Fire is the fourth most important item on the list of essential survival elements. It provides warmth and
comfort, allows you to cook food and purify water, and keeps body calories in reserve (less food intake
needed) that would have been used to produce body heat in cool/cold conditions. Having a fire can
make the difference between life and death.
Although starting and maintaining a fire seems like a simple task, many people without training or
experience would struggle under emergency conditions. If you were a boy scout or have gone camping
then you probably have learned the basics. This article teaches you how to create a tepee fire, a simple
and common fire construction type that will result in a dependable, quick start, and large surface area
All fires require air, heat, and fuel to burn. If any one of these are removed then the fire will never start
or go out. Sounds simple, and it is, but the “devil is in the details”.
Starting and maintaining a fire is like making a cake, as there are necessary ingredients and it’s an
ordered process. We will cover fire materials first and then the construction and ignition of a fire. A
tepee fire develops as a chain reaction, starting with a very small but highly combustible material (tinder
– materials like wood shavings or straw), which ignites a moderately more combustible material
(kindling – small diameter and length branches), which in turns ignites a less combustible but a slow and
long burning material (fuel – thicker branches, split logs).
Tinder is a dry material that ignites with very little energy. The tinder must be absolutely dry to be sure
just a spark or small heat source will ignite it. Examples of tinder are lint from a dryer, saw dust, cotton
balls, straw, wood shavings, and pine needles. All must be perfectly dry.
Kindling is readily combustible material that you add to the burning tinder. Like tinder, this material
should be dry to ensure rapid burning. Kindling increases the fire’s temperature so that it will ignite less
combustible material (i.e. fuel).
Fuel is less combustible material that burns slowly and steadily once ignited. Many fire construction
techniques can accommodate a small portion of the fuel being wet because it will dry out as part of the
There are many types of fire construction configurations including tepee, log cabin, and star to name a
few. The tepee type, a classic configuration that should be familiar to most when you see it, is the one
we will cover. It takes advantage of the physics of fire, where heat rises, concentrates in the center top
region of the tepee, and causes all parts to burn and fall into the center of the fire.
Before building fire, clear away anything (leaves, etc.) from the area that can accidentally
catch on fire. Follow basic camp fire safety rules including having a bucket of water and shovel nearby
and never leaving a fire unattended. Smokey Bear has some more tips
and thanks you!
Step 1: GATHER TINDER
Several different types of tinder are shown.
Step 2: GATHER BRANCHES of DIFFERENT SIZES
Gather dry branches of different sizes.
Step 3: CREATE FLOOR and CONTAINMENT RING
If on a wet surface, lay larger diameter branches parallel and tightly adjacent to each other to form a floor that will act as a barrier to the wet ground. Add some large stones, if readily available, in a circle around it to provide fire containment.
Step 4: BUILD TEPEE
Add tinder to center, set smaller diameter branches around supporting each other in a tepee manner, then set larger diameter branches around it in the same manner.
Step 5: IGNITE TINDER
Reach in a bit with an ignition source (ex: match, lighter) and light the tinder. Blow on the tinder as needed to add oxygen and help create a sustained flame. In a future article, I will cover other ignition sources and techniques that could alternatively be used if matches or lighters are not available.
After the fire has progressed to burning the outer and thicker branches, you can simply add more large
branches to the fire to sustain it. Or, you can let the fire flames die down and use its hot glowing
embers (for cooking, etc.). Keep warm and be safe!