Nothing was so nonchalantly terrifying as reading Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” in an English literature class many years ago in high school.

The protagonist and his dog are traveling near the Yukon River in temperatures 75 degrees below 0, as told by an omniscient narrator who describes the man’s thoughts and actions.

The man builds a fire by which to eat lunch and a second fire to dry and warm himself after breaking through a slushy spot while traversing the Yukon River, chuckling at an elder who advised him to never travel alone when the temperature drops lower than 50 below.

Before he can finish the thought, a mass of heavy snow falls off the pine tree above him, smothering the fire he’s just built to dry his clothes. The fallen snow and snuffed fire is ultimately his death sentence and the man knows it.

He is too cold and fingers too numb to start a new fire.

Survival for anyone in an unfamiliar, unknown or wild place has a few key requirements, best remembered by thinking within sets of three, according to Ney Nature Center Naturalist Sam Retz. You can survive for three minutes without air or oxygen, three hours without shelter, three days without water and three weeks without food.

There are some exceptions, but your planning efforts must incorporate your needs in some strategic order. You will need air, water, food, shelter and sleep to simply survive.

Fire is part of necessary shelter and protection from weather or danger.

Fire is very important in survival situations for many reasons. It provides heat when the weather is cold, is useful for cooking food and boiling water for purification, casting light after the sun sets, signaling with light and smoke for rescue assistance and protection against wild animals, biting insects or cold.

It also has a calming and stabilizing effect on mental well-being. Lose your hope and will to live, and you won’t survive long.

In the Ney Nature Center’s Basic Survival Course, participants learn how to start fires by lighting a spark from matches or flint and steel. Begin with fluffing and layering tinder, says Retz, using materials like cotton balls, newspaper, tissue paper, corn chips or dry leaves or pine needles. Small chemical fire starters work well, too.

Once you have a flame started with tinder and some blowing to introduce oxygen, switch to burning slightly larger kindling like dried twigs, broken branches and pieces of wood less than an inch around.

Once the kindling has lit a well-established flame, you can work to introduce larger materials that you will feed your fire to keep it going, typically wooden logs. Remember that the bigger your fuel, the bigger the fire will have to be to get said items started.

There are several ways to arrange fuels to keep a fire burning with easy oxygen access. You can arrange logs or kindling in a teepee or star shape, or build up like a Lincoln Log cabin.

Once hot coals are established, adding fuel to the fire and keeping things burning with occasional tending is all that is required. Fires need fuel and oxygen to light and start the chemical reaction of burning.

The final ingredient is heat, which typically comes after lighting the flame. The hotter a fire burns, the easier it burns. Take away heat, oxygen or fuel, and eventually the fire goes out.

A trip into wilderness areas should only be done with survival equipment packed, which includes fire-starting materials. Waterproof matches, lighters, some steel wool and a 9-volt battery, or a flint and steel are essential items as fire starters, along with some simple tinder like cotton balls and Vaseline, dryer lint or packed sawdust.

Retz likes teaching survival course participants how to use a flint and steel since it will spark even while wet.

“Everyone wants to use a lighter to start fires,” says Retz, “but when you absolutely need it, you might be low on lighter fluid. You don’t want to take that chance. Pack something foolproof like the flint and steel.”

At Ney Nature Center’s Survival Course, you can practice building fires and using flint and steel, both acquired skills. There’s really no substitute for experience in building fires, whether it is for a recreational bonfire, cooking over a flame on a camping trip or for your own survival.

You want to practice enough to be proficient for situations where you need fire. A long still hunt for elusive whitetail deer in early winter or an early spring steelhead trip are made more tolerable with a break to sit around a fire, to warm up and eat something, and for a brief period of time, have some control over what can otherwise be miserable days, conditions-wise.

Should you ever become lost, or find yourself in a survival situation, the ability to start a fire could very well save your life.

Scott Mackenthun has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. Email him at

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