Foley: Survival skills: fire building |

Foley: Survival skills: fire building

Greg Foley
Mountain Rescue
The ability to build a fire in challenging situations is a key survival skill that is made easier by having the right gear in your kit.
Courtesy Photo |

If you have been reading the Mountain Rescue column you know that we advocate for being prepared for emergencies in the backcountry. The ability to treat medical emergencies, find your way in difficult terrain and survive getting caught in bad weather or darkness is made easier with simple preparation.

Of course a comprehensive trip plan includes never travelling alone and making sure someone knows where you are going.

One of the easiest of the “Ten Essentials” to carry in your kit is fire starting supplies. If you are stranded or incapacitated in the mountains staying warm and dry are critical for survival. Hypothermia is the real danger, not lack of food or water. The ability to make a fire and keep it going could save your life.

Last winter a Wisconsin man, snowmobiling by himself near Grand Lake, got his machine stuck and was unable to dig out. He called the 911 dispatcher who was able to give him directions to the nearest trail so he could walk out. There was several hours of daylight left. Unfortunately, he was unable to accomplish that task, and ended up off trail in a gully, after dark, wet, cold and exhausted. GCSAR was called out after he called 911 again around sunset, and reached the subject three-and-a-half hours later. He had built a fire, but couldn’t keep it going. We counted this as a life saved. He probably would not have survived the sub-zero temperatures that night.


Your fire starting supplies can be very basic, lightweight and compact. Start out with a butane lighter or two. Or three. Cheap and easy. Alternately, many people like the old school stick matches in a waterproof container. A third way to get ignition is with a ferrocerium “firestick” that provides spark when struck with a steel implement like a knife edge. Many ferrocerium tools incorporate magnesium that is easily started as shavings.

Once you have ignition it is important to have easily started tinder material that will stay burning long enough to build heat and light up larger sticks and branches that will be your long term fuel. There are many commercially available tinders that are inexpensive and readily available – cubes, sticks, paste. Or you can make your own. My pick is cotton balls saturated with petroleum jelly stored in a pill bottle.

If you don’t have a commercial tinder there are plenty of natural materials that will work. Natural tinder should be dead and dry. Grasses, pine needles, leaves, inner bark from trees or wood shavings are some options.

Before you try to start your fire gather up a good supply of tiny, small and medium sticks and branches. You don’t want to have to leave your new fire to go in search of fuel. A folding saw comes in very handy for efficient fuel gathering. If possible, build your fire near an easy fuel source.


There are many different techniques for constructing your initial fire base including teepee, log cabin and lean-to. My preference is the lean-to with a substantial log for support.

You should build your fire in a location sheltered from the wind that provides easy access and ideally protection from precipitation. You may need to build a shelter near the fire. In the winter, be aware that your fire will melt down through the snowpack. It might be smart to dig down to ground or build the fire on a base of logs.

One of the most important things you can do to prepare for building an emergency survival fire is to practice building a fire with the tools in your kit. If you are a novice at fire building take some time to experiment under different conditions and with different fire starting materials. Try building a fire in the wind or in winter conditions. Do some research on fire building skills and then practice to see what works for you.

When you really need a survival fire you may be cold, wet and exhausted. Your life could depend on your knowledge, skill and the stuff in your pack.

Greg Foley is a member of Grand County Search and Rescue and has been a mountain rescue volunteer for 36 years. He can be reached by email at The GCSAR website can be found at or on Facebook/GCSAR.

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