Southeast Wilderness Survival
The forests of the southeast U.S. hold a myriad forms of natural tinder materials for starting fires. In most cases there is plenty of fuel laying around and easily accessible. Most of the time it isn't a lack of usable materials that prevents people from being able to quickly achieve sustained fire in a wilderness environment, more often than not it is a lack of understanding. It seems that many people these days are unfamiliar with the physics that are involved in the mechanics of fire starting. The following is one example of a fire lay. There are many different types, styles, and variations of fire lays, but this is the one I use most often with some variations depending on the weather. I started this fire using sparks from a ferro rod, but it is a variation of what I learned as a one-match-fire and it will work equally well using matches or a lighter. The first order of business is to clear the ground in the area of leaves and debris. that could easily catch on fire.
Making a dry base to build your fire and gather materials on is a good habit to get into. Having a dry base under your fire starting material will minimize the amount of moisture it absorbs while you gather more materials. You'll want to make sure you've gathered enough fuel to achieve sustained fire before you even start gathering the tinder materials, and this can a little time. Making a base for your fire accomplishes the same thing as you layer your materials, and then becomes fuel once the fire is burning. The outer two pieces of wood on my fire bases are larger than the twigs I intend to use for fuel, and that they are lain diagonally crosswise to the prevailing winds in the area. This serves to hold the fuel in place, as well as helping to vector the heat where I want it. The stronger the winds, the larger I want the outer pieces to be, and in dry times with high winds I won't start a fire in the woods unless it is essential to survival, too much risk of forest fire.
Different types of organic tinder materials burn at different rates. The fine hairs of seed tufts ignite more easily and burn quicker than the thin dry leaves of dead grass, and the dry grass ignites more easily and burns more quickly than the thicker and heavier leaves of the deciduous hard wood trees. This is where the term "lay" comes in, as in the way you "lay" your fire starting materials in multiple layers.
The first material on the base is the one that ignites the easiest and burns the quickest. This could be dry thistle flowers, milkweed pods, cattail fluff, horseweed etc., in this case I used some very dry horseweed blowing in the breeze. Horseweed ignites very easily when dry, and with all of the fines hairs and air space the fire spreads quickly and intensely for short period of time.
The dried fibrous leaves of the dead grasses of winter are one of natures gifts for fire starting. Nests of It make great tinder for use with the embers of friction fire. It will often catch a spark easily by itself, but it can be a bit stubborn at times if there have been recent rains or mists. This too burns very quickly and puts off a lot of heat. Because of this high heat, and the fact that ounce for ounce it burns longer than fluff tinders, it also makes a good mid-level tinder material.
The course and heavier dead leaves of hard wood trees are much more dense than the leaves of the grass. They do burn very well, even if barely damp from mists or dew, and they do burn nice and hot when they are dry, but they aren't always the easiest to ignite using a fire steel. In a fire lay that I intended to ignite using the flame of a lighter or a match a larger amount of these dry leaves would be all that I needed for tinder, however in this lay these leaves are the last layer of materials to be added.
Once all of the materials are in place it's time to add the kindling. This kindling should be the smallest and driest twigs you can find. The driest twigs can be found on fallen branches that got hung up in other branches before it made it to the ground. Not only will these be drier because of having been away from the damp ground they have been constantly exposed to the breezes which evaporate moisture.
Now that the kindling is in place, and your first stages of fuel are close at hand, it's time for ignition. With matches or a lighter just one touch of flame to the horseweed will set the reaction in motion quickly. For use with a ferro rod just make sure a large area of the horseweed is exposed and throw sparks from the fire steel into that area. The tinder material will burn in stages and the flames will be hot enough to ignite the dry twigs.
Keep adding fuel as the fire burns and soon you should have a large bed of coals that creates a very hot center of heat and makes burning larger pieces possible. Before you know it you'll have a strong burning sustained fire to warm by, cook over, or use for purifying water.
Please be responsible in your fire starting habits. Make sure you've cleared a large enough area for a safety zone around the fire to avoid popping embers from igniting the dry leaves, and have water on hand for a contingency plan if possible.
As the tinder materials burn away the fuel will start to settle onto the base. I just keep laying on more fuel starting with pieces about the diameter of a finger or a little bigger until a bed of coals starts to form and then work up to larger sized twigs. You'll want to make sure to arrange the pieces of wood so that there is good air flow so the fire will draw. This drawing pulls in more oxygen and increases the temperature of the flames.