Important Survival Skill: How to Build a Fire

Well, it happened. Define “it” in your own unique way: the world economy collapsed; a meteor struck the earth and only a few – including you – survived; the zombie apocalypse has come, or the Russians finally invaded and Red Dawn is actual reality.


Hope you’ve been buffing up on your survival skills. Because after North Korea initiates a global nuclear war, there won’t be any more grocery stores, running water or Wal-Marts. Simply put: you’re on your own.


If you’ve been preparing, you know how to purify your own water supply and maintain your own garden, not to mention butcher, preserve and cook your own wild game that you trapped or hunted yourself. But chances are you haven’t been preparing, so let’s introduce you to one of the most rudimentary of skills necessary to survive the ever-looming apocalypse: how to build a fire.


Types of Wood to Use to Start a Fire

Get a book on trees, because you’re going to need to know the visual difference between all types of regional trees.


In general, hardwoods burn better than softwoods and produce much less smoke – a major plus in any situation. This way you won’t give away your position to the zombies/highwaymen/Russians. So say yes to oak, ash, aspen, poplar and birch hardwood for long-term burning. Softwoods, including pine, cedar, spruce and firs, serve well as fire starters, as they tend to catch more quickly; but if you’re planning long-term, know that softwoods peter out much faster than hardwoods, so have some of the latter ready to go as the meat of your newfound pyromania.


MatchstickHow to Actually Start Your Fire

So you have the wood. You have the kindling (dry leaves, pine needles and twigs) Now what?


Ideally you’ve somehow acquired a flint and steel – that’s the easiest method that still makes you feel like you actually belong in the backwoods. If not, you’re going all Tom Hanks on this one. You’ll have to utilize friction to create an ember that catches on nearby tinder. Common techniques include the hand drill (spinning a long spindle into your fire board that serves as your base) and fire plough (rubbing your spindle up and down a groove in your fire board). But you better have some time on your hands and patience in your soul, because this might take a while. I definitely recommend checking out some YouTube videos on how to do this, as it’s difficult to understand without seeing it in action or watching Castaway.


Types of Fires

If you’re unfamiliar with fire starting, chances are you haven’t realized that fires for keeping warm and fires for cooking are different. Most of us just know about the big bonfire we build for fun and to keep warm. Well if that’s all you know when that meteor strikes and highwaymen are trolling the roads and brutal warlords have asserted themselves, you’re screwed. So I’m here to save your ass. Here are the different types of fires and how to prepare them.


  1. Fire for Keeping Warm

    This fire requires less skill to build than the other two, but is no less valuable for cold nights and nuclear winters. Remember, though – if you want it to burn through the night, you will have to utilize hardwoods for longevity. The softwoods are great for starters, but will require constant maintenance and tend to burn inconsistently. I recommend building this fire against a cliffside, boulder or earthen palisade (mound of dirt built for defense against invading Russians). This is more efficient and will reflect most of the heat in the desired direction – toward you.

  2. Cooking Fire

    Cooking fires should only be utilized when you have some time on your hands and either have dead game in hand or are in an area rife with loping gazelles. You’ll want to start a smaller fire first with dry kindling – if you need to you can create your own kindling by hacking up softwoods with your manly hatchet or long-handled axe. Hatchet works best for this operation, plus you’ll look more like a bad-ass and less like a lumberjack.

    Once the fire is going, contain it with two large green logs to either side of it that won’t catch. The larger, greener logs might be harder to find so you may have to range a bit or chop down your own (it’s post-apocalypse so nobody can give you shit about it). From here, if you can set up a roasting pit to turn your gazelle carcasses over the open flame, have at it. Otherwise, utilize your pots, pans and handheld spits to cook what you need, piling good hardwood where you need a hotter flame.

  3. Quick “Snack” Fire

    Think “tepee.” This is a small fire where you lay twigs in a tepee-like structure with kindling on the ground in the middle. Keep it going and getting hotter by continually adding small twigs as it burns. The snack fire is ideal for boiling water, for coffee, and for small catches like fish, rabbits and squirrels. Roasting spits and placing pots directly on top of the fire are the best methods for cultivation, but beware you keep a close eye on the pots so they don’t burn.

    Note that I recommend a cooking fire for any once-living-and-fleeing-from-you food besides fish, but if you need a quick fire on the spot, this is your best bet. You can also expand this into a cooking fire so long as the zombies that are chasing you have been killed, the Russians that are shooting at you have been dealt with, and the mutated bears that have been on your trail for the last three days have been summarily executed.


You have the knowledge. You have the power. But, like any skill, this will require practice. You won’t have much time to learn after the bombs drop, the water wars start, or zombies are chasing you through the woods. Teach yourself now and be the Boy Scout all the people that died in the first few months of the fallout couldn’t be.


Jeff Hirz is a writer, freelancer and avid hiker. He contributed this article on behalf of Premier Firewood.

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