How to start a fire without kindling

Whether you are trying to light a fire in a fireplace or outside while camping, it is helpful to know how to start a fire without kindling.

What does kindling do

Kindling is made up of small sticks of very dry wood. It helps to get a fire going because it is cut in to small pieces and is very dry, so it is very flammable. Once the kindling is alight, it holds the heat and allows the larger pieces of wood in your fire to ignite.

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Lighting a fire in a firepit without kindling (outside fire or campfire)

Firepits are large open fires that usually have a stone or brick wall around the fire area. They allow a lot of air flow and cannot be dampened down.

As such, the wood will burn quickly and hot with as much oxygen as it needs freely available to it. However, you will be competing with the wind when you are trying to get the fire to initially light.

If you are lighting a fire in a firepit and have no kindling to use, you will need to choose one of the kindling alternatives below to use, because the wood of the fire will need substantial heat in the firepit before it catches alight due to the air circulation (wind).

Lighting a fire in a fireplace without kindling

A fireplace is usually inside (though some are outdoors) and has less wind or airflow to speed up the burning process. Because of this, fireplace fires are often easier to get started without kindling than an outdoor fire because you are not competing with the wind trying to blow out your fire.

However, lighting a fire in a fireplace without kindling can be a challenge if there is not enough draw of air to keep the fire fed with fresh oxygen. This often occurs on still, wind-free days.

To build or increase the amount of draw in your fireplace on a day with no wind, you will need a hot fire of easily flammable items, once the chimney heats up, it will create the suction required to keep the fire working well.

Tips for lighting a fire without kindling

You will need:

  • Somewhere safe to light the fire – either a fire place or fire pit
  • Something to light the fire with – matches, flint or lighter
  • Some paper or dry materials
  • A kindling alternative
  • Some wood that will burn easily – dry, small and flammable is best

1. Clear out excess ash from the fire box, but leave an 1 inch base of ashes to protect the bottom of the fire. Here are some ways to re-use your wood ash.

2. Open up any and all dampers that your fire might have.

3. Scrunch up the newspaper (6 or so sheets should do), other paper or make a pile of dry tinder or organic material like grass, cotton or leaves.

4. Add kindling alternatives from below, the drier they are the better success you will have.

5. Add dry, thin, small pieces of wood over the top of the starter material, preferably standing up in a teepee formation allowing plenty of space for airflow.

6. Light your paper or dry tinder in several spots, if it is smoldering and there is only smoke and no fire, blow gently into the glowing smolder until there is obvious flames. Green wood will produce lots of smoke and steam and will struggle to light until the moisture has evaporated.

7. Watch your fire, and once the main wood is well alight, add an additional log or two and allow it to burn well for about 10 minutes before starting to gradually close the dampers on the fire.

 

Types of wood that light more easily without kindling

There is a wide range of flammability amongst different wood varieties. This can even vary between logs of the same type of wood depending on moisture content and how well seasoned the logs are.

Types of wood that light more easily include:

1. Soft woods

Knowing which wood is soft and which is hard, is not as easy as just poking them to see if they are soft or hard.

Softwood and hardwood are distinguished by the way they reproduce rather than how they look or feel. In general, hardwood comes from deciduous tree’s which lose their leaves annually and softwood comes from conifer and fir trees, which usually remains evergreen.

Trees that lose their leaves over winter stop growing for the winter, whereas the ones that keep their leaves continue to grow (albeit slowly) over winter.

Overall softwoods grow faster and leave a lighter, less dense wood that is usually full of resin. This means that they burn hot and fast making them ideal to burn even if you don’t have any kindling at hand. They can also be easily split thinly and make wonderful kindling.

The disadvantage of burning softwoods is that they don’t burn as cleanly as harder woods, and they leave behind a fine ash with little to no coals.

You will need to add wood more frequently because they burn faster, and they are not suitable for overnight burning because the wood will burn quickly.

2. Very dry wood or well seasoned logs

Wood that is very dry, with a moisture content of 20% of less (10% is even better) will burn much more readily, even without kindling.

Using Kiln dried logs is the easiest way to make sure that your wood is very well seasoned and it almost perfectly dry.

There is quite an art to knowing when your firewood is properly seasoned, and there are ways to make it dry more quickly.

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3. Wood with flammable sap

Some woods are naturally filled with a flammable sap and they can be burned green. Pine is a classic example, pine resin is highly flammable and pine logs can be burned green. Pine will also catch light well, even without kindling. Spruce and ponderosa pine are both also highly flammable.

Fat wood which is taken from older tree stumps where the sap/resin has accumulated within is known for being highly combustible and makes a wonderful fire starter if you can get your hands on any.

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4. Smaller wood

Wood that is split in to lengths with smaller diameters will burn more easily than larger pieces of wood. The higher the surface area to volume, the easier, hotter, cleaner and faster the wood will burn.

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Kindling alternatives to help you light a fire without kindling.

1. Adding flammable liquids

Lighter fluid, methylated spirits, kerosene, alcohol and turpentine are all highly flammable liquids and will help get a fire established. However, the use of them in this situation is not recommended due to their explosive tendencies.

If you do choose to use any of these options, apply them to a piece of paper or fabric in the fireplace when it is COLD, and do so BEFORE ignition, ensuring the bottle is well away from the fire and that your hands do not have any residue on them. A small amount goes a long way and again, this is not recommended practice.

2. Use tinder

Tinder is any dry substance that has small particles that will burn easily, usually smoldering at first, and will burst in to flame when ample airflow is applied. There are several options for tinder to use in a fireplace or firepit, you can use one or a mixture of several depending on what you have available to you at the time.

Wood shavings or sawdust that are dry work well as tinder in place of kindling. The drier they are, the easier and faster they will burn.

Dryer lint is a by product of modern society, that happens to make wonderful tinder. A mix of dry clothing fibers, dryer lint will usually catch light quickly and easily. Make a tinder bundle by stuffing dryer lint into toilet paper rolls, then you can place these directly in to your fire as fire starters.

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3. Dry grass

Dry grass in a handful will burn too quickly to be useful to get a fire going. However, to use dry grass in place of kindling wood, you can tightly bundle long pieces of dry grass in to logs and tie them into tight bundles with either cotton string or more pieces of grass.

4. Twigs

Twigs are just small branches. Usually you can find handfuls of twigs on the forest floor, under trees or on felled trees.

Twigs dry quickly, and they ignite and burn quickly, especially when dry. Gather twigs on a fine day and spread them out in the sun for a week or two to totally dry out. At a push twigs can be used slightly damp, they will dry as the fire warms them and evaporates the moisture from them.

5. Fibrous leaves

Some trees and plants make long fibrous leaves, that when dry, make wonderful fire starters, even if you don’t have kindling to burn.

Cabbage trees, flax and palm trees all work well in this situation. You can bundle up the leaves and fold them and push them in an empty toilet roll to make a nifty little fire starter.

6. Pine needles

Pine needles burn readily, dry quickly and are easy to find if you have pine trees nearby. Place a pile of pine needles on top of your dry firewood, either with or without paper and light them. They will burn long enough to get your firewood lit.

7. Pine cones

Pinecones from any conifer tree work wonderfully as kindling if you have access to them. Gather them and store them in sacks to allow them to breathe and dry out.

Add 2-4 cones to your fire and light as you usually would.

8. Dry bark

Many types of firewood come with the bark attached. Bark makes great kindling. To use it, simply pull the bark off of dry firewood logs, and cut or tear it into manageable strips or pieces. Use in place of kindling wood.

9. Potato chips

Believe it or not, potato chips (crisps not French fries) work surprisingly well as a fuel source. The carbohydrates and fiber are basically carbon, and the fat inside the chip burns well too. This might be a good use for some stale chips from the party last week.

10. Tied newspapers

Paper burns fast and cool when in a single sheet. But roll it in to a log, or scrunch it in to a rope and tie it in knots and it will take much longer to burn, giving time for your other wood to catch light.

11. Fire starter bricks

You can buy fire starter bricks that are infused with chemicals that will burn long and hot enough to get the rest of your wood burning.

12. Feathers

Bird down can be found occasionally in the forest or bush and can be added to other tinder to burn well.

13. Dried moss

Moss and lichen will burn well when dried, hunt around the forest and you might find areas that have dried moss or lichen that you can use.

14. Cotton

Cotton fabric or cotton balls both will burn well, are already dry and are light an airy so they ignite quickly. Soaking cotton in paraffin, grease, cooking oil or even petroleum jelly will slow down how quickly it burns, but can turn normal old cotton in to quite an effective fire starter.

Conclusion

Building a fire when you don’t have kindling is totally possible, in a multitude of ways. Choosing dry, fast burning, small pieces of seasoned firewood, combined with the right choice of dry and flammable tinder and you can be nice and warm quickly, whether you are lighting a wood burning stove, a campfire or a charcoal BBQ.

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