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Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast

Building a fire is nothing short of an art form, and no one can teach you everything you'd need to know to perfect it in a ten-minute video. Instead of attempting to do this (perfecting your form), we've simply highlighted some of the gear and techniques used to start a fire.

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by Sam Haraldson | 2009-07-14 00:05:00-06

Fire building videos on the Internet are a dime a dozen, but each and every one of them can teach you a thing or two. However, building a fire is nothing short of an art form, so no one can teach you everything you'd need to know to perfect it in a ten-minute video.

Instead of attempting to do this (perfect your form) you'll find that we've simply highlighted some of the gear and techniques used to start a fire. A short description of the fire triangle, finding fuel, and other quick tips are included as well.

Watch for a quick intro to these techniques and discuss some of your own on the Backpacking Light forum at the bottom. If we get enough reader suggestions, perhaps we'll release Up in Smoke II - More Fire Building with Sam H.


For a better viewing experience, please download the Flash Player.

Backcountry fire building tips, techniques, and tools with Sam H.


"Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast," by Sam Haraldson. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2009-07-14 00:05:00-06.


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Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast
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Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: what about cooking? on 07/16/2009 03:14:37 MDT Print View

"People who know how to do this will laugh at me, but I've never actually seen someone cook over a backcountry wood fire. Of course, I'm mostly interested in light or UL style."

I second that this is no silly question. Whole books could be written on the subject. I have built small fires and racked out half the coals when they formed and set my mug on them so that the mug was on the coals and next to the flame. You can continue to feed the flame and make more coals as the water starts to boil. Thats what I did anyway. I have a ti tri cone now.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: what about cooking? on 07/16/2009 05:42:44 MDT Print View

Yeah, how about a similar video, but under challenging conditions (wind, rain)? That might help showcase some of the other helpful tips.

Good video.


Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 07/16/2009 09:25:07 MDT Print View

It took me a couple weekends to finally shoot this video. I took two backcountry trips in which I planned to get footage for this but both trips I ended up pushing darkness upon arrival at camp and didn't have light to shoot.

The video I did produce was shot on a car camping trip (note I'm wearing sandals) at a beautiful location near Hyalite Resevoir in the Gallatin National Forest.

I'd like to do another one that focused on the use of all natural tinders and fuels using only a fire striker. Also, I'd like to present techniques for fire starting in wind, rain, and snowy conditions.

All that being said I'll probably have to bring a video camera on a half dozen trips in order to get the footage I want. It's a worthy topic and I'll see what I can do.

todd h
(funnymoney) - MLife

Locale: SE
Re: Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 07/16/2009 16:26:15 MDT Print View

Nice, Sam!

I appreciate the instuctional articles, reviews, and videos!

Keep 'em coming, BPL!


George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 07/16/2009 19:29:33 MDT Print View

Good job! Been saving dryer lint, but have not yet used it. Like your technique with the fire steel. Will try it soon.

Please give us more videocasts.

Mike M
(mtwarden) - MLife

Locale: Montana
natural tinder on 07/17/2009 08:46:40 MDT Print View

as mentioned earlier- Old Man's Hair, Witches Hair, Bear Hair (and I'm sure lots of other local names)- family of tree lichens, makes a wonderful tinder (if dry)

you can also add a little fir sap to it for extra oomph :)

many of the birch family barks are also a good bet for natural tinder

iirc survivor man in one episode used a corn chip as tinder! :D

Brad Groves
(4quietwoods) - MLife

Locale: Michigan
Re: Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 07/17/2009 09:18:09 MDT Print View

I am glad to see the format and application... thanks!

One of my pet peeves about emergency firestarters is the need for redundancy inherent in some of the methods. Example? Using a sparklite tinder to ignite the wax/lint firestarter in the video. If I really need to get a fire going, I don't want a "product" (including homemade) that needs a strong open flame to get it burning. I've also found that hexamine tabs and such don't light as easily. Through lots of "experimentation," (ie, playing) I've found that petroleum jelly-soaked cotton balls offer the best combination in ease of catching a spark, ease of ignition, and steady, hot, wind-resistant flame. If you have petro/cotton balls, you don't need to carry any other kind of tinder whatsoever. I carry them double-wrapped in foil so that I can wrap a bit around them to enhance the burn time.



John Davis
(Bukidnon) - F
Fires in Damp Conditions on 07/17/2009 13:39:39 MDT Print View

Basically, in damp locations, it may be necessary to bring in dry tinder. Leather bags are popular for tinder as they breathe. The first survival book I read recommended collecting dry tinder whenever you see it in case you need it days later. After a series of damp days even air dried birch - the dead twigs caught in branches - can be challenging to light. Or so I thought till an expert showed me the secret. He filled the bottom third of my Bushcooker with dry bog cotton from his leather bag, invited me to put a spark on it and then added dead heather flowers. We had flames two feet high within twenty seconds. After a start like that, the Bushcooker will burn just about anything. My mistake had been meanness with the tinder.

Obviously, you need to think before bringing in dead plant material from another place. Petroleum jelly-soaked products definitely have a place in my pack.

Edited by Bukidnon on 07/17/2009 13:43:25 MDT.

Benjamin Hamilton
(krondek) - F
Uhhhh, Sam you stole my mojo on 07/18/2009 22:47:55 MDT Print View

I'm assuming that this is a sequel to my demonstration from our Packrafting trip: "How to Start a Fire in Only 3 Hours Using Nothing But 16 Swedish Firesteels and An Acre of Dry Brush".

- Ben H.

Jane McMichen
(jmcmichen) - F

Locale: Maine, DownEast Coast
Question about egg carton on 07/19/2009 08:42:02 MDT Print View

Maybe I'm a bit slow on the uptake. What's the purpose of the wax in the egg carton method?

Also, I followed the link about the fungi in the Northeast. Did I read it correctly that the False Tinder kind burns as well as the True Tinder kind? If so, somebody could have come up with a better name... :-)

Here's the link I followed:

Thanks in advance!

Tad Englund
(bestbuilder) - F - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Question about egg carton on 07/19/2009 15:37:04 MDT Print View

>Maybe I'm a bit slow on the uptake. What's the purpose of the wax in the egg carton method< Jane, I don't know a nicer way of saying this so here it goes- have you ever seen a candle burn, and look at what it’s made of? The wax slows the burn of the cardboard. I help the scouts make these- I put wood shaving in them along with a small bit of dryer lint in the cup part then drizzle wax over them. They really burn for a long time and stay lit very well. They are too heavy for my use- I use Vaseline and cotton balls (much lighter), but the boys like to make them and then watch them burn. The Vaseline/cotton balls are a little anticlimactic for them.

Edited by bestbuilder on 07/19/2009 15:38:53 MDT.

Jane McMichen
(jmcmichen) - F

Locale: Maine, DownEast Coast
Re: Egg carton question on 07/20/2009 18:14:48 MDT Print View

Thank you for your kind reply. I had never (obviously) considered what wax actually does for a candle. I hope that's the dumbest question I ever ask, but somehow I'm thinking 'not'.

I do appreciate that one can ask such questions on this webiste and not be flamed into humiliation forever.


John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 07/21/2009 11:26:21 MDT Print View

Good video Sam. I'd like to see more of these too. People should list suggestions for short video podcasts they want to see.

I've always heard the three components of fire being fuel, heat and oxygen (instead of air).

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Alcohol stove for rainy firestarting? on 09/12/2009 03:45:51 MDT Print View

I've not done it in the rain yet since I don't expect to ever build fires in general, but the one fire I have built while backpacking (just for the heck of it really) was after a rain. I simply built 2 "walls" with larger sticks and a "roof" with tinder and slid my lit Super Cat under the roof. Worked like a charm.

Thomas Choat

Locale: Wet, Windy, cold, "Westland"
wet firemaking on 09/22/2009 12:44:20 MDT Print View

I came over this video on starting fires when its really wet, haven't tried it yet, but someone might find it interesting.

Don Christensen
(logger) - MLife

Locale: West Texas
Tinder and fire starters. on 05/03/2010 22:00:32 MDT Print View

In Central & West Texas, and parts of New Mexico, mountain Juniper (aka Cedar) is the best tinder available. Even when conditions are wet, you can always strip some bark off of the side of a tree and crumple it up until it begins emitting dust. Then throw a spark and give it a few puffs of air, then Viola, you have fire.

Works every time.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 05/03/2010 23:55:56 MDT Print View

In these days of freeze-dried food and/or Freezer Bag Cooking (really hydration), cooking on a campfire has become a lost art.

Back in the 1940's and 50's, campfires were all that was available for cooking. My mother was a true gourmet camp cook! She used to make pie, cake and yeast rolls, using aluminum pie/cake tins (lighter substitute for a dutch oven) and coals from the campfire. Yes, once in a while (usually not more than once a week) we had to scrape off a little burn, but even so they were delicious! Of course back then hardly anyone was in the backcountry (we'd go for a week or more without meeting anyone, and then it was usually a sheepherder), so wood resources were not scarce, even around timberline, as they are now.

I have gotten lazy in my old age, so I do the Freezer Bag thingy--no dishes to wash, and no worries about scarce wood resources or fire scars. I suspect that if I were in an area where firewood was plentiful, no fire danger and plenty of existing fire scars to use, I could relearn those skills she taught me, given sufficient motivation. Which I don't have, sorry!

Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: Up in Smoke: Backcountry Fire Building Videocast on 09/07/2013 09:34:37 MDT Print View