber pine and subalpine fir. Using a pack saw, take apart the tree one piece at a time. You can break the pieces into smaller stages by smashing between rocks if necessary. Pitch can be present in the lower extremities, near the stump. If you locate subalpine spruce or other conifers, reach under the lowest boughs and pull handfuls of small dead branches from the base of the trunk.