A campfire is one of the essential features of a campsite or a rest-stop on a hiking trail. Unlike some other things we think are absolutely necessary but aren’t really, like a tent, a campfire cannot be foregone if you want to eat any food that isn’t premade and ready to eat. A campfire is also good for keeping flying insects away and for staying warm in winter climates.
For backcountry enthusiasts who are always on the lookout for ways to become more self-sufficient and survivalists concerned with building survival skills, knowing how to start a fire is an important skill and only becomes more so if you’re specifically trying to start a fire with rocks and not store-bought firestarters. There are also friction methods using wood, but fire making with rocks is almost always much faster.
If you want to start a fire, you need to know how to make a tinder nest. There are many materials that make great tinder for a fire. A tinder nest is basically just a small amount of some of those materials that will catch embers from a piece of flint and ignite so that fire starters can carry the tinder nest to a larger teepee or similar kindling formation to build up to a larger flame.
One helpful tool to use with a tinder nest is a char cloth, which is a small piece of fabric that has been introduced to sustained heat to convert it into a quick-lighting and slow-burning fuel that’s ideal for use as tinder. Most hikers, backpackers, and campers light the char cloth, then introduce it to a tinder nest, which is then fed oxygen until it has a good burn and then gets fed into a kindling formation that feeds larger firewood.
You’ll want to find the right kind of hard rock whose sparking will ignite char cloth and a tinder nest. Really hard rocks like flint, chert, agate, pyrite, and quartz are great options to start a fire because they have lots of silica in their make-up. The silica makes them harder than high-carbon steel, which is the last of the necessary elements you’ll need to complete this process of fire-making, which is called the flint and steel method. Striking the piece of high-carbon steel against the hard rock will cause sparking which will cause the char cloth to ignite which then makes the surrounding tinder nest catch fire and so on and so forth.
Read on and we’ll go through all these steps in greater detail. By the end, all you’ll have to add to your hiking rucksack is a small Altoids tin with a char cloth and high-carbon steel in order to start a fire without the use of matches or heavy fuel. It’s ideal for ultralight packers and a great survival skill. Get through to the end of our guide to learn how to start a fire with rocks.
Tinder for fire starting with the flint and steel method
There are plenty of options for tinder that will catch fire easily and ignite kindling in the next stage of the flint and steel method. Survivalists will be glad to hear that most of them are readily available in almost every environment. Moss, tree bark, small sticks that have been whittled down, pine straw, and leaves are the most common. If you’re making a fire in or near wetlands, ponds, or other bodies of water around the world, then keep an eye out for cattails, which are tall reed-like plants that have a unique identifying cylindrical flower on their stalk.
When pollinated cattail flowers turn into feathery seed heads that take to the wind and float away, a tactic for seed dispersal common in many plants. The feathery seed heads of cattails make great tinder that will catch fire readily. Placing them in the middle of your tinder nest swaddled in other grasses, mosses, or whatever dry material you can scrounge up.
How to build a tinder nest
Tinder nests, or tinder bundles, are easy to shape once you’ve gathered all your tinder. Remember, the idea is to ignite the tinder bundle and then transfer it to the first round of small sticks and other kindling at the center of your soon-to-be campfire. Here are the steps you should follow to make a tinder bundle that will burn long enough and be thick enough to start a fire without burning your hands:
1. Gather all the tinder you can find. If you’re in wet conditions, read on to the next section to find out what you can do to dry out mosses and pine straw to make usable tinder. If you’re in a sparsely vegetated place, any kind of bark from a tree or plant can be chopped directly off a tree or plant to use as kindling. Tumbleweeds and other lightweight plants make great kindling as well.
2. Roll the material back and forth in your hands. This friction method will make the tinder rougher and it can dry out small levels of dampness.
3. Shape the tinder bundle into a sphere like you would make a snowball.
4. Use your thumbs to create a depression in the center of the tinder bundle. It should be concave when you finish this step. You can see at this point why it’s commonly referred to as a tinder nest since it looks like a bird’s nest.
5. Place the lightest material in the middle. Those cattails, pinestraw, and other highly flammable fire starters should be dead center. If you’re using a char cloth, that should go on top of the lightest material in the center of the tinder nest.
6. Massage the tinder bundle to make sure it isn’t overly compact. Air should be able to get through to the central ember so the fire can breathe and grow.
The shape of a tinder nest protects your campfire from wind and rain during its earliest stages. A spark should ignite the tinder nest very quickly if you shape it correctly. At that point, all you’ll need to do is fold the tinder nest up and transport it to the kindling stack.
Drying wet tinder for fire-making
If you’re a fearless hiker or camper who goes out into the backcountry in wet conditions and all four seasons who won’t call the game on account of rain, you already know that all the great fuel you can find on a forest floor is sometimes completely soaked from recent rain or snow. There is definitely a spectrum of utility when it comes to wet tinder. Completely soaked firewood, sticks, mosses, or grasses will be completely waterlogged. They’re much heavier than normal for that reason.
If you can find some tinder under some tree cover that’s slightly drier, then there are a few ways to dry it out so it will ignite. If you have a spare t-shirt or towel, you can use it for this purpose. If your tinder is flexible like a wild moss, then wring it out as best you can. Then, wrap it in your spare clothes or towel. Lay the bundle on the flat surface of something durable like a hard rock. Take a smaller rock and strike the bundle. This may sound a little bizarre, but it’s a great friction method that squeezes the moisture out of your fuel so it can be absorbed into the t-shirt and generates some heat through the friction of the stone-on-stone impact that helps the tinder to dry.
If you don’t have an extra t-shirt or towel, you can dig a hole until you reach dry soil. Make sure the dry soil you’re excavating is left beside the hole you’re digging for later use. Bury your future tinder in dry dirt and cover it with the dry dirt you dug out. Hit the soil above the kindling with a stone and it should work with the same friction method as the t-shirt process.
The best advice we can give about drying out tinder is to always try and remember to prepare for the next fire once your present campfire is blazing. If you have a soaked piece of wood, damp tinder, or wet kindling, you can start the drying process by placing it near enough our roaring campfire to heat it up but not so close that it will catch fire. Steam should begin rushing out of the material if it’s drying out properly.
This cursory effort can save lots of time on your next campfire. If you really want to be prepared for the next campfire, take a few minutes to make your own char cloth out of any organic material. Instructions for making a char cloth are a bit further on in this guide.
What shape works best for a campfire?
There are many shapes and sizes of campfires. Everyone has their preferred style, but the important thing is to make sure oxygen can get to the center of the fire so it can burn bright and continue to thrive. The first step for any of these shapes is to make a fire bed, which you can do by gathering dirt and piling it up about 3-4 inches high so you can place your campfire on top. Here are three of the most popular ways to make sure your campfire will be breathing and burning brightly:
The teepee formation
Your tinder nest is going to go in the center of the teepee, so bear that in mind when you’re building with your kindling and fuelwood. Leave a gap or at least enough space to get your tinder nest inside the teepee once you’ve ignited the tinder nest. All you need to do for a teepee campfire is to take your small sticks and other kindling and lean two of the small sticks together.
Continue leaning other kindling against the tip of the other small sticks in a circle until you have a conical shape. Then repeat this process with the larger pieces of wood that will be the fuel of your campfire. The teepee shape of a campfire won’t hold up forever but don’t worry about that. When the logs fall, you can just stack more fuel logs on top since your campfire will be burning away at that point.
The lean-to style is a little faster and easier than the teepee formation. It may not be ideal in windy situations, but if you can provide it some wind cover at the beginning stages than it should still work. All you need to do is put a small stick in the ground and angle it at about 30 degrees pointing into the wind.
A larger piece of wood should go underneath it, causing the tilted stick to “lean” on the larger piece of wood. The tinder nest should go underneath the support stick, surrounded by small sticks or other kindling. Finally, the larger pieces of wood you’ll use as the main fuel for your campfire should be leaned over the tinder nest and kindling. Light the tinder nest and that’s all, folks.
Log cabin fire method
This variant on the teepee method is great for when you need a larger fire. First, you need to build a teepee fire as described above, only don’t make it quite as large. This is an interior teepee for the kindling nest only. Place two pieces of wood on either side of the kindling nest teepee and then two perpendiculars running from one of the first two pieces of wood to the other. It should form a two-level square at this point. Continue this process for a few levels. When you have a kind of cube formed, you can light the tinder nest.
Locating rocks for flint and steel fire starting
Try looking in dried-up riverbeds or alongside streams and rivers to find a nice rock to use as if it were a piece of flint for fire starting. The right stone should be a hard rock that you can break into a flint with a sharp edge for sparking a campfire. Once you’ve looked for the right rock a few times, you’ll start to get a feeling for the weight of rocks that are strong enough to be used as a fire starter. If you find a rock that is well-suited for the purpose, consider carrying it back to the trailhead with you and packing it along with the rest of your gear.
How to start a fire with the flint and steel method
We’ve already gone through the basic steps, but we’d like to highlight the sparking part of this method and the use of char clothes as well. Once you’ve foraged for all your kindling, tender, and firewood, go ahead and construct your fire layout of choice. Teepee and lean-to shapes are the most popular for primitive fire making experts, but there are many shapes you can try out as you continue mastering this survival skill. Next, make your tinder nest as indicated earlier in this guide. The char cloth goes on top of the tinder nest with the lightest-weight material.
When your char cloth and tinder nest are in place and ready for transport to the larger fire shape, you can start sparking. The high-carbon steel should be struck against the hard rock, creating a spark. If the spark lands on the char cloth, the char cloth should ignite pretty much immediately. It won’t rage into an orange blaze right away; rather, it will light kind of like the end of a cigar.
The moment you see the char cloth catch fire, you can blow on the tinder nest. You can even lift the tinder nest with your hands and cradle it so your breath can get more air to the burgeoning fire. Once the whole tinder nest has caught fire, transfer it to the rest of the fuel and you should have a nice campfire in no time.
Prepping for fire starting with a campfire
As we’ve said before, preparation is key with fire starting. Once you have a nice well-established campfire going, you should use it to dry more fuel if you’re in wet conditions and will need more. This is also the time to rip a piece of cloth off old clothes or find some organic material in the woods to make char cloth now. It will save you so much time in the end. All you need to do to make char cloth is to take your chosen material, place it in an Altoids tin that has a hole poked in it ahead of time, and then leave the closed tin near the base of the campfire for a little while.
When the smoke stops coming out, the char cloth is ready for you to use on your next fire-starting task. Char cloths can be made out of anything that’s living, from moss to fungi to chestnuts. Try everything; experimenting with different materials will help ensure that you’ll never be without a char cloth when you need one. Bring the Altoids tin with the high-carbon steel and the char cloth with you whenever you hit the backcountry and all you’ll need to make a roaring campfire is the fuel.
Starting a fire with rocks is great for people who are into the DIY ethos and also survivalists who want to be able to survive in an emergency situation. It’s not so complicated and it will definitely save ultralight backpackers a good amount of pack weight. We should caution that in places like California, it’s not legal to gather your own firewood, but some might be for sale.
That’s an important consideration for people who might plan on flint and steel fire-making. There are some other options like mosses and pine straw that can be used for a fire whenever you need. One of the most important things is designing your fire correctly. Make sure it’s elevated slightly and there’s a clear space for the tinder nest in the center of the campfire.
Other than that, the process is easy and adds a fun sense of duty to a camping or hiking trip. Foraging for tinder, kindling, and firewood can make for an enthusiastic introduction to the current backcountry adventure. Making a char cloth out of natural material or old t-shirts are one of the easiest hacks for any outdoor task.
There are other friction methods that rely on wood in the form of a fire plow or the bow method with its bowstring and intense motion, but the flint and steel method is way faster and easier. Give them both a test run if you want to really buff up on your survival skills. Stay warm and eat hot food on your next backcountry adventure now that you know how to start a fire with rocks.
Bonus tip: Watch this forest dweller light a fire using the bow method and some handmade tools!