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Welcome to the first in a series of short articles dealing with the subject of wilderness survival. Every year thousands upon thousands of Americans step off the asphalt into God’s great wide open world. It is also true that many of these people are neophytes when it comes to being in the woods. Some get lost or are injured and cannot return from where they came.

As a culture, the United States has some of the finest first responders and rescue personnel on the planet. We have technology that allows us to find humans in the wilderness, day and night. That being said, even our rescue personnel need time to find lost and injured campers and hikers. They cannot be everywhere at once.

The focus of this series will be to consider how you, or anyone who might be lost or stranded due to circumstance, can stay alive and assist those who are looking for you. Each installment will focus on a single topic, in order to keep it simple. Today we are going to discuss fire.

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Wilderness Survival Pt. 1 - Fire

Wilderness Survival Pt. 1 – Fire

Build a Fire

Unless you are on the move, as soon as you realize you are lost or stranded, build a fire. I don’t care if you are not cold or wet, build a fire. The only reason you would not want to build a fire would be due to a lack of fuel for the fire. That being said, most places where you might be stuck will indeed have ample fuel for fires.

While you might be thinking about neatly cut and split firewood, there are far more things in the wild that will burn. Dried moss, tree bark, pine needles, dry leaves, dead or dried out scrub brush, animal dung (dry, of course), all of these will burn and provide white or gray smoke.

The trick, naturally, is to get the fire started. You need not only a spark (match) but super dry, fibrous tinder to get the fire going. Sadly, many people will purchase the “emergency fire starter” kits from a camping store and go forward with the belief that they can just scrape sparks onto a pile of sticks and a fire will appear.  

Magnesium sparklers are excellent survival tools as they will not be ruined by rain or water like matches and disposable lighters.

Gathering Materials

You must have material to catch the hot sparks or the match fire.  Before you attempt to light a match or strike a spark, find some very dry, fibrous tinder. Look inside of a hollow log or a hole in a tree. Chances are good you will find a bird or mouse nest. These are brittle, dry, and filled with “fluff” that will burn easily. If you are lucky enough to have dry paper, that will work as well (but that’s best case).

Feminine hygiene products are also fantastic tinder. Maxi-pads and tampons work tremendously well. For the maxi-pad, cut down the middle and open it up to expose the absorbent material. This creates a pocket to catch the sparks. Regarding a tampon, you want to fluff it up until it resembles a giant cotton ball. Now the tampon is ready to catch sparks.

With your tinder in hand, stop. Don’t strike a spark until you have some small kindling to get the fire going with your tinder. Start with dry sticks that are pencil thin or pine needles, dried tree bark, etc. Beware of using leaves in the beginning, they tend to smother your fire.


You will want to have larger sticks (thumb width) close at hand to put on the kindling as soon as it is burning. Then you can move up to larger, thicker firewood that is about the width of your arm. Amateur fire builders often try to go too fast too soon. They try to put large pieces on before the base is good and hot.

Build More Than One

Now that you have a single fire going, go ahead and build two more so that you have a triangle. Separate the fires by about five meters so that they will look like three fires from the air not just one. An airborne rescue team that spots a fire triangle will be assured that it is a deliberate signal for help, not just a coincidence.

At night, keep the fire hot and smoke free. In the daytime, add pine needles, grass or leaves to create heavy smoke for signaling.

Fire is your friend. It provides warmth, light, signaling, and critical psychological comfort in a crisis.

Wilderness Survival Pocket Life Saver Items  

  1. Magnesium Fire Stick, Razor knife, 18D Combat Blood Soaker (tampon) x 2
  2. Wilderness Survival PLS Kit



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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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