To Build A Fire

Words by Natalie Ferraro

What is it they tell you to do if you get lost in the woods? Stay in one place, create a shelter, and get a fire going, right? Fire starting seems to be one of those skills inherent in the knowledge base of every guy I know. Unfortunately, it is not something that comes naturally to me. The physics involved have long eluded my understanding. Any attempts I’ve made to minister to a healthy roaring blaze tend to quickly smother it.

As an independent and outdoorsy person, fire building was a skill that I longed to master, but I was afraid to admit I knew nothing about it. I remember one camping trip in particular where I piled newspapers under a log and got so frustrated with the lack of contagious flame that I yelled at my friends and kind of ruined the night. After that trip, I confessed to my boyfriend at the time that I had never built my own fire. He promptly took me out to the woods and showed me the basics. Under his guidance I was able to light one of my own for the very first time, but repeating the experience proved challenging.

Fire supplies: axes and kindling

I told myself that if I ever got lost in the woods and absolutely had to start a fire, I would figure it out then. My eyes were opened to the magnitude of my ignorance when my university offered a one-day survival class taught by eccentric actor and survivalist, Cody Lundin. The class advertised shelter building in addition to other outdoor skills, but Lundin wouldn’t teach us anything until we knew how to build a survival fire first. Partnered with a quiet girl I did not know, we tried to get flames to grow from a paper match we’d been instructed to split in two. A brown haze slowly covered the soccer field as all the teams tried and mostly failed to produce a blaze. Lundin paced between the huddled teams, alternating between a rant about needing more “small stuff” and talking poetically about building a home for your flame. My partner and I spent three hours trying to get our fire going and I left reeking of smoke and feeling disappointed.

I told myself that if I ever got lost in the woods and absolutely had to start a fire, I would figure it out then. 

A few months ago, I decided for the hundredth time to try camping alone. Like starting a fire, camping solo is a skill I do not have. Being alone in a developed campground is no big deal and I can solo hike all day. Backpacking alone is something I desperately want to be good at. Hell, I’ll settle for being bad at it just as long as I get to do it. But when night falls and I’m alone in the woods, all kinds of horrible creatures and scenarios prowl out of my mind, circling until I freak out and go home. I call them the What-If monsters…

Photo courtesy of Natalie Ferraro

On this occasion, I spent the day hiking with a friend and had to leave them behind to stay the night. I didn’t have the courage to go far from the trailhead, but was nevertheless feeling optimistic as I set up in a dispersed camping site. My plan was to make dinner, get a fire going, enjoy the evening, and sleep soundly after a full day of hiking. What actually happened was I made dinner, spent the remaining daylight scrounging for dry firewood, and then spent several frustrating hours trying to keep a meager fire from going out.

I burnt through all my kindling in an amazingly short amount of time and spent hours sprinting between my fire and the woods, bringing back just enough fuel to keep it going while I ran back for another armful. With every venture into the woods, the What-If monsters grew bigger fangs. My dog curled up on my sleeping bag and started shivering. It wasn’t cold out, he’s just as dramatic as I am.

I profess to respect nature and my place in it, but as soon as I was confronted with reality, I desperately needed four walls and electric lights. “I’m not the person I want to be,” I admitted, teary-eyed and sniffling… “I can’t even start a goddamn fire.”

Keeping that fire going became my sole mission, as I grew convinced that smoke and light was my only way to keep creatures at bay. In a last ditch effort to spread the flames, I lit my camp stove and pointed the blue flame at the base of my fire. Kindling and tinder vaporized in a rush of heat, leaving the thicker, damper branches steaming. Recognizing the absurdity of my desperation, I gave up and texted an adventure buddy to come get me.

She arrived to find me crying and feeding another armload of twigs to a small flame. I had mustered the motivation to keep bringing armloads of fuel, but had hit a crisis point. Everyone I admire and hope to pattern my life after is completely at ease in vast tracts of wilderness. Here I was, crying in a stand of alders forty-five minutes from my house. I profess to respect nature and my place in it, but as soon as I was confronted with reality, I desperately needed four walls and electric lights. “I’m not the person I want to be,” I admitted, teary-eyed and sniffling as my friend sat down beside me. “I guess I’m just someone who can’t be alone in the woods at night. I can’t even start a goddamn fire.”

 

Since that last attempt at solo camping and fire making, I’ve taken a job as a Camp Host. We get to live in a campground full time and have campfires nearly every night. My boyfriend adores building fires, so the task has always fallen to him, but a few nights ago he was out of town visiting friends. The warm evening inspired me to cook dinner outside and I set about lighting a fire. Despite the additives like lighter fluid and a blowtorch at my disposal, I challenged myself to go the old-fashioned way, with two sticks and some string. Just kidding – I used a match and some junk mail.

I took my time splitting kindling, making sure I had a huge pile before starting. I meticulously built a pyramid of kindling around the paper, and finished with a few larger pieces. I used a whole match this time and watched as the flame cheerily licked at the kindling and spread to bigger pieces. Before long I had a perfect bed of coals to cook my dinner over. I reveled in the delicious food, a warm fire, and a growing sense of sufficiency.

 I’m still not the kind of person who can be alone in the woods at night, but maybe becoming one requires the same approach as building a fire. Lots of preparation, wait until you’re ready, and give yourself room to breathe.

I recognize that building a fire from dry, stored wood, with a hatchet at my disposal is vastly different from being lost in the cold, damp forest, but that cheerful cooking was a milestone.

The rules for a successful fire are these:

  • When you think you have enough kindling and tinder, get three times as much.
  • Use only wood that is dry and ready to burn
  • Make sure the fire has plenty of room to breathe, but keep it protected from the wind

to build a fire, flames closeup

I’m still not the kind of person who can be alone in the woods at night, but maybe becoming one requires the same approach as building a fire. Lots of preparation, wait until you’re ready, and give yourself room to breathe.

There are lots of things I cannot do that I am working hard to achieve. Learning to build a fire was one of those things. Success came with practice, patience, and ultimately, a huge helping of humility. I’ve recognized that becoming who you want to be starts with accepting where you are. I am the kind of person who learned to build a fire.

 

Natalie Ferraro travels the country in her tiny house and is currently a Campground Host in Oregon. Her hobbies include anthropomorphizing, fresh air, long distance everything and assembling Ikea furniture. Find her on Instagram and see more writing at lomad.blog

Unless otherwise specified, photos in this piece are by Hailey Hirst

 

Do you know how to build a fire?