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Build Your Own Fire Kit
Fire is essential to outdoor survival.
I’ve been working on a roundup of pre-made survival kits for another publication. As you may guess, many of them are overpriced junk, though some are much better than others. However, one commonality is that none of them seem to have a great fire kit. Some of them have the makings of one, but none are complete.
The ability to easily make fire is a must in any wilderness survival situation. Fire keeps you warm, keeps the dark at bay, helps you cook your food, and disinfects water. I never go into an unfamiliar wilderness without one, and I always have at least a lighter on me.
I encourage you to put together your own fire kit. It’s not hard and you can slip it into any kit or even bring it by itself whenever you’re in the wild. I like to construct my survival bags out of various modular kits that are easy to mix and match. For instance, I have fire kits, first-aid kits, water purification kits, etc. that keep my items neatly organized and easy to split up and move around.
The first thing you need is a good bag to keep your stuff dry. As it happens, they make things called dry bags that do just that. I’m a fan of Sea to Summit’s dry bags. I keep my fire kit in a yellow 2-liter dry bag. Orange or red would also be good colors. You want a color that stands out on the forest floor if you drop it.
You roll up the top to seal out water and then clip the buckle shut. That also forms a loop that makes the dry bag easy to carry or hang on a belt.
Next are your firestarters. You want a good lighter. We’ll cover some cooler ways to start fires, but a simple Bic lighter does a great job unless it’s too cold. Zippos are cool, but they smell, leak, and need frequent refills. I recommend an orange Bic lighter. That way, if you drop it in the woods, it’s easy to see. Red also works.
Cost: $14 for 12, or a couple of bucks at a gas station.
You may want to pop out the child safety strip on the striker wheel. Just use a small screwdriver and pry it off. Watch your eyes! That will make it much easier to light if your hands are numb from cold. Keep it away from children and pyromaniacs.
You also want a ferrocerium rod (or just “ferro rod” for short). These are the ones you see outdoorsmen striking with a knife to make sparks. Why not just use a lighter? Because lighters don’t always work in the cold or wind and they run out of fuel. A ferro rod always works and they last a long time.
I like the thick half-inch ferro rods because they have a lot of material, they’re easy to grip, and they won’t break. You can buy them with a handle attached, but I like to buy plain ones and wrap some Gorilla Tape around one end to form my own handle. If need be, you can peel some off to use in the wild, and it makes decent tinder.
Cost: $10 for two half-inch ferro rods, $8 for two rolls of mini Gorilla Tape.
Your ferro rod also needs a striker. Some ferro rods come with a striker, or you can use any knife that has a squared-off back edge. Unfortunately, most Moraknivs, which are cheap and popular bushcraft knives, do not have a squared back out of the box. This is something you want to test with your knife before going into the field. You can buy special-purpose strikers in bulk and add a couple to your kit.
Cost: $7 for five strikers.
You can always square of the back of a knife yourself with a file. If you carry a multitool with you, the little saw should do a great job and make a big shower of sparks. I’ve carried a Leatherman Wave on my belt for over 20 years. Have multiple striking options.
We also want matches. Not just any matches, but stormproof matches. Just buy the UCO match kit that comes in an orange waterproof can and has a striker on the side. These matches are fantastic. They’re both waterproof and windproof.
One last item for our kit: a fresnel lens. You can buy a whole pack of wallet-sized lenses for cheap and they’re multipurpose. The cool thing about starting a fire with a magnifying lens is that you consume no fuel or material while doing so, so it’s a nearly endless resource. And you’d be surprised how quickly you can set things on fire on a sunny day. Please be careful with these things.
Your kit has four different ways you can start a fire, but you need something else: tinder. No, not the swiping right to get lucky tinder, the kind you start fires with.
Try setting a log on fire with a ferro rod. Good luck. You have to build a fire in stages:
Tinder: Small, easily ignitable materials you can carry with you or find in the wild. A good skill to have is making feather sticks with a knife and a stick.
Kindling: Stuff like hay, straw, or small twigs that you put over the tinder. You light the tinder, add the kindling, and once that’s going, add more to build up your fire. This stuff needs to be dry.
Fuel: Larger sticks and logs. Again, they need to be dry. Steadily add larger and larger materials until you can start throwing entire logs on the fire.
It’s good to use natural tinder where you can, like fatwood from evergreen trees, but that stuff can be hard to find when you need it, and lighting natural tinder takes practice and patience. You can buy tinder, but it won’t work as well as what we can make or find ourselves.
For the first one, pull out the lint trap on your clothes dryer. Remove all the lint. Throw it into a little baggie. Toss it into your kit. Done! It’s some of the best tinder you can find, it’s totally free, and keeping that trap clean makes it much less likely you set your house on fire.
For the second, you want some cotton balls and petroleum jelly. Some folks find really complex ways of combining them, but here’s all you need to do:
Take a ziplock bag.
Toss in a big spoon of jelly.
Toss in some cotton balls.
Mix them up in the bag.
Once they’re mixed up well, roll up the bag to force excess out air, and zip it up.
Boom, done, throw it in your kit. If the bag takes up too much space, you can use another container. I’ve found that old dip cans and plastic cigar tubes work really well for this. A bonus of living in the south is I find this stuff on the side of the road all the time.
You don’t always need an entire cotton ball. You can just pull off a little chunk and use it to start your fire. And you’ll be amazed at how well they burn.
Fire Kit Shopping List
Dry bag: $18
Bic lighters: $14 for 12
Ferro rod: $10 for 2
Mini Gorilla tape: $8 for 2 rolls (optional)
Strikers: $7 for 5 (optional, but recommended)
Stormproof matches: $11
Fresnel lenses: $10 for 10
Cotton balls: $1.25 at Dollar Tree
Petroleum jelly: $1.25 at Dollar Tree
Total: $80.50, but you have materials to build several fire kits. They make great gifts! A premade commercial kit costs about the same but doesn’t have extra materials to make more kits.
Basic Fire Safety
Once you have a fire kit assembled, I want you to practice with it so you can use it when you need it. But I also don’t want you to burn down your house or start a wildfire, so here are some basic tips:
Don’t start a fire indoors. I hope I don’t need to tell you that, but I was a stupid teenage boy once.
Of course, also be aware of surrounding dangers like gasoline or propane tanks.
Observe local fire restrictions.
Maybe skip fire practice on windy days.
Always have a hose or at least a bucket of water on hand to put out the fire. Dirt also works.
A good place to practice is in a charcoal grill.
Tips for Practicing Your Fire
Now you have a variety of firestarters and some cheap or free tinder. It’s time to practice! I’ve given you the basics, but you won’t learn by reading. So here are some tips for doing:
Start first by just practicing lighting the tinder.
Lighting with a Bic lighter should be obvious. The main thing you want to practice is lighting your tinder without burning your fingers.
A tip every smoker knows: if the lighter is too cold to light, rub it between your hands to warm it up.
The same goes for lighting with a match. The match is probably the easiest way to start a fire. Those stormproof matches are expensive, so don’t waste too many.
The ferro rod and magnifying glass demand the most practice.
Lighting a fire with a lens is tricky. You have to focus the beam of light into a small bright dot. Don’t look directly at it! You’ll know it’s working when you start to see smoke.
You probably won’t light a cotton ball on fire with the magnifying glass. You need something dark, like dryer lint. If you’re feeling adventurous, make some charcloth and add it to your fire kit.