In many survival situations, the ability to start a fire can make the difference between living and dying. Fire can fulfill many needs. It can provide warmth and comfort. It not only cooks and preserves food, it also provides warmth in the form of heated food that saves calories our body normally uses to produce body heat. You can use fire to purify water, sterilize bandages, signal for rescue, and provide protection from animals. It can be a psychological boost by providing peace of mind and companionship. You can also use fire to produce tools and weapons.


Fire can cause problems, as well. The enemy can detect the smoke and light it produces. It can cause forest fires or destroy essential equipment. Fire can also cause burns carbon monoxide poisoning when used in shelters.
Remember weigh your need for fire against your need to avoid enemy detection.



To build a fire, it helps to understand the basic principles of a fire. Fuel (in a nongaseous state) does not burn directly. When you apply heat to a fuel, it produces a gas. This gas, combined with oxygen in the air, burns.

Understanding the concept of the fire triangle is very important in correctly constructing and maintaining a fire. The three sides of the triangle represent air, heat, and fuel. If you remove any of these, the fire will go out. The correct ratio of these components is very important for a fire to burn at its greatest capability. The only way to learn this ratio is to practice.


You will have to decide what site and arrangement to use. Before building a fire consider--

  • The area (terrain and climate) in which you are operating.
  • The materials and tools available.
  • Time: how much time you have?
  • Need: why you need a fire?
  • Security: how close is the enemy?

Look for a dry spot that--

  • Is protected from the wind.
  • Is suitably placed in relation to your shelter (if any).
  • Will concentrate the heat in the direction you desire.
  • Has a supply of wood or other fuel available. (See Figure 7-4 for types of material you can use.)


Tinder Kindling Fuel
  • Birch bark
  • Shredded inner bark from cedar, chestnut, red elm trees
  • Fine wood shavings
  • Dead grass, ferns, moss, fungi
  • Straw
  • Sawdust
  • Very fine pitchwood scrapings
  • Dead evergreen needles
  • Punk (the completely rotted portions of dead logs or trees)
  • Evergreen tree knots
  • Bird down (fine feathers)
  • Down seed heads (milkweed, dry cattails, bulrush, or thistle)
  • Fine, dried vegetable fibers
  • Spongy threads of dead puffball
  • Dead palm leaves
  • Skin like membrane lining bamboo
  • Lint from pocket and seams
  • Charred cloth
  • Waxed paper
  • Outer bamboo shavings
  • Gunpowder
  • Cotton
  • Lint


  • Small twigs
  • Small strips of wood
  • Split wood
  • Heavy cardboard
  • Pieces of wood removed from the inside of larger pieces
  • Wood that has been doused with highly flammable materials, such as gasoline, oil, or wax
  • Dry, standing wood and dry, dead branches
  • Dry inside (heart) of fallen tree trunks and large branches
  • Green wood that is finely split
  • Dry grasses twisted into bunches
  • Peat dry enough to burn (this may be found at the top of undercut banks)
  • Dried animal dung
  • Animal fats
  • Coal, oil shale, or oil lying on the surface

If you are in a wooded or brush-covered area, clear the brush and scrape the surface soil from the spot you have selected. Clear a circle at least 1 meter in diameter so there is little chance of the fire spreading.

If time allows, construct a fire wall using logs or rocks. This wall will help to reflector direct the heat where you want it (Figure 7-1). It will also reduce flying sparks and cut down on the amount of wind blowing into the fire. However, you will need enough wind to keep the fire burning.


Do not use wet or porous rocks as they may explode when heated.

In some situations, you may find that an underground fireplace will best meet your needs. It conceals the fire and serves well for cooking food. To make an underground fireplace or Dakota fire hole (Figure 7-2)--

  • Dig a hole in the ground.
  • On the upwind side of this hole, poke or dig a large connecting hole for ventilation.
  • Build your fire in the hole as illustrated.

If you are in a snow-covered area, use green logs to make a dry base for your fire (Figure 7-3). Trees with wrist-sized trunks are easily broken in extreme cold. Cut or break several green logs and lay them side by side on top of the snow. Add one or two more layers. Lay the top layer of logs opposite those below it.


You need three types of materials (Figure 7-4) to build a fire--tinder, kindling, and fuel.

Tinder is dry material that ignites with little heat--a spark starts a fire. The tinder must be absolutely dry to be sure just a spark will ignite it. If you only have a device that generates sparks, charred cloth will be almost essential. It holds a spark for long periods, allowing you to put tinder on the hot area to generate a small flame. You can make charred cloth by heating cotton cloth until it turns black, but does not burn. Once it is black, you must keep it in an airtight container to keep it dry. Prepare this cloth well in advance of any survival situation. Add it to your individual survival kit.

Kindling is a readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Again, this material should be absolutely dry to ensure rapid burning. Kindling increases the fire's temperature so that it will ignite less combustible material.

Fuel is a less combustible material that burns slowly and steadily once ignited.

Chapter 7 of FM 21-76, Firecraft continued: How to Build a Fire.