Build a Perfect Fire with These Tips

Whether it's at a wintry wilderness campsite, in the backyard grill pit or your living room fireplace, you want a fire that's easy to build, quick to rise and long-lasting. Here's a handy refresher on starting a dependable flame.

Materials
Along with oxygen, the only materials needed for fire are tinder, kindling and fuel.

  • Tinder is completely dry material, which ignites with just a spark. Tinder can be certain types of tree bark, wood shavings, dead plant matter, straw, sawdust, dead pine needles, rotten tree trunks, pine knots and, of course, paper.
  • Kindling is readily combustible material that's added to burning tinder to increase fire's temperature so that it will ignite less combustible materials. (It's a stepping-stone to the bigger wood.) Again, kindling must be totally dry. Softwoods, such as cedar and pine, make the perfect kindling. Look for twigs, split wood and even thick cardboard.
  • Fuel is less combustible material that burns slow and steady once lit. We're talking about dry wood and branches, dried insides of tree trunks, finely split green wood, dry grass or peat, dried animal excrement, animal fat, coal and oil.

At home

  • You can build a conventional or pyramid fire starting with paper topped by kindling. The amount of newspaper depends on the dryness and fineness of the kindling on hand. The drier and finer the kindling, the less newspaper required. (If you've got plenty on hand, use it. You'll have more success with a liberal amount.)
  • Pin the paper down with a dozen or so pieces of kindling. Ideally, it should be placed on and behind the newspaper so that the air reaches the newspaper quickly where it's lit.
  • When the flames from the kindling begin to subside, add several larger pieces of firewood in a teepee formation, which doesn't smother the flames.
  • Always use a secure screen in front of your fireplace; have your chimney cleaned at least once a year; burn hardwood, which leaves less creosote (a flammable black tar deposit) in the chimney; make sure the chimney is drawing well so that smoke doesn't enter the room; and always be sure to extinguish the fire before going to bed or before leaving home.

In the wild
Your most reliable fire starters in the outdoors are waterproof, strike-anywhere matches. Be sure to store all your matches - along with a striker pad (sandpaper) - in a waterproof container. You can waterproof regular matches by dipping them in nail polish and letting them dry before packing them. If you find yourself without matches in the wild, there are alternatives:

  • Flint and steel: Aim the sparks created by scraping flint against steel at a pile of tinder. The steel must be carbon steel, not stainless steel. The flint can be replaced with any hard, sharp rock.
  • Magnifying glass, camera lens, binocular lens or any convex glass: Concentrated and intensified sunrays beamed through a convex lens onto a tinder pile create heat that allows it to smolder. Hold the glass still and gently blow or fan the tinder to help it flame.
  • Fire plow: Rub a stick of hard wood against a base of soft wood, pressing firmly. The heat is generated by friction and the scraping produces small flecks of wood. The two together create a spark. This takes practice, hard work and persistence. It's straightforward, yet famously difficult to pull off.

Final key tip: Regardless of chosen technique, always gather your three main ingredients - tinder, kindling and fuel - before you attempt to ignite. Remember: timing is everything.

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