Fire Starters: How to Get a Campfire Blazing

Warmth, light, the ability to dry your wet socks, cook your food, purify your water and signal for help. All these are benefits of having a nice campfire. But fire starting is often a daunting task. That’s why there are fire starters. When we talk about fire starters, we aren’t discussing waterproof matches or cigarette lighters — those are ignition systems. The kinds of fire starters we’re talking about are special materials (both manmade and natural) that can be used to almost guarantee that you’ll end up with flames, sometimes even when the fuel is damp. Think of these materials as “accelerants,” because they catch fire quickly and easily, then speed the progress of the blaze. WITHIN ARM’S REACH Accelerants exist in nature, so you might be able to find some good fire starters right near camp. Pitch, for example, is a great aid to fire starting. It is a resinous material that occurs naturally in some evergreen trees, especially those that have suffered a wound in the distant past. The wound filled with sap, as the tree attempted to heal itself. Over time, the sap was absorbed into the wood fibers and passed through a natural distillation process whereby it became thick, heavy and hard. The result is “pitch wood,” and it is highly prized as a natural fire starter because it will catch a flame and hold it, even in adverse weather conditions. The old wound will often leave the tree weak and vulnerable to breakage. If you find a tree that has been shattered by wind or a snow load, take a closer look and see if you can find slivers of heavy, darkly stained pitch wood that can be pulled loose and used as a fire starter. Even if the tree hasn’t had time to develop pitch wood, fresh evergreen sap is volatile and can be used to make a good fire starter. So, if you find a tree that is oozing sap, collect some on several twigs that will be used at the base of your fire. The more you use the better. Sap on the surface of a twig won’t necessarily make the twig itself more flammable, but it will serve to hold the flame longer and give you a better chance to ignite the tinder and kindling that you have prepared. Like any volatile liquid, the sap will eventually be consumed, but by the time it is, you will hopefully have the fire well ablaze. HOMEMADE STARTERS If you want to prepare your own homemade fire starter, you can do it by using lint from your clothes drier filter, and candle wax or paraffin. Here’s the way I do it: Tear off enough lint to form a marble-sized ball. Light a candle and drip 10 to 15 drops of wax into the lint. Then, while the wax is still warm enough to be pliable, wad the lint into a pellet. Store these in a small zip-close plastic bag until needed. The lint is a good tinder material that catches fire easily, but it burns with a fleeting flame and never burns completely. By adding the wax, the pellet catches a flame easily, burns more vigorously and lasts longer. Another method uses drier lint, a piece of candle and an empty toilet paper tube. Loosely wrap the candle with lint, allowing the wick to protrude so you can set it on fire with a match or lighter. Stuff the lint and candle into the tube, place this package under the firewood and ignite the wick. The candle lights easily, melts into the lint, eventually catches the tube on fire, and the tube helps keep the whole thing together. This system is easier to put together than the individual pellets, but is somewhat less effective and takes up more space in a backpack. STORE BOUGHT If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, there are fire starter products available at your local hardware or sporting goods store. People who have wood stoves at home often use compact fire starters to ignite the kindling. These products are equally useful in a campground setting or in the backyard barbecue. For camping trips and as an emergency fire starter in my survival kit, I use WetFire tinder, manufactured by Ultimate Survival (866/479-7994; This product is a solid cube that weighs a little over an ounce. Each cube is individually wrapped in foil, can’t leak, is nontoxic and leaves no residue. The cubes burn without smoke and can be ignited even in high wind and wet weather. One of the impressive things about the product is that it isn’t always necessary to use a whole cube to get a fire going. WetFire burns at over 1300 degrees, yet cools almost instantly when snuffed out. A small pile of shavings can be enough to start a campfire or pre-warm a backpack stove at high altitude. Just burn a small amount of shavings around the backpack-stove burner. If you can’t find WetFire at your local sporting goods store, you can order it directly from the manufacturer. With any of these fire starters, your life when camping will be easier. Dinner will be hot faster, you’ll have warmth when the sun goes down, and you’ll be regarded as a campfire hero. Read more about camping and camping tips from our experts.