Learn how to start fires with ABR survival expert John Fenna


Whether it’s for cooking up grub, boiling water to drink, or warming the cockles of your poor stranded arse, ABR outdoor enthusiast and all round survival expert John Fenna has the knack for building ­ res virtually anywhere from anything…

Fire is probably the most useful survival tool in your arsenal. It provides warmth to beat the killing chill and light to see by; heat to dry clothing, cook your food and boil water to drink or clean wounds; smoke to preserve food or signal with, and charcoal to help ­ filter water. It also raises morale, and let’s face it, if you want to be dramatic, it’s vital you have the means in an emergency situation to spark that last cigar while you wait for the cavalry or certain death to arrive.

It’s because of the multiple roles of ­fire in bushcraft and survival that the baccy tin survival kit contains so many means by which to get a fire started (matches, lighter, firesteel) and different tinder (tampons, cotton wool, Vaseline, candle, Hexamine) while some of the other items can be used as make-shift ­fire-lighting materials: potassium permanganate and sugar, wound dressings, toilet paper, batteries and wire wool, and even the condom can all be used in ­fire starting.

If things are really desperate bits from your bike can be pressed into service – fuel and oil (carefully handled, of course) can give you a ­fire in even the most difficult circumstances, while rubber and plastic elements such as tyres, can prove invaluable in getting wet wood to burn.

John-Fenna-BushcraftThe way you prepare your ­fire will help ensure that any initial flames will thrive; the thing to remember is the ‘­fire triangle’, the three essential elements needed to create ­fire: fuel, heat, and air. These elements in balanced proportions will make a successful blaze, but remove or diminish one and the ­fire will fail.

Making a simple­ fire lay that is most likely to work ­first time round requires a seemingly large amount of preparation. First, clear the area of any material that might accidentally ignite around where you intend lighting the  fire, and this includes downwards, as even roots can spread  fires in all directions.

Next, give the ­fire a ‘floor’ of fairly sizable bits of wood to protect it from the cold damp earth. This is essential in boggy terrain. On to this floor, place small kindling and tinder that will be the ­first thing to take the flame. Dry pine needles, birch twigs no larger than a matchstick, birch bark, shreds of plastic, rubber, paper, candle etc, are all ideal. These materials should be placed so that your flame can be introduced to their base and have enough space to provide the air needed for the ­fire to breathe but be close enough that the heat and flame can reach the fuel.

The next layer of the­ fire lay should be heaped up like the poles of a tipi and made from slightly thicker twigs and/or feather sticks. Feather sticks (or fuzz sticks) are simply sections of dry wood that have their sides shaved into a mass of overlapping curls that will catch and hold a flame easily. These can be time consuming to make as it involves splitting down the dry sticks by hand and then planing them with a knife to give tight curls of extra-­ fine wood shavings, all clustered together like a curly feather, but they are invaluable in ­fire lighting. The sharper your knife, the ­finer the curls you can achieve. Make as many feather sticks as you can – at least six in damp conditions – as the more you have the more likely your ­fire is to catch well.

You should have a good supply of ­firewood collected and to hand before you attempt to light your ­fire. Sort the wood into logs, branches, twigs and kindling sizes, so you’re ready to feed and rescue the ­fire as it burns. All the fuel, especially the smaller pieces, needs to be as dry as possible.

Dead wood still attached to the tree is preferable to any lying on the ground where it will have soaked up ground water. Once the fire is well established, damp fuel can be dried before being burnt. If, because of rain, there is no dry wood or kindling, then dry branches can be split down using a knife and baton to reveal the dry inner wood which can be shaved to create kindling or used as fuel wood.

Once the ­fire is laid you’re ready to light it using whatever means you have to hand. Waterproof matches can be used to good effect, even if they are slightly damp, and will fizz and flame in even brisk breezes. Immediately it starts to burn, cup the match flame and put it to your tinder, whether in place under the ­fire or a separate tinder ball that is then introduced into the base of the ­fire. Equally, if you’re using a lighter, make sure you protect the flame to prevent wasting gas and ensure the tinder is well alight before removing the lighter flame.

Matches and lighters are ideal for use if you are basing your ­fire around an easily ignited fuel, such as Hexamine, rubber strips or a candle, but remember that matches and lighters will give only a limited number of flames as you use up the matches and lighter fuel.

The spark stick/ferro rod/­fire steel will give many thousands of strikes. Although it can perish if left unprotected from the damp (a coating of wax or varnish is the best way to preserve it) it’s waterproof and throws off sparks that are hot enough to set ­fire to a well-made feather stick.

By running a sharp edge (the back of your knife blade, hacksaw, sharp stone, broken glass) down the rod, which is made of a composition of metals, you remove some of this mix, which self-ignites as hot sparks. Direct the sparks onto suitable tinder such as the tampon, cotton wool, the roughed up pad of a wound dressing, or natural tinder, and the it should easily catch ­fire. A smear of petroleum jelly (Vaseline) on one half of such tinder makes it burn long and hot to improve its chances of setting your ­fire alight.

A quick reminder…

Of what you should be packing in your ‘baccy tin survival kit

✓ Waterproof matches and striker

✓ Fire steel

✓ Candle (tea light or joke self-relighting candles are good)

✓ Tampon or cotton wool tinder

✓ Water puri­fication tablets

✓ Potassium permanganate (this may be difficult to ­ find – try aquarium supply shops)

✓ Salt

✓ Sugar

✓ Condom

✓ Knife made from a hacksaw blade

✓ Wire saw

✓ Copper wire (several meters of thin but tough wire)

✓ Craft knife or scalpel blade

✓ Cord

✓ Sewing kit with safety pins

✓ Mini compass

✓ Snare

✓ Small ­fishing kit

✓ Tinfoil, approx. 60 x 60cm

✓ Some adhesive wound dressings

✓ Pencil

✓ Survival instruction sheet

✓ Notepaper

✓ Pencil

✓ Whistle


As well as the fire-lighting potential of the survival kit contents, you can often find tinder growing wild around you. Some of this can be more useful than commercial items if used well, and it’s free!


In their season many plants put out fluffy seed heads and these can be the equal of, and better than cotton wool. Reedmace (aka cat tails or bulrushes) contain millions of fluffy seeds packed into the brown ‘sausage’ of the seed head, while dandelion clocks are well known. These seeds flare to a spark and can be used to light dry tinder wood Rosebay Willowherb (also known as ‘fireweed’) produces fluffy seeds that come along with nicely burnable coarser materials, so you have something to catch a spark and hold it, too. Most fluffy seeds will work like this.


The little curls of bark that lift off birch trees will light from a spark – almost any of the birch family will work for this, but silver and paperbark birches are the best. Use only the bark you can peel off with your fingernails. Birch bark contains some very flammable oils and burns with a hot intense and smoky flame; it will even burn after a complete soaking in water. The inner bark of chestnut trees and clematis bark can also make good tinder


If you’re wearing cotton clothing, ‘pocket fluff’ can be collected for tinder. The surface of the fabric can be carefully scraped with your knife to produce a fluff to use like cotton wool


Adding some conifer resin or shreds of very resinous dead wood will help your fire light more easily

C’mon baby…
…light my fire in six easy steps


The sweet smell of burning sugar

The sugar in your survival kit can have many uses. It can give an energy boost, make unpalatable wild foods more ‘acceptable’, or it can help start a ­fire.

Potassium permanganate has long acted as emergency water sterilisation, antiseptic, anti-fungal, mouthwash/ gargle (check for any medical contraindications before you use potassium permanganate as any form of medical or water puri­fication), snow marker, dye, or it can help start a fire.

To start a ­ fire from sugar and potassium permangernate, pour equal(ish) amounts of potassium permanganate and sugar onto the surface of a dry flat rock and mix them together. Have your fire lay ready and a piece of tinder, such as cotton wool with a dab of petroleum jelly, to hand.

Grind the potassium permanganate and sugar together with either another flat dry rock or the back of your knife. The reaction between the friction, compression, sugar and potassium permanganate will lead to crackling sparks (and the smell of candy floss), which can be caught with the tinder to create flame, ready to light your ­fire.

Some of the activities here could be considered hazardous. The author takes no responsibility for any injury or accident that may happen to anyone taking part in these activities. Do your own risk assessments before trying the activities. Ensure you have the permission of the landowner to practise any skills at the location you choose. Ensure any ­fire you make is contained in use and fully extinguished before you leave it. Leave no trace of your passing; take only what you need, cause no unnecessary damage, scatter the cold ashes of your ­fires and take home all your rubbish.

Who’s writing?
John has been involved in outdoor education for over three decades. He has diplomas and certi­ficates in everything from fashion design (he turned it to designing outdoor activity clothing – honest!) to canoe coaching. He’s led expeditions in Eastern Europe, several African countries and Thailand, as well as literally walking the length and breadth of England. John started riding motorbikes at 16 and  finally passed his car licence in his late 30s. Married to a very understanding wife, John lives in west Wales, but spends as much time as possible in wild(er) places.