Building a Fire in a Post-Collapse World, by Entropy

Recently (based on a suggestion by a SurvivalBlog reader) I began a Meetup Group for Emergency Preparedness.  One of the Meetup events that I’m soon to host is entitled “To Build a Fire”.  Hosting this Meetup which I originally conceived as simply a fire building class has forced me to think logically about tactical fire building in a WTSHTF scenario where you are forced to build a fire for survival purposes.  I’ve synthesized these ideas into this article.

By “tactical” what I mean is “low observability” because technically no true definition of tactical perfectly fits this discussion.  However people should generally understand the points I’m making.

My experience with fire building includes six years in the Boy Scouts (attaining Eagle) in addition to years of post-Scouts camping and using working fires for various reasons on my property.

Inherently a fire is not tactical; however building a fire may be a requirement when no other alternatives exist.  Thus the question is posed: How can I make a fire as tactical as possible?

People may think that in the worst of future scenarios they can simply bugout and build fires for warmth & cooking.  My hypothesis is that using a fire in such a situation is the worst thing to do because of the high likelihood of negative outcomes, such as getting killed for your supplies.

Why do we build fires?

Much of the time it’s for pleasure: Inviting friends over to chow on good grub, or just hanging out in front of a warm bonfire and having a great time.  Other times a working fire is necessary for burning dead wood on your property or for other reasons.  When camping, fires are useful for cooking and to provide a lighted, warm, and friendly environment around which campers will gather.  Not as common are survival fires for sterilizing food and water, raising one’s body temperature, drying clothing, signaling, or repelling wild animals and insects.

Tactical strategies are generally not important for these types of fires and usually not even considered by the fire builder.  This can be a huge problem in a SHTF scenario because the effects of such fires tend to be highly observable.   Easy observation by sight, sound, and smell makes the pinpointing of a fire’s location simple, both during the fire and afterwards.

  • By sight: Fire, smoke, and general site destruction (broken or cut tree limbs, absence of normal levels of dead wood, footprints, trash).  Thermal imaging devices increase the chance a fire will be observed.
  • By sound: Preparation activities (breaking, sawing, or chopping fuel) and popping wood while burning.
  • By smell: Smoke and cooking food.

Tactical strategies are extremely important when building a fire in a SHTF or bugout scenario.  Starting a fire for any reason will attract people for miles unless extreme care is taken.  My recommendation is to not create a fire at all unless absolutely necessary for survival reasons.

Alternatives exist that must be considered prior to igniting a fire to keep your sight, sound, and smell observability to a minimum:

  • Food: can be eaten cold
  • Water: can be filtered or sterilized by other methods
  • Hypothermia or freezing: body heat can be shared and/or shelters built.

Stoves can be used if raw food must be cooked or water boiled but only if you’ve prepared with such equipment.  (Read this as: prepare with such equipment!)

If no alternatives exist and building a fire in a SHTF world is required for warming people in critical hypothermic or freezing conditions or to remedy other survival problems, then you must: 1) Know how to build a fire (an extremely important survival skill.)  2) Control and limit the observability of your fire.

(My disclaimer) Prior to the next discussion pre-SHTF safe fire building practices must be mentioned.  These are:

1) Know your local fire ordinances. 
2) Remove combustible material from around your fire building site.  The larger the fire is the greater this requirement.  Don’t forget to remove overhanging branches.
3) Do not build a fire in windy conditions. 
4) Prepare a readily available and continuous water supply. 
5) Ensure your fire is “cold out” when you’re done with it.  After spraying plenty of water on the remnants of the fire, turning over all unburned fuel and spraying again, carefully put your hands in the wet ashes to ensure no hot coals remain.  Bonus: after rinsing the ashes off your hands you’ll notice they are nice and clean from the mild lye solution created by the water and wood ash.

My experience is that most people think they can quickly start a fire in the wild because they can light a barbecue or a fire in their fireplace.  Fire building in the wild, especially under survival conditions and with added tactical considerations, will be quite daunting.

Building a fire is fairly simple but without knowledge and practice is challenging.  In less than ideal conditions starting a fire is extremely difficult.  Watching SurvivorMan on television does not make you an expert and when a fire is needed for survival reasons it’s critical that one is made quickly. 

Three prerequisites are required for a successful fire: ignition, combustibles, and air.

Ignition: Creating the initial heat source which is then amplified during the next sequential fire building steps.  Many tools are easily available for igniting a fire, prepare your bug-out bags with several of these options and practice using them.  Examples are: Waterproof/weatherproof matches, lighters, and magnesium style striker tools (BlastMatch, etc.).  While its fun to watch Les Stroud igniting a fire using a fire bow, this takes long hours of practice, precisely the correct wood types, and a relatively long time to manufacture the tool and to produce an ember.  Use a match instead.

Combustibles: Generally described in three categories: tinder, kindling, and fuel.

  • Tinder is composed of the smallest or finest flammable material.  Its purpose is to amplify the ignition source enough so that kindling can be burned.  Examples are: Pine needles, dried grass, tree or vine bark (cedar, birch, or grapevine), mouse nests, bird nests, etc.  The list is endless.
  • Kindling is woody material that is the next size up from tinder, but smaller than the fuel.  Size ranges from about 1/8” to 1” in thickness.  Its purpose is to amplify the fire enough to light the fuel.
  • Fuel is the material that’s added to the fire after the kindling stage.  Generally smaller sized fuel is used in the early stages of the fire but as the coal bed becomes larger the fuel can increase in size.  The fuel’s purpose is to be the main working part of the fire.  It provides the direct heat or burns down to hot coals with which to cook food, warm bodies, or for other reasons.

When building a fire you must sequentially move in order from tinder to kindling to fuel.  Skipping a step will not work, especially in wet conditions.  Combustibles must be as dry as possible for effective fire building.  Techniques exist for dealing with wet conditions, such as using a knife to expose the dry insides of the combustible material; you should familiarize yourself with these skills.  Another tip is to use hanging dead branches as they tend to be drier than fuel on the ground.  Finding sap covered tinder or kindling is a bonus.  Pine or other sap is flammable and very helpful when starting a fire. 

Air:  At first you may not think air is much of a problem because we are building a fire on Earth, not the Moon.  However, when a fire is not properly constructed, too little air will flow into the ignited fuel and the young fire will not effectively burn or will go out.  This is the last thing you want to have happen if you are attempting to build a survival fire.

Airflow is controlled by the fire lay.  A fire lay is the fire’s method of construction and an effective fire lay is critical for starting a fire.  A mature fire usually ends up as a pile of fuel with a hot coal bed, so the fire lay eventually disappears.  If a mature fire goes out, it can typically be restarted by adding fresh fuel onto the hot coals.

Too many fire lay configurations exist to review in detail (teepee, lean-to, hunter’s, log cabin, etc.)  You should research and practice using different types so you know when to build a specific one.  Fire lays can generally be categorized as “above ground” or the less common “below ground.”

Below ground fire lays are superior for controlling and limiting the observability of your survival fire.   A below ground fire lay of particular usefulness in a SHTF world is the “Dakota Fire Lay” or “Dakota Fire Pit” (DFP).

A DFP consists of a jug shaped hole dug with a wide base and narrower top.  The lower part of the hole is connected to a smaller angled air intake tunnel.  The air intake entrance is dug upwind from the main hole.  In essence it’s a small wood burning stove built into the ground.  An above ground fire lay is used to start the fire within a Dakota Fire Pit.

As a Scout I never made a DFP because they were too time consuming to build.  I made one this week and it took me 75 minutes to dig and that’s with proper hand tools.  For a young Scout that’s too long when you can use an above ground method to prepare and ignite a fire within a few minutes.

Again, not building a fire is the best way to maintain your operational security, however if a fire must be built and you have the time the DFP is excellent for these reasons:

  • Minimal light and heat signature:  Most important for tactical considerations is that it produces the least amount of observable radiant light and heat because the fire is totally underground.
  • Efficient burning of fuel:  Little or no smoke is produced, again reducing sight and smell observability.  The design of the DFP is such that a draft is created to supply fresh air to the fire as it burns.  This configuration allows the fuel to burn completely which produces little smoke.
  • Quiet: The DFP is quieter than other fire lays because the sound of popping and cracking wood is suppressed.  When digging it I suggest using sticks or other non-metallic tools because when a metal hand tool is struck against a rock it’s quite noisy.
  • Safe for windy conditions:  A low chance of the fire spreading exists because (That’s right!) it’s underground.  Furthermore this fire is easy to light and maintain in such conditions because the wind has little effect on a below ground fire.  Wind actually improves the fire by blowing through the air intake and increasing the burning efficiency of the fuel.
  • Easy cooking: Lay a couple of green sticks across the top of the hole and put your pot on it, or create a green stick grill onto which meat will be laid.  All of the heat is concentrated with this fire lay instead of spreading out as with other types.  You’ll notice your food cooks more quickly than expected, a definite tactical plus.  You can also wait until the fire burns down and cook directly on the coals, or use the pit as an oven or smoker.
  • Simple site restoration:  Just fill the hole with any remaining signs of your camp and fill it with the dirt that was removed.  If no chip producing saws or axes were used to prepare the fuel, then the vacated site will never be recognized for the campsite it was.

If the ground is too wet, frozen, rocky, or otherwise unsuitable for digging, or if no time is available to properly dig a DFP, quasi-underground alternatives exist which aren’t as effective, but are better than above ground fire lays.

One example is the trench fire lay which is a simple trench dug in the ground into which the fire is built.  It’s not as efficient or secure as a DFP however it achieves some of the same results.

Any fire should be kept small to minimize the output of light and heat.  Small fires also reduce the amount of fuel consumed which means less fuel collection and preparation is required, ultimately translating into minimal site destruction.  Additionally, fewer calories are used by the people maintaining the fire which means less food consumption is necessary. 

Ideally no tools should be used for preparing the fuel.  It should consist of small pieces that don’t need further cutting, again minimizing site destruction and leaving few telltale clues (wood chips, saw dust, or limbs broken or cut from trees) that you occupied the site.  You want your location to be 100% unrecognizable as a camp after you depart.  Also the sound of chopping wood with an axe can be heard for miles, and sawing is quite noticeable in quiet woods too.

To summarize:  In a SHTF world a fire will draw unwanted attention.  Before you make that fire always think of alternative methods of eating, sterilizing water, or getting warm.  If a fire must be built, keep it to the smallest size possible to meet your needs.  Use cover (dense woods, low spots, cliffs or rocky areas, even buildings) to help hide your fire, and seriously consider digging a Dakota Fire Pit to maintain your operational security.  This type of fire lay minimizes observation by sight, sound, and smell thus reducing the chance of attracting attention.

Lastly: Practice this essential skill now!  Don’t assume you can build a fire in the wild. Identify and use native materials around your bugout sites and travel routes.  Practice in both dry and wet conditions and in different seasons.  Prepare your bugout bags with some of today’s commonly available fire starting tools (magnesium type fire igniters, paraffin & fuel type fire starters, etc.).  They increase your chances to successfully and quickly build a fire; however don’t think you can build a fire just because you pack them.