Cameron Shook

To build a fire (or cook some smores; whatever the situation calls for)

Cameron Shook
To build a fire (or cook some smores; whatever the situation calls for)

“When it is seventy five below zero, a man must not fail in his first attempt to build a fire – that is, if his feet are wet.”

-“To build a fire”, Jack London

Building a fire is the quintessential skill by which adventurers of old took pride in. If a man knew the names of every bird and tree for 300 miles, it was entertaining; if a man could have a good fire going in 5 minutes even in wet conditions, you didn’t care if he couldn’t spell “tree” but valued him for his weight in gold. Matches, butane torches, and carelessly tossed cigarettes have made the ability to start a fire not seem as big of a deal. That said, I’ve seen plenty of people struggle when things got a little damp or windy.

An event that has always stuck out in my memory was during a fall camping trip my family took to the KOA in Cherokee NC. If you’ve ever been within 20miles of Cherokee, you know the only things to do are fish, go through the tourist traps, feed coins into slots, or get as far away from Cherokee as possible in the Smokie  Mountains and enjoy nature. Point being, if you’re camping in Cherokee, you’re not exactly roughing it. We were sitting around a fire, enjoying the cool air and bright colors, and we noticed our neighbors were standing in a circle and alternately crouching, wheezing, cursing, and looking at us with mixed expressions of jealously and hatred. After 20 minutes of this, the wife came over and asked what kind of witchcraft we had used to start the fire, because they had used a whole newspaper and half  a box of matches but couldn’t start the wet kindling they had. Nonchalantly, my dad pulled out a small Dura-Log brand firestarter log and handed it to her.
“But…but…that’s cheating! You can’t do that!”, exclaimed the woman rather loudly.
“Well, the cheaters are enjoying a nice toasty fire while you still have nothing”, said my father calmly.

Glumly, she walked back to their campsite (with the Dura-Log in hand) and they shortly had a nice fire going.

First Rule: There is no cheating. Ever. There are very dumb things to do (no, don’t unscrew the cap to the lighter fluid), but there aren’t any “cheats” that result in the Ranger deducting points from your Camper Score Card.

When you don’t have Dura-Logs though, you usually do need some form of fire starter. If you have the forethought to prepare some before heading into the cold, dryer lint is some of the best stuff you can get and the cost can’t be beat. If you’re looking to make a larger size fire starter for taking car camping, packing a cardboard toilet paper tube with the stuff is a great way to get a fire going. If you’re going to be backpacking, I’d suggest another method using a cardboard egg carton, dental floss, and wax. You pack lint into each egg holder, cut each section and tie the excess cardboard over the top of the lint to encase it in a cardboard shell. Next, melt some candlewax and dip each lint-egg until they’re entirely covered. Wait for them to dry, and then all you need to do is take a candle to one edge of them when you want to start a fire. The wax prevents them from becoming waterlogged, and worse comes to worse all you need to do is break off some of the wax to expose the dry cardboard underneath and light it.

Second Rule: There’s a reason they tell you to empty your lint tray after drying a load of clothes; it makes excellent fire starter and there’s no need to just throw it away.

Maybe you live in an apartment that doesn’t allow you to remove dryer lint, or you don’t wash your clothes or something. If you prefer doing this the natural way, birch bark is probably the best fire starter you can find. If you don’t know what birch is ,and I’m right there with you, finding a large intact piece of dead wood and shaving out thin strips (closer to the core if the woods outer layers are wet). Starting a fire with those thin shavings and then adding small twigs and kindling to dry out and then burn is the best way to start if you don’t have a dedicated fire starter. This is much harder, but not impossible.

Let’s say for the sake of argument though, you decide to spend a weekend in the woods pretending to be Bear Grylls. You walk into Walmart’s camping section and see that little magnesium fire-strike system where you shave a magnesium block and start it with sparks from scraping the flint on the backside with a knife. You think “Hmm…that seems like a great idea; it burns at 2,000 degrees”; please, for all that is good and holy, do not trust your life to one of these. They are essentially worthless. There are some fire strikers that are of good quality, of which, Light My Fire’s Swedish Fire Steel is the best for the money that I have found, throwing off long, hot sparks to help get fires started. With practice, you can learn to start fires easily with a good striker but I must stress the “practice” part.

Even then, make a habit of taking multiple match boxes on every trip, in different places, in different watertight containers along with a Zippo lighter. Zippos are some of the cheapest windproof lighters that you can find, and at the very least will throw a good spark when empty.

Final Lesson: Even when “roughing” it, don’t be dumb and ignore a backup for when things don’t work out the way you plan. There’s a reason matches are used more than sparkers now, and it’s because they simply work better.

Building a fire under the best of conditions isn’t always easy, and in the worst of conditions it can be near impossible. Stack the odds in your favor with firestarters, proper tools, and plenty of practice.


Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.