Starting a Campfire in a Pinch

There are times when you are planning a campfire in your backyard, or maybe on a scheduled camping trip. In those situations you will be able to gather up supplies ahead of time and be ready to get the fire going when the time arrives. However, there may be other times when you suddenly and unexpectedly need a fire for emergency warmth or cooking. If you can put together a simple fire-starting kit and carry it with you in your day pack or vehicle, then you will be ready to get a fire started at a moment’s notice.

Creating Your Fire-Starting Kit

Our survival knife with fire starter and our woodlands tool set both have a ferro rod firestarter rod built-in, along with other useful tools for an emergency situation. Either one of these tools will allow you to create a reliable spark without the worry of soggy, soft matches or a lighter that has lost its fuel. Pack one of these items into your fire-starting kit, and then gather a zippered sandwich bag of kindling and you will be prepared.

survival knife with firestarter
The Survival Knife with Firestarter is available at or in Lehman’s retail store in Kidron, Ohio

Next time you are out for a walk near a pond or marsh, gather up a couple of old cattail heads. These need to be very fluffy and light brown. Pick a couple of these cattail heads and place them into a plastic bag. If the cattails are damp, then let them sit out in the sun for a while to dry and then store them in a plastic bag somewhere dry.

cattails by the water
Cattails by the water

While out on your walk, keep your eyes open for a spruce or pine tree that has a “scar.” Any tree with “needles” instead of leaves should work well. This will be a spot on the tree where it has been wounded in the past and has built up lots of white sticky sap to cover the wound. Carefully scrape off some of the dry, crumbly sap from the surface of the sap wound. Be careful not to remove too much sap or you might re-expose the wounded wood tissue. Scrape this dry crumbly sap into a plastic bag and store it with your cattails.

Starting Your Campfire

When you are ready to start your fire, just take a handful of cattail and fluff it up into something resembling a large loose cotton ball/birds nest. Place the cattail “nest” under your kindling setup. Then take a 1/2 to a full teaspoon of the dry crumbly sap and sprinkle it loosely onto the top of the cattail nest. Gather your tiny twigs and larger sticks as explained in this post, and set up the fire with a hollow space the size of a baseball under the smallest twigs.

Using your ferro rod, strike sparks onto the cattail nest, trying to make the sparks land on top of the sap crystals. Once you see a small flame start on top of the nest, very gently blow air under the nest to give it lots of air without blowing hard enough to blow it out. Soon, the cattail nest will burst into flame. Carefully place the flaming nest under the small twigs that you have set in the fire circle and the flame will burn for quite some time, drying out any moisture in your tiny twigs.

woodlands tool set with firestarter
The Woodlands Tool Set is available at or Lehman’s retail store in Kidron, Ohio

Other Supplies You Can Pack

If you can’t find the cattails and sap, or if you want a less natural kindling to use with either of the fire striker tools mentioned above, you can pack an empty pill bottle with a sure-fire spark catcher. Take some natural cotton balls and wet them in either alcohol hand sanitizer gel, or our liquid candle wax (99% pure paraffin). The cotton balls should be damp, but not soaked and dripping liquid. Pack the cotton balls in your small sealed bottle and they will be ready to use in an emergency and will light regardless of the weather. Just set a couple of the soaked cotton balls under the twigs and sticks that you set up in the fire circle and strike the ferro-rod into the cotton balls.

It is also a good idea to pack a small candle in your fire starting kit. As soon as you get your kindling ignited with the ferro rod firestarter, light your candle from that flame and set it safely off to the side of the fire circle where it will not ignite any surrounding materials. Then go about placing your cotton balls or cattails under the twigs and sticks that you set up earlier. This way, if your kindling burns out before the twigs ignite, you will still have a burning flame on the candle to use for a second attempt at starting the fire.

Pack all of these items into a small bag and you will have all that you need to get a campfire burning next time you are in a pinch!

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1 year ago

I save the cotton that is stuffed into some otc medicines and suppliments to use as firestarter. You can use it as described in the article or turn it into “charcoal” and use it that way. I also alwaus have a butane lighter with me along with one of the ferro rods and I also carry some waterproof matches when away from the house.

Last edited 1 year ago by Cmac
Tonto Svensen
Tonto Svensen
11 months ago

Here in the Pacific NW, we can’t rely on the sun to dry our clothes a good part of the year. We save the lint from our drier to use instead of cotton balls. It’s pretty much the same thing, as all our linens and most of our clothes are cotton, wool, or flax. I wouldn’t recommended this with lint from synthetic fabrics, though.

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