Preparedness: Lighting a Fire

By Catherine Haug, Feb 23, 2016

The article below was submitted by Dr. Bruce Nelson, a member of BERT (Bigfork Emergency Response Team), who organized the Bigfork Preparedness Fairs for several years. I have edited his article for formatting.

Not all of us have wood stoves and know how to light a fire with matches and twigs. To avoid finding yourself without these tools when you need them most, what do you do? Dr. Nelson provides excellent suggestions, which I follow with a few suggestions of my own, and a list of related preparedness and survival articles on this site.

 To light a fire

We all should practice building a fire in case we need to, or freeze and die if we get caught, when a fire will save us.

Get all the wood – small twigs and larger  to use in starting the fire and to build it up so you can keep it going.

Important is to have what you need in your bug-out-bag and/or car.  Always get more than you think you need. Lets go to the car (see also Prepare a Fire Kit for your Car, below):

  • In the trunk you might have 2 cigarette lighters and have two in your bug-out-bag, in case you do not have your car.  Also matches, wetfire cubes, petroleum jelly, wax soaked cardboard etc.
  • If you have a car with cigarette lighter and/or jumper cables, and its battery is still good: Have some small cotton or lint balls from your dryer to use as tinder; fluff them and light them with your lighter. You might soak them with petroleum. even cut up some boxes and soak those pieces too.
  • Hook up jumper cables and touch the free ends over the balls and the sparks will start them on fire. Do not let the ends you are holding to weld or stick together, as this creates a closed circuit, which can cause the battery to explode.
  • Cut up the car seats and ignite. You can also wrap the car seat materials around long sticks and ignite to use as torches so others can see you.

Ideas and hints

About 3 or 4 fritos is one of the best fuels for starting a fire.  Or other fatty snacks such as bugles, cheetos, cheese puffs, corn chips, and kettle chips.  These grease-soaked food chips burn very well; they might burn for several minutes.  You might take a paper napkin and wipe it with your car’s oil dip stick 2 or 3 times and put the chips on top of it, then the oily cardboard boxes or other paper.

If conditions are bad use up to three-times the amount of small fine twigs or famous fibrous tinder on top of that with the tepee of small twings on top of that and light it.
Try this a number of times to get good at it.  Try without the napkin.

Hint: always start the fire on the side where the wind is coming from to carry into the wood and help it start.

We’ve all heard that you can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. However, it may not work.  Have you practiced even doing that? If you need help have a boy scout come over and help you get started.  How about going outdoors on Family Home Evenings and practice with the family.

Avoid building fire on snow, which puts out the fire. Instead, get out of the wind, build on slope  so melted snow runs away from fire rather than gathering around the fire and putting it out.

Avoid getting green twigs and wood – these will not stay lit, wasting matches. Two tests for green vs dry wood:

  • Squeeze the wood; if cool, it has water in it.
  • If it breaks or snaps easy, this indicates the wood is dead and will burn better.

Prepare a Fire Kit for your Car

Note you might cut these preparedness things out and create your own book of them or like this one put it in your car and bug out bag.

  • Water proof box (bright color)
  • Ignition sources (2 butane cigarette lighters – 2 boxes of matches- one ferrocerium rod)
  • Dryer lint and cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly
  • Petroleum jelly and/or other fire starters from sporting good stores.
  • Knives and other things you might need in kit.
  • Larger tools like a small shovel and an axe can be secured separately in car.

Notes from other sources:

Boy Scout tips

I found these on the Instructables website, written by a boy scout (1), from Boy’s Life (2), and Wiki-How (3).

Gather your materials:

  • Tinder: Other examples of tinder you may find in the wild (substitutes for dryer lint and cotton balls), from Instructables (1): Dry pine needles, dry grass, pine tree sap/pine cones. Tinder must be totally dry.
  • Kindling: Small, dry twigs are best; kindling should be no bigger than a pencil (diameter) when you first start the fire (1), then can get progressively larger (bit by bit) as the fire gets going.
  • Fuel: This is in three categories by size (1): Light fuel: larger twigs, about the size of your thumb; Medium fuel: small branches, about the size of your wrist; and Heavy fuel: large branches or cut wood, anything bigger than your wrist.

Select and clear your fire site: Select a site that is easy to clear of burnables; ideally to get down to bare dirt or solid rock. If the ground is snowy or icy, select a site on a slope so the melt can run off, away from your fire. Clear your site of all grass and other burnables for at least 5 feet around your fire. (1) Avoid overhanging branches and make sure your fire is a safe distance from tents and other flammable materials. (2)

Setting up the fuel: There are two ways to do this; the most well-known is the tee-pee set up; the other is the log cabin style of stacking the fuel. (1)

Putting out the fire:

  1. Pour water on the fire to drown it; stir the ashes with a stick; repeat as often as necessary until the fire is out. It’s not out until you can run your bare hands through the coals. (2)
  2. Fire can smolder under rocks,, so pick up each rock under/around the fire area, and make sure they are cool to the touch. (3)
  3. If sufficient water is not available, you can put out the fire with dirt and sand. Don’t just cover with dirt. First let the fire burn out as completely as possible.  Then mix in dirt and sand gradually while stirring the coals. (3) When you believe the fire is out, remember to test the mix by running your bare hands through the coals.

Safety warnings: 

  • It is very important to note that you should only put your hands inside the fire once the fire has been doused with water or completely mixed with dirt and it appears to be completely out. (3)
  • While extinguishing your campfire, be careful not to lean too far over the fire to avoid being burned. (3)

Cat’s ideas

In addition to a fire-starter kit, the following can also be helpful in your car:

  • Keep some rope and a tarp for constructing shelter;
  • Blankets or sleeping bag
  • First aid kit (see also All Natural First Aid Kit)
  • Bottled water and/or water purification kit including iodine tablets

See also other articles on this site:


  1. Instructables, on building a fire, Boy Scouts of America style:
  2. Boy’s Life:
  3. Wiki-How:

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