While it isn't the sexiest fire, the one you are going to build the most exists somewhere between Tom Hanks' victorious first spark in Castaway and a lighter fuel-soaked stack of pallets. Learning how to start a fire without a match is a valuable survival skill, but it's not one that can be taught in a few hundred words. We suggest practicing that middle ground—the one-match fire. It is a valuable, practical, way to perfect starting a fire with minimal resources. "If you can light a fire with one match it shows you have a pretty good relationship and connection with that fire," says Director of Children of the Earth Foundation Matt Abatelli. Children of the Earth Foundation is an offshoot of Tom Brown Jr's Tracking School that specializes in youth, teen, and family survival programs.
Abatelli's first suggestion might surprise you. Practice lighting a match. Think of how many times you have let a match burn too long or blow out before you could even get a candle lit. His next tip is to practice gathering fuel that is small and progress in size. While this sounds really intuitive it is important to think about what exactly a single match can set ablaze. "Think small and dry," says Abatelli. The smallest, driest material differs from area to area so it's very important to study the materials around you and experiment, in a safe controlled manner, with what lights well and what doesn't.
One of the most common mistakes Abitelli sees is trying to light too large of a pile of material with the first match. "Think of a fire ladder in the forest. A cigarette butt lights what's on the ground first but that fire needs progression applicable to its environment increasingly in size," says Abatelli. Once your original kindling is lit, the structure you choose to increase the size of your one match fire is up to you. In an effort to not get embroiled in a teepee vs log cabin debate, we'll just say both have their merits. "The log cabin is meant for spreading heat out laterally while the teepee is a very conservative and reliable structure," Abetelli says diplomatically.
Collecting dry, dead, wood is also crucial to maintaining your fire. Abatelli suggests looking for wood that is suspended because the ground is usually saturated in most parts of the country. He also suggests to collect wood from south-facing slopes because they will receive more moisture-removing sun.
While Abatelli does not teach making fires using more than a match and the materials around you, we suggest stacking the odds in your favor when packing for a trip in the wilderness. We really like packing duct tape and cotton balls saturated in vaseline because both have a long burn time and can pull double duty as useful first aid items.
While you can't guarantee you'll be able to build a fire when you desperately need it, you can seriously hedge your bets by practicing building small fires in a controlled environment.