How to Build a Fire
in an Emergency

Those who travel in the wilderness should know how to build a fire in an emergency. Wilderness distress situations often involve those lost or stranded, and wet and cold. Being wet and cold in the wilderness is a prescription for death from hypothermia.

The knowledge of how to build a fire, and the ability do it under stressful conditions could save your life. After all, fire is warmth, and warmth maintains life.

The way I see it, emergency firemaking skills and equipment are to the outdoors enthusiast what swimming skills and life jackets are to the boater. In an emergency, if you don't know how to build a fire and if you don't have the materials with which to do it, your chances of surviving are greatly reduced. My eight-minute video below offers a "short-course" in how to build a fire in an emergency.

This information, and much more is offered in my book, "Surviving the Wilds of Florida." I wrote my book specifically for those who enjoy the Florida outdoors. Florida is unique. We have no deserts, no jungles, no mountains, no tundra, no northerly type woods--nothing like that. What we have is a one-of-a-kind environment. Those who enjoy our outdoors should understand this environment, and how to care for themselves in it. That's exactly what my book will teach you.

Now, back to how to build a fire in an emergency. Below, you'll find useful information from the video.

Things You Need to Build a Fire

Material that catches fire easily. Good tinder generally available in Florida includes:

Sabal Palm Fibers -- found behind the bootjacks of sabal palm trees

Cattail Fuzz-- The fuzzy material from the overly mature plant spike. Cattails usually mature into this fuzzy state in the late fall or winter.

Thistle Down-- The fuzz from a thistle.

Dry, Blackened Spanish Moss-- Black Spanish moss found on the ground or draped across limbs. Must be very dried and bone dry, or it won't work.

Slivers of Fat Lighter'd -- Small slivers shaved from aromatic heart of pine, known as fat lighter'd (short for lighter wood). These small bits will often begin to burn when touched with the flame of a match.

Can be small, dry twigs from the size of a pencil lead up to the size of a pencil. Might be dry leaves and stalks. Dry (neither wet nor green) Sabal palm leaves make good kindling. Put these on your fire before adding twigs.

Ranges from small sticks the diameter of your finger to large logs.


Matches -- Probably the most common igniter. The big problem with matches is they have a way of getting wet, and then not lighting. By all means, carry matches, but don't rely on them alone. To conserve matches, a candle can be useful. First, light the candle; then, use the candle to light the tinder or kindling.

Magnesium fire starters -- This is my favorite igniter. It's simply a piece of flint embedded in a block of magnesium. Small enough to carry in your pocket, you can get it wet and it will still work. Plus, unlike a lighter, it never needs fuel. You just need something to strike the flint. I use a pocket knife.

Ask any fireman, and they'll tell you magnesium is a combustible metal that burns very hot. Apparently, after an auto accident, some magnesium wheel covers or rims, actually catch on fire.

To help light your tinder, the magnesium fire starter is designed in such a way that you can scrape off slivers from the magnesium block, pile these into a heap about the size of a quarter, and ignite them with a spark. Since magnesium slivers burn white hot, they can help light your tinder. With good tinder, however, you don't need to scrape off magnesium. Just light the tinder as it is.

Most outdoor-sports stores sell magnesium fire starters for less than ten dollars. To be confident you can use in a distress situation, practice with it beforehand. I like to use mine for lighting gas backpacking stoves. It's quick, easy, and there are no matches to dispose of.

Lighters -- Many people like lighters. Since your life may depend on it, buy a high-quality lighter, not a cheap cigarette lighter.

Improvised Igniters -- Under distress conditions, you may have to improvise an igniter. A car or boat battery can make sparks if wires are attached to its poles, and the other ends of the wires are touched together. These sparks can ignite tinder. Flashlight batteries can ignite steel wool draped across their positive and negative poles. See the video below for more on this.

Primitive Igniters -- Fire bows and drills (the kinds you see on survival shows) will ignite tinder. But using these devices effectively takes a lot of practice and know-how. If you don't know well how to build a fire with these items already, your chances of igniting tinder with them in a wilderness distress situation are slim.

The principles of how to build a fire involve first lighting your tinder, then using the burning tinder to light the kindling, and finally, using the burning kindling to light the fuel. Be sure to watch this page's video to see how this is done.

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