How to Light a Campfire with One Match

by Paul Kirtley

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Lighting a campfire with one match

What if this was your last match? Learn how to make every one count. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

The ability to light a fire is an essential wilderness skill. Whether you are practicing your bushcraft skills in the local woods or planning an expedition, fire-lighting skills should be at the top of your list.

Apart from the everyday comfort of having a campfire to cook over, to keep us warm in the evenings and as a focal point for socialising in camp, fire is an important survival tool.

Successful fire-lighting gives a boost to morale and can be an important phsychological factor in survival situations. Fire is an effective and reliable way of making water safe to drink and for signalling. Fire makes food safe to eat and wards off wild animals. It keeps us warm and helps us dry wet clothing.

There are many ways to light a fire but the humble match is often overlooked in favour of more impressive skills such as bow-drill or hand-drill or the commonly carried Swedish Firesteel (a.k.a Fireflash or Ferro Rod). People take matches for granted yet there are still a few subtleties to master and skills to finesse, if you want to get the most out of them.

Besides, practicing the methods in this article will help sharpen up your fire-lighting skills in general.

Preparation Is Key In Firelighting

Preparation is a vital aspect of successful fire-lighting. Success is largely determined by what you do before you strike a match. Put all the building blocks of success in place first.

For your kindling, collect small, thin sticks that are dead and dry. The best are either still attached to a tree or hung up in one. Avoid collecting sticks from the ground. You are looking for matchstick thickness sticks. They should break cleanly with a crisp and definite ‘click’.

The best small sticks for kindling are from woods that contain resin or oil that is flammable. In the northern temperate zone and in the arctic forests the best kindling comes from coniferous trees species such as pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea), fir (Abies) and hemlock (Tsuga) but not larch (Larix). From the deciduous trees the birches (Betula) provide the best kindling.

A further advantage to the evergreen species mentioned above is that they often have dead branches low down on their trunk. There is so little light reaching these branches that the tree doesn’t waste its energy in maintaining them. This provides a ready supply of dry kindling that is also protected from rain and snow by the branches above. You can easily collect plenty of small dry sticks in a short amount of time.

How to find dry kindling for a campfire

Search for dead, dry sticks for your kindling. You often find dead branches low down on evergreen conifers. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

How to gather kindling for a camp fire

Left: Breaking off dead branches for kindling. Right: To ensure success, particularly in wet weather, collect at least an armful of kindling like this. Photos: Amanda Quaine.

The best kindling for a campfire

Break off the small matchstick-thin twigs from the branches you have collected. Create a bundle like this. Keep the twigs long. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Collecting kindling for a camp fire

The best twigs from a deciduous tree are from Birch (Betula). Collect a bundle of the thinnest dead, dry twigs you can find. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

After your initial kindling, you need some slightly larger fuel. Pencil-thickness is good for the next stage, then finger thickness, then thumb thickness. The idea is for each grade of fuel to easily ignite from the previous. You can’t light a log from a match. There needs to be some intermediate sizes of fuel. All of your fuel should be dead and dry. Make sure you collect and sort out your fuel before you begin to light your fire.

Select an area for your campfire. Check there are no obvious tree roots you might ignite. Also check above that there are no low-hanging branches you might ignite by accident. Even if this is not a risk, as a general rule it is best not to damage tree foliage by creating a fire too close under their branches. Obviously if you were in an emergency situation and you needed to use some trees for natural shelter and have a fire nearby to keep you warm, then this is a different situation. Even in an emergency situation, however, you don’t want to be starting a forest fire around you.

In the area where you will have your campfire, clear the leaf litter and other dead foliage away until the bare earth is exposed. If the ground is peat, you should not light a fire there. You must find a rocky area (such as next to a stream) to light your fire. In very dry coniferous woods this is good practice too, as it is easy to set fire to root systems. Generally it is good to have your fire within easy walking distance of a water source. This will provide you with all the drinking water you need plus you will have water to extinguish all remnants of your fire before you leave.

You should create a hearth of dead, dry sticks of around thumb thickness. On top of this you will create your fire-lay. Creating a hearth has several advantages:

  • 1. A hearth prevents your kindling from sitting directly on damp and/or cold ground;
  • 2. A hearth (of dead, dry sticks), provides a ready source of fuel at the centre of your fire;
  • 3. The gaps in the hearth allow air (in particular, oxygen) to be drawn into the base of the fire.
Clearing an area for a campfire and laying down a hearth

Clear an area for your campfire and lay down a hearth of dry, dead wood. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Now that you have prepared the area and the hearth, separate the bundle of kindling into two good handfuls. Keep the kindling long. Each handful should look like the end of a miniature witch’s broom.

Now think about which way the wind is blowing. Even if there is only a slight breeze, take note. Kneel with your back to the wind and place your handfuls of kindling in a V-shape with the open side of the V facing you.

Make sure you are kneeling with your knees and feet together. Otherwise there will be a wind-tunnel between your legs (nothing to do with what you had for breakfast!) directed towards the base of your fire, which could easily extinguish your match.

Kindling for a campfire should be kept long

Keep your kindling sticks long. You can organise and manoeuvre them easily. Set two handfuls to cross over in the centre of your hearth like this. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Now You are Ready To Light Your Fire

Now you are prepared. You have collected plenty of dead, dry match-stick thick kindling from the most suitable woods available. You have collected larger fuel that is also dead and dry. You have selected a suitable area, prepared the ground and put down a hearth. You have arranged generous bunches of kindling and positioned your body taking into consideration wind direction.

Now you can light your match.

But you must do this properly. By properly I mean in such a way as to minimise the risk of failure, which is what this whole article is about. What if it is your last match? Always practice as if it were.

The first thing to note is that whatever type of container you are using to carry your matches, be mindful to protect them from the elements whenever you open the container.

If you are using a regular box of matches, you can open it in two ways – so that the match-heads show, or so that the base of the match-sticks show. What if it’s raining? Or what if it has been raining and there are big drops of water coming off the trees intermittently? What if snow is blowing off the trees? You don’t want a big drop of water or dollop of snow landing on your match-heads. Open the match-box so the base of the sticks is showing.

Lighting a campfire with one match

Open your matchbox carefully. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

A match-stick is easy to break if you apply pressure at right angles to its length. It is very hard to break if you apply pressure along its length. Therefore, when you strike a match you should apply pressure along its length, not across it.

With cold hands, and reduced dexterity, it is easy to apply too much force and break the match unless you follow this rule. Again, if it’s your last match – or even if it isn’t but you make this mistake a few times – this simple mistake could cause you to descend into a much more serious situation.

As you strike the match, you should also support the head. Don’t be afraid of burning your fingers. You won’t. Just remove your finger at the end of the strike.

Lighting a campfire with one match - support the head

Support the head of the match as you strike. You do not want to break the matchstick. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

On igniting the match, take it straight into cupped hands to protect the vulnerable flame. Wait for the stick to take from the match-head. Don’t drop the matchbox. Not until the match-stick is alight should you take the match to the kindling.

Lighting a camp fire - Cup your hands around the match

After the match is struck, cup your hands around the match. Keep hold of the match box. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Lighting a campfire with one match - shelter your flame

Do as much as possible to shelter your vulnerable flame: Cupping hands and kneeling with back to the wind. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Once the match is burning well, carefully take your flame to the kindling. Remember to keep it protected. This is a critical stage of the process. Remembering that heat rises, aim to light the kindling low down. The best spot is in the centre of the V-notch you have created by overlapping the two bundles of kindling. You have most fuel stacked up here and by lighting it at the bottom of this stack, you will create a thermal column up through the middle of it.

Hold the match about 1cm (0.5 inches) below the material you are lighting. If you can light the kindling in a couple of spots, all the better.

A key moment in lighting a campfire

A key moment: Once your match is burning well, carefully take your flame to the kindling. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

You should still be holding onto your box of matches. This is important. Apart from a standard match-box not being waterproof and being at risk of becoming damp while in contact with the ground, it may also become lost. In the excitement of getting your fire going you may forget about the box. You, or a companion, may stand on it or kick leaves or other debris over it. Keep hold of the box!

Once the fire has begun to establish, you can quickly stow the box in a pocket.

The fire is lit

The fire is alight and taking hold. Use this moment to quickly stow your matches. Note the graded fuel within reach, ready to add to the fire next. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Put your matches away safely

Put your matches away somehwere safe, not on the ground. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Keeping your kindling long allows you to adjust your fire as it becomes established, if necessary. You may need to re-position the kindling slightly or, if the nascent fire needs a little more oxygen you can lift the uppermost bundle a little to allow more air into the fire. You should certainly experiment with this effect when you are practicing as it can be quite dramatic.

Moving small fuel into the flames

Keeping your kindling long allows you to easily manouevre it into the flames if necessary. Photo: Amanda Quaine.

Once the flames are coming up through your kindling strongly, you can add more fuel. Don’t put sticks on one at a time. Grab a couple of handfuls and lay them on in a similar arrangement to your original fire lay. Again, keeping the sticks long will allow you to manoeuvre the sticks and place them in the fire without scorching your hands.

Addling larger fuel to the fire

As the flames take hold of the smaller sticks, add slightly larger fuel to your fire. Photo: Amanda Quaine

The fire is firmly established

Your fire is now well established. If you need a larger fire then continue building with progressively larger fuel. But to boil a can of water for example, you don't need to use fuel any bigger than finger thickness.

And that’s it, your fire is established and you can now build it up further if necessary or use it to boil some water for a lunchtime brew. The initial principles are the same in either case.

Remember the critical importance of preparation and material selection. Choose and prepare your site well. Look after your matches and use them carefully. Take into consideration the weather conditions – wind, rain/snow. Then you won’t go far wrong. And if you are thinking that all of this seems like a bit of a faff, it actually doesn’t take long to do it. Plus doing things properly the first time normally takes less time in the long run.

If you have a friend who would find this article useful, please share it with them. Thanks!

Related Articles On Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Bow Drill: The Keys to Success.

How to Build a Survival Kit on Bushcraft Principles.

Hypothermia and How to Avoid it.

 

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Bayley

I absolutely agree that thorough preparation and attention to detail is the key to mastering many bushcraft skills, perhaps none more so than fire lighting.

I think it is always good to revisit the basics. Whilst this may seem to some to
be classic ‘teaching your Grandmother to suck eggs’ stuff it is full of sound advice which is useful to review. We all have things which we do out of habit and might not quite remember why we do them in a particular way. Going back to basics reinforces good habits and can re-educate us out of our bad habits. Although articles like this one may not seem as exciting as some other topics they are really valuable. Thanks Paul, keep them coming.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Steve

Good points and well made.

The basics of any subject are often the most important. They form the foundation for everything else.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Austin Lill

I’m pleased to see the humble match being promoted. I think I almost put pressure on myself not to use them because it’s not bushcraft & I must admit, I’d not thought about wind travelling through slightly open legs. I’m going to put a link to this blog entry in a thread on Escouts (a Scouting forum). Thanks.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Austin

Good to hear from you. Thanks for the link.

I’m interested to know why you think using a match is not bushcraft?

All the best

Paul

Reply

Roy

Hi Paul, this is so uncanny, you must be a mind reader. I am sat at the PC righting about methods of making flame for the qualification i am doing, the first group i am covering is friction and i have started with the humble match myself.

I go and put the kettle on, and check my in-box, only to find you have written the same as me at about the same time as me, not word for word, but still is this TELEPATHY.

I think the word telepathy means distant mind experience from one person to another or something like that.

I hope we can do the same next time, you could save my a lot of time reseaching, (only joking) keep it up, great stuff, thanks Roy

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Roy

Good to hear from you again.

I don’t think it was telepathy but I’m glad to hear my article was so timely :)

All the best

Paul

Reply

Mark Pennington

Yet another good article, thanks. It has given me an idea, the next time I venture out if I can’t light a fire using one match only, I will not be having a hot meal I will eat it cold instead. If that isn’t an incentive to prepare my fire correctly then I don’t know what is!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

That is indeed a very good way to practise this skill. Put some pressure on yourself. This in itself will improve your preparation. Let us know how you get on :)

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Steve

Great article Paul. You’re right about preparation too, having the wood to hand instead of running around like a madman after the tinder catches makes for a better brew.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve

Yes, a brew break should be relaxing shouldn’t it? Get everything prepared first, then relax and enjoy it :)

All the best

Paul

Reply

Chris Davis

Fantastic !
I have , by my bed ‘ The Complete Book of Fire ‘ , Building campfires for warmth, light, cooking, and survival by Buck Tilton ( Do you know it Paul ? )
What I have just read is a great addition to that, and with the photos, makes it ‘more real’ in a way.
Ah… The humble match !
Very, very good article sir, great stuff !
My best.
Chris.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Chris

Yes, I have seen The Complete Book of Fire.

Thanks for your comment. The humble match shouldn’t be forgotten. The kindling I’m lighting in the photos would be impossible to light directly with a fireflash…

All the best

Paul

Reply

Dave Smith

I really liked this post Paul, i enjoy the whole aspect of fire lighting & methods to do so.

Again, another great Blog post.

Cheers.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Dave,

This should translate perfectlyover to using BC tree species.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Mark H

Thanks Paul,

Superb pictures and content. Preparation Preparation Preparation… with hug size bundles !

Best

Mark

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mark

Yes, when it is critical, hug-sized bundles as per Mors’s survival bundle.

All the best

Paul

Reply

Churl

Brilliant as always, you’ll have enough content for a bloody good book at this rate !

Regards

Churl

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thanks Churl, can I take that as a solid pre-order? :o)

Reply

Mark H

Even your own brand of matches !

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Yes, I’ve diversified away from chewing gum… ;)

Reply

Bean

A late comment from me, but a wonderful article, it is good to see the often overlooked match being used, I often think people go off in a kit frenzy and fire lighting seems to have an unwritten hierarchy in the methods to use. I have to admit to liking a fire steel, but I always teach my scouts to use matches first as it is a vital skill.
I was a little surprised to not that you made no mention about waterproofing ordinary matches. I teach my Scouts to dip them in molten candle wax and coat 2/3 rds of the match. the wax can be easily removed with a finger nail and the wax can help the wood to burn. A simple, cheap and very old method.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Bill

A somewhat late reply to your late comment – apologies!

I agree that there are merits to waterproofing the heads of matches. This is something I learned at an early age from Lofty Wiseman’s Survival Handbook.

I also tend to carry matches in waterproof containers (as discussed in this blog post on Frontier Bushcraft’s website, for example).

With this article, however, I wanted to keep it as focused on the essentials of fuel selection and lighting technique as possible.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

Martin

Nice article, and something that I like to practise myself.

I know that when I am out with the scouts I will give them a few matches rather than a box to use to light a fire. Though in saying that one youngster did point out that if it is your last match why not use the box as kindling?

Reply

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