How to Use a Fire Starter: A Simple, Step-by-Step Guide

Magnesium fire starters are the most reliable way to get a campfire started in the great outdoors. Learn how to get a healthy blaze burning using one in this step-by-step guide.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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If you’re looking for a reliable way to start a campfire in any weather conditions, magnesium fire starters are the way to go. Unlike matches or lighters, this fire-starting tool won’t run out, won’t let you down when damp, and is a “breeze” to use in windy conditions.

Because not all campers are familiar with using a magnesium fire starter, we’ve put together a simple, step-by-step guide to show you how it’s done.

What You’ll Need

  • Magnesium fire starter (aka ferrocerium rod or Ferro rod)
  • Camping knife
  • Dry tinder, kindling, and firewood
  • A trowel to dig your fire pit
  • Enough water to put your campfire out
Man at dusk striking a magnesium bar top create sparks over kindling
Fire starters, or ferro rods, are great handy camping tools.

Why You Need A Fire Starter

Fire starters or ferro rods might not be as convenient or cheap as matches or lighters, but they’re far more reliable. Get your matches wet and you can kiss that campfire and those toasted marshmallows goodbye. Ditto if your lighter runs out of fuel. 

A ferro rod, on the other hand, will produce sparks even when wet, and will easily ignite tinder or a camp stove even in windy conditions. This makes them an excellent choice for campers and backpackers alike. 

How to Use a Fire Starter: Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Prepare Your Fire Site

Start by clearing the area where you plan to build your campfire of any debris that might catch fire, such as dry leaves or grass, and your flammable camping gear. Ideally, your campfire should be 10-12 feet from any flammable materials. Also, make sure there are no overhanging branches above your chosen spot.

Next, use a camping trowel or sturdy stick to dig a fire pit. This should be 3 to 5 inches deep. Once you’ve created your pit, create a fire ring by surrounding it with rocks and stones – these will help to contain flying sparks. 

Small campfire in a fire ring with a metal mug beside it
To better contain your fire, prepare the area by digging a fire pit and surrounding it with rocks.

Step 2: Gather Your Tinder, Kindling, and Larger Fuel

Getting a good campfire started requires having three types of fuel: tinder, kindling, and larger fuel.

For tinder, you have several options. You can bring homemade tinder to camp with you, or you can collect dry leaves, dry grass, pine needles, and tree bark (birch works best).

For kindling, you need more substantial fare in the form of small twigs and small branches. Again, these should be bone dry and dead, not green.

Kindling and tinder will get your initial fire going. To get a roaring fire that will stay lit, you’ll need large pieces of wood. You can either carry in split logs or source large branches at camp. Again, make sure these are only taken from dead trees. Not only is taking from live trees a crime, but green wood won’t burn.

Dried out twigs and pine cones used as kindling for a fire
Dried-up material such as dried leaves, pine cones, twigs, and bark can all be used as tinder/kindling.

Step 3: Scrape the Magnesium Bar

Use the back of the blade on your camping knife or (the supplied blade) to scrape small shavings from the magnesium block or bar, which is on the opposite side of the flint rod. Make sure the shavings are small enough to ignite easily and only use the back/top side of your blade – using the front will damage and blunt the knife edge. 

Magnesium can reach temperatures of over 5,000 °F when burned, so it’s best not to overdo it with the shavings – use too many and you (and your eyebrows) will know all about it when the sparks from your rod land!

Man using knife on ferro rod to create metal shavings in kindling pile
Make sure the shavings you create are small as these will ignite more easily.

Step 4: Strike the Flint to Create Sparks

Most magnesium blocks and magnesium bars have a flint strip on one side. If not, your kit will have a separate flint rod. When ready to light your campfire, strike this strip or bar with the back of your knife or striker, using a downward motion at an angle of around 30 degrees.

The more force you apply, and the faster you strike the flint, the bigger the sparks will be.

If you’re concerned about striking your fingers, you can hold the blade steady and drag the flint over this instead of vice-versa. 

Man starts a campfire using a ferro rod to create sparks
Run your knife downward over the strip at a 30-degree angle.

Step 5: Add Air to “Fan the Flames”!

Fires need oxygen to burn. When building your fire, make sure you leave a few gaps so air can reach your tinder. Once you’ve landed a few sparks on your magnesium shavings and see them smoldering, gently blow on your tinder until it catches fire.

Man starts a fire using a flint and knife
This is the point to start gently blowing on your fire!

Step 6: Maintain Your Fire

No matter how much fun you had using your magnesium starter, it’s not something you’ll want to do repeatedly through the day or night. To keep a powerful fire burning, you need to keep feeding it with fuel.

To do this, either collect enough larger pieces of dry wood before starting your campfire or take turns with your camping cohorts to collect it around camp. Always, however, make sure someone remains near the fire to keep an eye on it – campfires should never be left unattended.

Campfire burning with a tent pitched in the background
Remember to collect your firewood prior to starting your fire.

Step 7: Extinguish Your Fire

We all know the common expression “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”, right? Well, sometimes there’s fire – or potential for it – even when there’s no smoke to be seen. Yes, the embers in your campfire can remain hot for hours (sometimes days) after the flame has gone out. This means that putting your campfire out properly requires a few extra steps. 

First, pour a bucket of water over the fire area, then stir the area with your shovel or a stick. Next, pour more water on the area and then hover your hand over it to test for heat. If there’s no heat, you’re good to go. If there is, refill that bucket and continue pouring water over the area.

Man pouring water over campfire to extinguish it
After pouring on water, stir up the debris and pour water on again. Repeat till the fire is fully out.

Happy Camping!

Ferro rods are the best fire starters in the business for anyone who needs to start fires in the great outdoors, period. They’re reliable, invulnerable to weather conditions, and, now you know how to use a fire starter, a cinch to use. 

If you liked this post or have any questions, let us know in the comments box below. And if you’d like to share it with your friends, please do!

Last update on 2023-09-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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