It’s a good idea for any hiker to know how to start a fire, and part of this is what materials to use. While a campfire may be considered just a nice addition to your night under the stars, for some, in a survival situation, it can be the difference between life and death. So knowing what materials to use and how to source them is really important.
How to start a fire
There are three different types of materials that you need to start a fire; tinder, kindling and firewood. Tinder is a light dry material that easily ignites. It’s used at the start of the process and ignites into a flame with the slightest spark. To nurture this flame, you then need to add kindling. This is a slightly larger material, such as small twigs and sticks. Feed the fire by gradually adding bigger and bigger sticks. Once the fire has become more established, you can add firewood.
See our complete guide on how to build campfire, from start to finish.
Examples of tinder
When you’re out in the wild it’s useful to know some easy to access materials that can be used for tinder. These include:
- dry grass
- dry leaves
- pine needles
- dandelion seeds
- cotton balls
- cotton tampons
- lint from clothes
- cattail fluff
- cedar shavings
Make sure your tinder is as dry as possible. To create the flame you can use matches or a magnesium flint.
Examples of kindling
Once your tinder is alight, place small pieces of kindling on top of the flames. Continue to add larger and larger pieces as the fire grows. Softwoods such as fir, pine and cedar are the best examples of kindling as they catch alight easily. They can be found readily available in most forests and woods and are easy to identify by the shape of their needles and leaves (see infographic below.)
Ensure the kindling is as dry as possible.
Examples of firewood
The secret to good firewood is that which has been seasoned for more than a year. Seasoned wood is that which has been allowed to dry out, and contains far less sap that its green counterpart. It’s much easier to light and produces more heat when burning.
You can tell if a wood is seasoned by looking at it. On the outside, seasoned wood can appear grey and dusty from sitting around for a while. On the inside, it’s often dry and white, usually lighter than on the outside. New wood, on the other hand, looks very fresh with the same colour throughout the wood.
Here is a list of commonly found woods that work well. They are known for producing more heat and are easy to burn.
- oak – when seasoned well, it gives off a good, lasting heat. Burns reasonably slowly.
- maple – burns slowly with good heat.
- cherry – needs to be seasoned, but burns slowly and with lots of heat.
- beech – burns well when seasoned. Has a tendency to spark.
- birch – burns well but quickly. It will also burn unseasoned.
- ash – one of the best woods for a steady fire and good heat. It will burn when green, though burns better when seasoned.
- sycamore – burns well but produces only moderate heat.
- elm – needs to be well seasoned to burn. Slow burner and good heat output.
- cedar – gives lots of heat but a little flame.
Seasoned softwoods like fir, pine and yew can also be used. But they won’t keep burning as long as hardwoods, and you’ll need to keep feeding the fire.
Save and print this useful list for your next camping trip.
For other guides, see my six must-have items for your survival kit list.