Firelighting: Why We Teach It The Way We Do

by Paul Kirtley

Frontier Bushcraft instructor with high flames during firelighting demonstration

High flames in dry conditions. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

A while ago I posted the above photo from my phone to the Frontier Bushcraft Facebook page. It shows Ian Lawson giving a fire-lighting demonstration (under nice, dry conditions) on our award-winning Bushcraft and Survival Foundation Course. We received many good-natured, tongue-in-cheek comments about the apparent height of the flames, some asking if we'd set the fire on top of an oil well or gas main. We also received a handful of negative comments, criticising the height of the flames and that it was "irresponsible" to light fires like this. It certainly would be irresponsible to light any fire under certain - very dry - conditions. Every year we seem to witness the devastation caused by wildfires in parts of the US and bushfires in Australia. But this wasn't the basis of the criticism. It was purely that the flames were "too big". Unfortunately this type of armchair punditry is all too common these days. When it comes to outdoor skills, arbitrary opinions formulated with no basis in experience are potentially dangerous. Just because someone has an opinion, doesn't make it valid. What validates a practical technique - for any of us - is that it works (and works consistently).

Why We Teach Fire-Lighting The Way We Do

There is a very clear and solid reason why we teach fire-lighting the way we do. It works in the rain. Roll forward a year from the above photo and we had a very wet start to one of our Frontier Bushcraft Taster Courses. In very wet conditions, Henry Landon gave a textbook demonstration of fire-lighting. He used only natural materials collected from the surrounding forest and a single match to light the fire...
Henry Landon and group on Frontier Bushcraft course

Henry explaining the principles of the fire-lay to a soggy-looking group. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Firelighting demon on Frontier Bushcraft course

Henry talks through the use of matches to light small-stick fires. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Trying to break matches

Course participants test the strength of matches. Photo: Paul Kirtley

Lighting kindling with match in damp conditions

Henry takes his match to the kindling. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Lighitng small stick fire in the rain - flames start to appear

Flames take hold at the base of the kindling. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Manipulating small stick kindling

Keeping the sticks long allows Henry to manipulate the bundles of kindling. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Addling the next size of fuel up

With flames coming through the finest kindling, Henry is poised to add the next size of fuel. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Fire becoming established and generating smoke

The heat of the smallest sticks drives off the moisture of the larger ones (and creates smoke). Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Fire successfully established in the rain

In warm, dry conditions this fire would be flaming like the first photo in this article; in wet conditions - under which most inexperienced people would fail - this methodology consistently secures a fire. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Our Responsibility

You don't need to be in a survival situation for the ability to light a fire in wet conditions to be valuable. Hypothermia is one of the biggest risks outdoors. You could just be at the end of a long hard day on a canoe expedition or hike. Moreover, if you can't get a fire going when you are a long way out in wild country, it could become a survival situation. The time you most need a fire is generally when it is hardest to light one. So it's not irresponsible to teach fire-lighting this way. It would be irresponsible not to teach it the way we do. It's actually our responsibility to teach fire-lighting in a way that gives our clients the best chances of getting a fire going in the worst conditions they could encounter. That's our job as instructors - to teach real-world skills for real-world situations. That's why we teach fire-lighting the way we do.
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Paul Kirtley is owner and Chief Instructor of Frontier Bushcraft. He has had a lifelong passion for the great outdoors and gains great satisfaction from helping others enjoy it too. Paul writes the UK's leading bushcraft blog as well as for various publications including Bushcraft and Survival Skills Magazine.

 

{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

Julian Cresswell

Totally agree with your last statement, “you need a fire most when its hardest to create one”.

As an aside though one thing I’ve found is that photographing a fire captures the height of the flames that we don’t always see with a naked eye and distorts (or more accurately) corrects our perception. This should make us more aware of the risks which closes the loop nicely on your article to reiterate the risks of lighting fires in dry conditions.

Thanks for this and in general all the good stuff you put out there.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Julian,

You make a good point regarding the risks of fires in dry conditions.

Yes, I agree the photos do show more. As you’ll appreciate, I always choose my language carefully and with as much precision as possible, which is why I wrote “apparent height of the flames”. I was indeed alluding to the effect you describe. Glad to know we are on the same page πŸ™‚

Thanks for your comment.

Warm regards,

Paul

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sean fagan

“armchair punditry” – classic statement! Great article Paul and nice photos too. I couldn’t agree more with the content. Personally, I would like to see the theory experts attempt to ignite their armchairs on a wet, sodden day in the woods! As an extra incentive, they are allowed go through a whole box of matches…

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Sean!

Yes the armchair-fire challenge you propose would be an interesting one πŸ˜‰

Warm regards,

Paul

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Ray.H

I would have thought with the chemicals in the armchairs it should not take a whole box of matches

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Liam Gadd

Ha Ha no your armchairs are all fire resistant as the law requires…

Great article!

I can’t believe people are judging the height of the fire?? (have they never been to a bonfire on fireworks night? they can be massive!) I could go on all day but I wont.

See you soon Paul.

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Whittler Kev

Just thought I’d mention that it’s only the covering that has to be fire retardant. If you happen on a ripped office chair, take a match to the filling. In 2minutes you will have an inferno. I’ve been at the demo…not nice to see if you work in an office environment πŸ™

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Paul Kirtley

Yes, good point Kev.

Yet another reason it’s safer outdoors πŸ˜‰

All the best,

Paul

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Ray.H

I don’t even know where to start.

Complaining that the flames are two big!

Once a fire is established you can manage the fuel to control the flames.

I feel that a whole episode or more could be made where the myths experienced by instructors leading courses can be debunked.

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Elen Sentier

Good article, thanks Paul. I sort of feel that the armchair pundits are probably not very good at lighting fires … doh!

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Ray (gramps)

Hi paul.
Total agree in what you said about arm chair spuds.
has long has you get a fire going , especially if cold,wet. main thing is warmth.
all bad comments means you are doing some thing right other wise they have nothing to say.
have been a scout leader for 35 yrs and we teach, our young kids that fire is the import of survival,Bush-craft keep up the good work.
Ray (Gramps)

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Ray,

Thanks for your comment. Agreed – warmth is very important.

It’s particularly important to teach young people about keeping warm as

a) they tend to get colder more quickly than adults, particularly in cold/wet conditions due to difference body mass:surface area ratio and metabolism; and,
b) in my experience, at first they tend not to have the outdoors experience to manage their clothing properly to stay as warm and dry as they possibly can (nor do the fully appreciate the value of doing so/the consequences of not doing so).

It’s great that you and many others are consistently getting the message across to young people.

You too keep up the good work! πŸ™‚

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Ruud

Well said! Just keep up the good work you guys are doing right now, it is much appreciated by those who do know what you are talking about.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Ruud,

As always, it’s good to hear from you.

Thanks for your comment and support – much appreciated.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Leena

Hi Paul
It can be upsetting, if someone opines that that flame in the picture could start a forest fire…

As a newbie, what I got out of the article was
* the technique works in rain…wet conditions…this is important
* the same amount of wood in dry conditions can cause a bigger flame.
* optical illusions- beware:)
* be responsible re: fire.

The pictures look fine from here…there may be personal variations between instructors at various courses…overall the principle remains the same. Your message has always been
consistent over time…and you are a great teacher…if one is willing, even from a virtual world
there is wealth of info and resources…so much to be proud of…Paul…pat on your back!! πŸ™‚

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Leena,

I’m glad those were the messages you obtained from the article. They were exactly what I wanted to get across.

Warm regards,

Paul

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James Harris

I totally agree with what you are saying and the difference with which a material will burn depending on weather conditions. It definitely isn’t irresponsible teaching firelighting like that as you are all experts in your field.

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Malcolm McKee

Armchair punditry does annoy me I must admit. I stopped reading certain forums a very long time ago because I just couldn’t find anything new, interesting or inspiring on them. I do still read occasional blog posts from a small number of epic adventurers that simply have the cojones to get out there and do stuff.

The line that really gets on my hump is “isn’t that cheating?”. As in “lighting a fire with a match, isn’t that cheating?”. “Using tinder you had in your pocket, isn’t that cheating”. A tarp, a tent, a pot, a stove, a metal spoon … All cheating. Yeah, I’m a cheat.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Malcolm,

What d’you mean you use fire? Isn’t that cheating? Homo habilis managed without it.

And wait a minute, are you actually typing, rather than using a pen? That’s cheating…

Bon chance,

Paul

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Malcolm McKee

Hi Paul,

πŸ™‚ very good.

My most epic bit of cheating was about four years ago when I went to a bushcraft gathering thingy in Wales. I woke up at 7am on the Saturday morning and it was raining heavily. (Unusual for Wales I know). All around me people were chipping, sawing, banging bits of metal and flint together, sweating and swearing. I snuggled down for another hour’s sleep and then still had plenty of time to pay two quid for a mug of coffee and a bacon and egg bap at the public car park 500 meters or so away, before getting to the workshops on time at 9.

At some point something cured me of the need to be all-hardcore, all the time. I took my cheats breakfast for a really enjoyable walk through the woods and just enjoyed being part of the environment.

See you soon.

Cordialment,

Malcolm

Reply

Matt Jones

The Frontier methodology works – I was fortunate enough to attend the Bushcraft & Survival Foundation Course recently, and learned a great deal from the day and also from Paul Kirtley’s article on small-stick firelighting that appeared in Scouting magazine.

Since then I’ve been on two wilderness expeditions – a 10-day canoeing trip in Northern Sweden, and a US trip down through the Appalachians and the Great Smoky mountains. Using the skills I learned from Paul K and James Bath, I was able to light a fire whenever I needed to and safety permitted – without resorting to complex fire lays, turbo-lighters or specialist tinder. Instead, I remembered the principles they taught me (create a hearth, use long bunches of matchstick sized-kindling, grade your fuel, prepare properly), using a fire steel and natural tinder collected close at hand – birch bark, which works really well due to the high levels of natural oils present in the bark. In my experience, the Frontier approach never fails!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Matt,

It’s good to hear from you. And it sounds like you’ve had some real adventures since we last spoke.

I’m very glad to read you had 100% success in applying the fire-lighting principles we teach.

For me this illustrates a couple of important points; First it shows the methodology – if applied properly – is extremely reliable. Second, it highlights the fact that as an instructor I don’t know where in the world you’ll eventually take your skills and apply them. Sure, you might only apply them in your local woods or campground but equally you could be off on wilderness expeditions, where your well-being is very much dependent on these skills.

At Frontier we teach wilderness bushcraft. As a result, you can trust your skills to serve you very well when you need to depend upon them.

Thanks and warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Pat Shannon

Fair play lighting a fire with one match in adverse conditions. In my opinion the ones that will complain about how you light the fire are the same ones that would never get off their fat arses to go out and try this. In weather like that, I have cheated a bit by using a candle to help get me a fire base. Any chance of putting something like this on a You tube video. It would be recommended viewing for our scouts doing their backwoods training as well for some of our junior instructors. Keep up the good work.
Pat

Reply

Carl Culley

HI Paul,
Great come back! Bet all the people with negative comments must in stage of hypothermia…….Lol

Reply

Stewart Lomax

Paul,

It’s easy to criticise and not so easy to light a fire in any given situation. You all do a brilliant job showing a dead cert method. Once established the fire can be ‘tamed’ to give the desired effect.

Stewart

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Indeed Stewart, a fire needs a certain amount of ‘oomph’ to start with.

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Richard Tiley

I’m baffled by any negative comments about that spectacular opening picture. All it shows is that Ian Lawson had chosen and prepared his kindling incredibly well helped, no doubt, by the dry conditions. I suppose I might be inclined to furrow my brow a little if he sustained that height of flame for as long as the fire was lit but it is obvious that he didn’t.

The advice you posted on lighting fires is excellent: methodical and comprehensive. It obvious works come rain or shine and, really, that’s all that matters.

Come on you armchair pundits – get on your feet, get outdoors and let’s see what you can do…

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Richard.

Reply

Dan

totally agree the hard part is always getting the fire going, better to overdo the kindling a bit and make sure it burns than be overcautious and waste your only match! or worse still an awful lot of effort running two sticks together!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Indeed Dan, most fires fail in their earliest stages.

Reply

Darren

It never ceases to amaze me the number of armchair experts.

Unfortunately I have come to the conclusion that Bushcraft and Survival attracts the full spectrum – from those that are expert in everything until it comes to making practical use of their ‘skills’ right up to people such as yourself and your crew who clearly not only know what you’re talking about but have been there and done it.

I used to get wound up reading some of the ‘advice’ from ‘experts’ on some Bushcraft forums, now I have learned to just sigh and chuckle.

Keep up the excellent work, I always look forward to your informative articles.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thank you Darren.

Reply

Martin (weekender)

Hi Paul

Love the armchair comment, totally agree no matter what the weather get the fire going then manipulate it to the fire lay you want/need.
Great blog and really enjoy the hints and tips.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Martin,

Glad you liked the comment as well as the blog. There’s plenty of them around. Lots of good, genuinely interested people too though. Which keeps me going… πŸ™‚

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Stephen Ward

Hi. loving the site and thinking seriously about one of your bushcraft courses next year. I’ve just done a survival-oriented course with another company which was very good but I’m looking for more of a bushcraft angle.

I did have a question about the kindling used here – was it wet also? I’m only asking out of curiosity.

I actually tried to get a fire going a couple of weeks ago while on a scout camp in the rain and failed miserably. I learnt a great deal from the survival training course I just attended last weekend and feel a LOT more confident about it – preparation and a degree of patience is everything. But the weather was ideal and we had ample dry kindling to get going with.

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Paul Kirtley

Hi Stephen,

Yes, please do join us on a course.

In answer to your question – the kindling was superficially wet from the rain. It was mainly birch, which has a good oily bark that not only keeps the twigs dry but also burns very well once ignited. Even so, we are always careful to collect small twigs that are still attached to trees or hung up in other trees and bushes, rather than lying on the damp ground.

Hope this helps.

Warm regards,

Paul

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Grant

Good article, good point and well presented. Impressed with the fire as well.

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Paul Kirtley

Thanks Grant.

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Liam gadd

It’s the same way I taught my cub scouts. So their aged 8-10 years old. Following this instruction, they all managed successfully to build fires on their own.

A very successful evening indeed.

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Paul Kirtley

Great stuff Liam. Lucky Scouts πŸ™‚

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George Aitchison

Firstly, that is a cracking picture Paul.

Secondly, I am quite jealous as I am always photographing flames in an artistic way looking for shapes and figures.

And thirdly I really enjoyed reading this professional reply to these negative comments.

Cheers, George

Reply

Zed Outdoors

Ah the good ole armchair bushcrafters, you gotta love em ..not πŸ™‚

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Paul Kirtley

πŸ™‚

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bill jackson

It takes a hot fire to burn damp wood. On the other hand, a big fire consumes a heck of a lot of fuel. Once you get the reflector rocks hot and a coal bed going, a smaller fire will dry the wood around it, but you need to tend it.
Tending a fire is very good emotionally. A night takes a long, long time to pass.

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Adrian

Hi Paul
Another great article. Enjoyed reading some of the comments, had to laugh “armchair punditry” classic.
I don’t know what every one else thinks but I believe we all have a duty of care to each other as followers of Bushcraft and must be both mindful and considerate what we put out in to the public domain.

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bill jackson

The armchair punditry is due to an effect sometimes called “Mt Stupid”. (Google it.) Misnamed, because the smarter people are, the more likely they are to think they know what they don’t. It should be called “Mt Unwise”.
Nobody knows what works reliably if they haven’t done it many times under a variety of conditions.

Absolutely agree that a fire should habitually be started with lots of fuel and lots of heat. A hot fire will burn damp fuel, but you need a heat reservoir in the form of a deep coal bed and, preferably, hot reflector rocks.
And one of the biggest beginner mistakes is to light the fire before they’ve accumulated enough fuel. It ends up with the fire not able to sustain itself while you’re desperately trying to collect more useable wood.

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Derek Faria

Nice article. The trusty match for the win. Glad to see others still teaching a most reliable method too. Cheers

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James Evans

Hi Paul,

I can only agree with your comment that it would be irresponsible to teavh firelighting any other way. There will always be people with differing opinions from those who’s lives are lived thorough the lens of social media but whether you’re trying to light a fire outdoors, a freezing Swedish hut or a damp Scottish bothy the principles are the same. As you say, you most need a fire when it’s most difficult to light one.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi James,

Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you get it πŸ™‚

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

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