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How to Start a Fire Without Kindling

Starting a fire can mean the difference between life and death depending on where you are in the world or what the circumstances are. While that might sound a bit extreme, starting a fire can at the very least mean the difference between being warm and comfortable versus cold and miserable. At any rate, the ability to start a fire in any circumstance is a special skill. Even more valuable is the ability to start a fire without kindling when none is available. If you want to acquire this skill, you’ve come to the right place.

Fire in the winter forest

How Does Kindling Help Start a Fire?

For those unfamiliar with fire and wilderness terms, kindling refers to small, dry pieces of wood specifically designed to start a fire. Kindling is usually woodchips, twigs, or branches, that are small and dry. It’s an integral component of the fire-starting process because it’s next to impossible to start a fire by directly applying fire to logs.

Instead, it’s much easier to start a fire with kindling, followed by larger kindling, and finished with logs. Attempting to create fire without highly flammable pieces of kindling will likely fail. Unless, of course, you’ve read this article and know the proper way to start a fire without kindling!

Things You’ll Need

Whether you’re lighting a fire without kindling in a fireplace, stove, or the middle of the wilderness, there are a few things you’re going to need. However, no matter where you are, the methods laid out in this article should help you get a fire started. Here are some of the things you’ll need to get started.

  • Wood such as branches or logs.
  • An alternative source of kindling outside of actual kindling wood.
  • A firestarter such as matches, a lighter, or flint.
  • A safe spot to start your fire and keep it burning.

Suitable Substitutes for Kindling

The best way to start a fire without kindling is to substitute the nonexistent kindling with a kindling alternative. Let’s stop and think about what kindling is. Traditional kindling consists of tiny pieces of wood designed to be highly flammable and lightweight. You want something small enough that it won’t smother a freshly lit flame, and you want a large amount of it. Starting a fire with a single piece of kindling isn’t a practical approach, and neither is starting a fire with a tiny amount of kindling alternative. Let’s go over some of the top kindling substitutes to choose from when starting a fire without kindling.

Anything Paper-Based

When it comes to starting a fire without kindling, anything paper-based makes for an excellent kindling alternative. This includes old books, paper plates and cups, newspapers, and anything else you can think of. The only paper-based product that doesn’t light very quickly is paper from magazines. Even yarn, tattered rope, and similar materials are great for starting a fire.

Stack of newspaper


If you don’t have anything paper-based, small pieces of cardboard are your next best bet. Cardboard is highly flammable and doesn’t burn as quickly as paper does.

Kiln Dried Logs

If you’re in the middle of the woods, you likely won’t have access to kiln-dried logs. However, if you’re trying to start a fire in your home fireplace, kiln-dried logs are a great alternative to kindling. They’re essentially logs of varying sizes that have been super-dried through chemical means to make them especially susceptible to fire. You can possibly light the logs directly, or you may have to chop pieces off of one to use as kindling for the rest.

Old Newspapers

Old newspapers are a fantastic firestarter and are more effective than traditional kindling. If you’re planning a hiking trip into the woods, newspapers are also very lightweight and transportable.


Bark is highly flammable and makes for perfect kindling as long as it’s dry. You’ll get very frustrated trying to light wet bark on fire. If you know your trees, birch bark, in particular, is one of the more flammable types of bark.


Dried grass in itself is very flammable, but there’s a technique to use it as kindling properly. Simply grabbing a handful of grass and putting it on top of a log won’t work be very effective. Instead, you should take handfuls of dried grass and weave them together into tight braids resembling twigs or branches. Turning dried grass into twigs and bundles takes time, but it’s one of the most effective kindling substitutes perfect for any occasion.


Depending on where you are in the woods, you might have access to pinecones which are an excellent fire starting material. Pinecones burn very easily and slowly, but you should only use them outdoors. They tend to give off a sticky tar known as creosote, making them unsafe for indoor use.

Pine Needles

In the same way that pinecones are a great firestarter, pine needles are also at the top of the list. They burn very easily and quickly, so make sure that you have large, breathable heaps of pine needles when using them as a firestarter.

Other Household Items

If you’re in the middle of a power outage and need a fire to survive, there are tons of household items you can use as kindling. Dryer lint, potato chips, toilet paper, cotton from pillows and blankets, cotton balls, tampons, gauze, coffee filters, feathers, and synthetic ropes and cloths can all be used as kindling.

Household dryer lint

Suppose you don’t have any of these items but have a lighter or significant number of matches. In that case, you can always experiment with different things at your disposal until you find something that lights easily.

How to Start a Fire Without Kindling

Once you have an alternative source of kindling, you’re ready to start your fire. Let’s go over the step-by-step process of how to do this.

Build a Fire Using the Top-Down Method

Using the top-down method isn’t a requirement, but it is a good alternative if traditional methods aren’t working. The standard way to start a fire is to put your kindling at the bottom, slightly larger pieces of wood in the middle, and add larger logs on top. However, depending on what kindling material you’re stuck with, it may not be as flammable as actual kindling and smothers easily.

The top-down method is simply a reversal of the traditional stacking method. You put your big logs at the bottom, medium logs in the middle, and your source of kindling at the top. This way, the fire doesn’t suffocate before it has a chance to get going. However, if you’re at all familiar with fire, you’ll remember that flames burn upward rather than downward. For that reason, the top-down method doesn’t always work unless the bottom logs are highly flammable.

Build the Fire Using Traditional Stacking Methods

If the top-down method doesn’t work for you, then you’d better try another way before you run out of kindling. Here’s what you need to do.

Start With Kindling

Gather together whatever kindling alternatives you have at your disposal. You’re going to want as much kindling as possible in case it takes several attempts to start your fire. Create a small pile of kindling, always making sure that you’re not setting yourself up for a collapse. Smothering your fire before it has a chance to get going is one of the biggest issues that inexperienced fire-builders run into.

Use Smaller Logs

Once you have your kindling set up where you want it, it’s time to add the next component. You don’t want to put your biggest logs on yet but instead want small to medium-sized ones. Make sure to leave yourself access to the kindling on either side of the logs so that you can start the fire on both sides. You also don’t want very many small to medium logs. Just enough so that the fire has something to attach to when the kindling runs out.

Light the Fire

Whether you have a lighter, matches, or an alternative fire starter, it’s time to get the party going. You always want to start the fire by lighting the kindling on either side so that it travels inward from multiple directions. As the kindling is burning, the fire should spread to the smaller logs and wood on top.

Give the Fire Air

One of the most important things to keep in mind is to make sure that the fire always has access to oxygen. Oxygen is paramount to successful fire, and you may have to move your kindling and smaller logs around to ensure that a cross breeze is always present.

Keep it Burning with Wood

Use of longs when starting a fire without kindling

Kindling alone doesn’t provide enough heat and sustenance to keep a fire going for long. It will be necessary to add logs, wood, or any other large flammable objects you have at your disposal that act as “fuel for the fire.” As you’re adding larger logs, make sure that you never smother your fire and always give it room to breathe. Stacking and feeding your fire once it is going is just as important as choosing the right kindling to get your fire started.

However, if you follow the steps laid out in this article and use the proper kindling, you’ll have a raging fire before you know it. There’s almost always something to use at your disposal if you know what to look for when it comes to starting a fire without kindling.

Never Be Without Fire

While it’s definitely easier to start and build a fire using kindling, there are plenty of ways to assist you when you need to create fire without kindling. As long as you know what to use as a substitute and adhere to the steps in this article, you’ll never be without fire for long.

For more fire building information, check out our Survival World page on Fire.