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How to Build A Fire

Learn how to build a fire with Total Prepare’s quick how-to guide so you can stay warm and dry when you need it most.

Despite how easy it is to start an accidental fire in your house or the forest, it is infuriatingly difficult to light one on purpose if you don’t know how. There is a lot more to it than simply throwing a lit match into a pile of timber and hoping it catches.

A campfire with text which reads Tips for the Apocalypse - How to Build a Fire

Photo by Benjamin DeYoung on Unsplash. Text and elements added by Total Prepare. Click here to pin this article.

Why do I need a fire?

Whether you are forced to shelter in your backyard in winter or you get lost out in the wilderness or stranded on a lonely highway, fire can save your life. It creates warmth, light, and is a good way to cook food. It can stave off hypothermia and predators while attracting rescuers. When handled safely, fire is an excellent—even fundamental—survival tool.

What are the first steps in building a fire?

The first two points to consider are location and materials. Look for a place that is dry, out of the wind, and has nothing overhanging it, such as trees or buildings. The last thing you want is for a stray spark to create a whole new emergency to deal with.

You will need different types of wood to burn:

  • Logs will provide the bulk of your fire. Aim for pieces that are around a foot long with a diameter a little wider than your hand. Logs that are too large are more likely to burn out of control and can be difficult to gather. Pieces that are too small will burn quickly and require careful watching to avoid the fire burning out.
  • Large kindling, like one- or two-inch-thick sticks, will help the fire grow and catch onto your logs.
  • Fine kindling, fire starter, or newspaper will provide the fuel you need to get the flames going. They burn quick and hot, hopefully catching to your larger pieces and giving the fire a foothold. Many fire starters can be improvised: hand sanitizer, cotton tampons, and pinecones can all be used to get a fire started.

Make sure all burnables are as dry as possible—you won’t have much luck getting wet wood to light. Naturally, you will also need a way to create the initial flame or spark. A lighter is the easiest method (be sure to keep one in each of your emergency kits!), but matches, flint and steel, or certain multi-tools are great options too. If you are new to fire-starting, aim for sources that give you a flame to work with, rather than a spark.

How to get your fire started

Clear a wide area around where you plan to have your fire. Anything that you might pick up as kindling—stray branches, pine needles, etc.—can also be ways for your fire to accidentally spread out of your control. Create a ring of rocks to use as a makeshift fire pit and to clearly mark your intended boundary for the fire—around 2 ½ feet diameter is ideal. This will also help to contain it. If it is windy, building your wall higher can create a shelter for your flames. If possible, have water on hand to put out the fire if it starts to get unruly.

Once you have your fire pit in place, here’s how to build a fire you’ll be proud of:

  1. Place your fine kindling, fire starter, or crumpled newspaper into the center of your circle.
  2. Create a square around your fire starter with your larger kindling, layering each piece to leave airflow.
  3. Use a few pieces of smaller kindling to create a teepee-shaped triangle over your newspaper, but within your square pieces.
  4. Light your newspaper.
  5. If needed, gently blow on your fire to feed it oxygen and help it grow.
  6. Once your fire gets burning, layer a few more pieces of large kindling on top, slowly using bigger pieces as your fire gets stronger.

Be careful not to smother your fire. It needs air to burn, and piling too much fuel on top can starve it of air and cause it to smoulder out. Monitor your fire carefully and add more wood as required to keep it burning at your desired size.


Fire is one of the key tools that put humanity on the map. With a few tricks and tools, you can learn how to build a fire for an emergency with this simple guide. Keep warm, stay safe, and be sure to practice when camping! (Mmm… marshmallows…)

And while you’re here, check out some of our fire starting tools to get you (and your fire) started!

This article was written by Zenia Platten – Author and emergency preparedness professional.

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