How To Build a Fire

No ability separates the competent individualist from the pretenders better than starting a fire in the wilderness. Anyone can conjure flames with a lighter or matches (which are still wise to carry while outdoors), but you’re better than that. Using nothing but your wits, grit, and what Mother Nature provides, you can build a bonfire signaling your superiority over the elements—provided you follow the advice below.



From start to finish, it may take more than an hour to conjure flames from the wilderness, so try not to begin during the last few minutes of daylight. You want someplace dry and sheltered from the wind, which can snuff out your embers before they grow into something capable of warming you up. Also, avoid spots with dry grass or leaves—you do not want a forest fire. Clear all flammables in a 10-foot radius to be safe.


Start looking for any dry, lightweight material that will easily ignite (think twigs, dry grass, or wood shavings). You’ll also need to find kindling, such as dry branches you might find at the base of a tree, that will feed your small flame without being so heavy as to smother them. Finally, you’ll want to gather fuel, larger pieces of wood to feed your fire and keep you warm throughout the night.


Prop up pieces of your kindling against a large log or part of a downed, dead tree provided neither is surrounded by other flammable flora and place the tinder in the space between the kindling and whatever it’s leaning against. Once you’ve ignited the tinder, the lean-to protects the fragile flame from wind and allows it to set the larger kindling on fire.


Assuming you aren’t carrying a lighter or matches, you have several options when in the wild, but the simplest one relies on friction. Find a dry, sturdy stick about 3 feet in length and sharpen one end to a point with a knife or sharp rock. Then procure another dry, flat piece of wood that will act as your fireboard. Use your knife to make a small notch in the flat board, then take the sharpened stick and place it perpendicular to the fireboard, with the sharp end pressing down in the notch. Place the palms of your hands on either side of the stick and roll it back and forth between them rapidly while pressing down at the same time. After a considerable amount of effort, you should turn the sharp end of the stick into a glowing ember.


This hot ember is now your life. Love it. Protect it. Carefully bring it to your pile of tinder until it (hopefully) ignites. Now gently blow on your tiny flame to feed it oxygen (but not enough to snuff it out). Soon, you should have a serviceable fire you can feed fuel as needed. That warmth you feel? It isn’t just from the flame—it’s also from the satisfaction that comes from triumphing over nature.

This post was derived from “The Official Handybook for Men” by James Ellis. For more handy tips, you can purchase the book from our online store.