Lighting a fire is really, really, really hard

The simple, yet exasperating, art of lighting a fire

Life is humbling, as my fire-starting abilities never fail to prove
August 21, 2018

They say that “there’s no smoke without fire,” but anyone who has spent a furious evening poring over a damp and discouraging firepit in the lashing rain knows this to be untrue. One can produce plenty of thick, dark smoke, over a long period of time, and yet still fail to produce flames for more than a few thrilling seconds at a time.

Starting a fire is the simplest and yet most exasperating of tasks. There are many methods, each based on similar principles, but I use one I learnt in the Arctic during a polar night that stretched out over a month: build a low square pyre of sticks, like a Jenga tower towards the end of a game, then fill the centre with easy-burning tinder (curling sheets of silver birch bark, or pages torn from a book). Light the tinder, lay another layer on top, voilà.

It’s a proven method, one that has served me well on a hundred cold evenings, but for whatever reason—bad luck, wet fuel, gale-force winds—it sometimes fails. It is not foolproof, I suppose, and I am often a fool.

Come on, maybe, light my fire

Such failures are humbling and occur at the most inconvenient moments (shivering in a one-roomed cabin in the dark, breath clouding the air; far from anywhere, when all there is to eat is raw meat), and in company I want to impress. But life is humbling, and every failure carries within it a lesson, if we are willing to take it on—often things that we once knew, but of which we need reminding.

In this way, the travails of lighting a fire in the wild is an excellent allegory for pursuing ambitions of many kinds. Start small, for instance: that’s key. And begin with the easy stuff—tissue or newspaper or feather-thin shavings of wood—and work steadily up the levels. Tissue to twig, twig to stick, stick to branch.

Only then, once the fire is good and hot and hungry for more do you move onto the bigger challenges. Green wood. Heavy logs. None of these will be a problem once the fire’s taken hold.

Firestarting reminds us of the value of patience. At the start, the flame is delicate. It needs encouragement, time. All your good work might be undone by an overzealous prod at too early a stage. It needs somewhere to go, too: a flame cannot survive for long in a stack of three sticks.

Build a home for the fire it will ultimately become. Work with its natural tendencies: build up, not out. And remember it needs space for air to get in. It needs to breathe.

Things don’t always go to plan. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to abandon the attempt, sweep the smoking embers aside and start afresh. Accept that. Do it right the next time. Don’t take shortcuts. Concentrate.

These are harsh life lessons in all sorts of contexts, which are often hard to take on board. But perhaps you stand a better chance of getting to grips with them in a pressing practical context—when you are out in the wilds, and giving in to distraction or pride will condemn you to shivering through the night.

And just occasionally, when the rain is hammering down and the wind is whipping your face and dragging the air from your lungs, there is another lesson too: the wisdom of letting go, and giving up. Warm up in a sleeping bag for two if you can, and try again in the morning when you’re in a more philosophical frame of mind.