I’ve always had a fondness for small boxes – not plain old cardboard shipping boxes, but sturdy things like wooden cigar boxes, hollowed out books, those little cedar boxes you used to buy at roadside stops, old Band-Aid boxes back when they were still metal, etc. I remember being 8 or 9 and making a survival kit in a Bandaid tin – I think I put in a fishing hook and a couple feet of line (no sinkers…), a chicken bouillon cube (no cup…) a Bandaid or two (nothing to clean a wound…), etc. I guess the intention was good, even if it wasn’t terribly practical.
There aren’t a lot of these storage containers left; in our disposable culture most packaging these days is pretty flimsy. What we do have left are Altoids tins – metal, with hinged lids, small enough to stash in a pants pocket. It’s perfect for a small fishing kit, repair kit, or as I’ll show you today, a fire starter kit.
If the extent of your fire starting knowledge is throwing lighter fluid on charcoal, then here’s a basic course in how to start a fire in a camping or survival situation.
To start a fire, you will need three types of materials to burn – tinder, kindling and fuel – plus an ignition source.
- Tinder–These are small, easy to light items that catch the spark from the ignition source and transfer it to the kindling. If your kindling is wet, the tinder must burn long enough to dry out the kindling. You can make your own tinder by shaving dry sticks or bark into pieces the size of pencil shavings. Other sources of tinder could include dead dry plants and grasses (they should be brown), lint, paper, dry pine needles, or items in your fire starter kit.
- Kindling–The kindling is usually pieces of wood a bit larger than the tinder – think pencil thickness. You want these to ignite and burn for a while until the fuel can catch.
- Fuel— These are the pieces of wood that will provide your actual fire. Logs about 1″ to 5″ in diameter work the best.
Once you’ve gathered all three materials, it’s time to build the fire. Typically, you’ll start with a small amount tinder with the kindling stacked on it in one of three ways:
- Teepee— Stack the kindling like you’re building an Indian tent.
- Crisscross–Loosely lay the kindling on the tinder. There should be air space between each piece.
- Log Cabin–Stack the kindling around the outside of the tinder as though you were playing with Lincoln Logs. The smallest pieces should form the roof.
You will light the tinder, which will in turn light the kindling. Once the kindling is burning, you can begin laying the larger pieces of fuel on top.
Assembling your fire starter kit
Obviously you’re not going to be able to carry kindling and fuel everywhere you go, but you can put together several sources of tinder and ignition in a compact case. There’s no one “perfect” set of ingredients – you’ll have to see what you’ve got on hand, what you’re able to create, and what you know how to use. Some of these items can be:
Lighter — A compact lighter is an instant ignition source, but since it has moving parts it’s possible for it to fail (or even run out of fuel). Personally, I don’t want to carry the liquid fuel around with me.
Matches— These will be what most people use 99% of the time to start their fire. You can use ordinary kitchen matches (be sure to include the striker if they’re not strike-anywhere!), or waterproof matches. Either buy waterproof camping matches or make your own by dipping a standard match into clear nail polish. Be sure to cover at least 1/8″ of the wood behind the head with nail polish.
Flint & Steel–These will provide a nice spark that can light your tinder, but they do take practice. Typically, you’ll get a larger, hotter spark from the strikers that are sold separately from the magnesium bars, such as this one.
Magnifying Glass–On a sunny day, a magnifying glass will focus sunlight to a small point, allowing you to ignite dry tinder. It takes up a lot of room in your kit, and you’re out of luck at night, but it’s fun to use!
Magnesium— Magnesium is a metal that burns fast and hot at over 2000 degrees. A spark from your flint and steel is enough to ignite it, but you’ll need to have an additional source of tinder to catch – it burns too quickly to catch any of your kindling on fire by itself. You could pack an entire bar in your kit, but you’d be taking up a lot of space; better to shave off a quantity at home and wrap it in foil. If you decide to use this method, be sure to practice at home – it’s tricky!
Candles— A birthday candle or two will burn for several minutes, but if you’re going to be in some hot temperatures you run the risk of the wax melting over everything else in your kit.
Cotton Balls & Petroleum Jelly–A cotton ball coated in petroleum jelly (i.e. Vaseline) works great – the jelly keeps the cotton waterproof and will burn for 3 or 4 minutes. They are messy to make, however; the easiest and cleanest way I’ve found is to put a glob of jelly into a Ziploc bag along with half a dozen cotton balls, then knead them until they are thoroughly coated. Make sure you’re using 100% pure petroleum jelly and 100% cotton. Wrap them in foil to store, so you don’t get jelly over everything else in the kit.
Dryer Lint–You can use dryer lint by itself, or coated with petroleum jelly like the cotton balls. However, I’ve found that it doesn’t always burn as nicely as the cotton balls, so I’d recommend only using this if you can’t get real cotton balls.
Store–bought starters – These can be hit or miss – I’ve found ones that light immediately, and others that you have to hold the match on it for a full 5-10 seconds. Test one out before adding several to your kit.
Jute Twine— Jute can be split into many small fibers, and is very easy to ignite.
Steel Wool–a very fine mesh steel wool will ignite with a spark, or when a current is run through it. You can use use your flashlight batteries, but a 9 volt battery works great.
If you’re likely to use your kit on a regular basis (camping trips, for example) then the Altoids tin should be enough protection, but if you’re planning on storing it in a bug-out bag for an extended period of time, you might want to seal it with a strip of duct tape.
The Altoids tin is small enough that it should fit in most pants pockets, and won’t take up hardly any room in your bug out bag.
If you want to carry it on your belt, it will fit into a small camera case, or for a more tactical look you could go with something like this Maxpedition pouch. You could also go the DIY route and create a paracord pouch.
Whatever you decide to pack, and however you decide to carry it, this handy little kit will take up very little space and should be able to get a fire going under almost any type of weather conditions.