Can You Start a Fire with Burnt Wood?

Burnt wood is essentially a by-product of a wood fire and comes in two forms. Its first form is ash, which is basically a carbon powder, and the second form is large chunks of charred wood, which is basically charcoal! The ash is pretty much useless for starting a fire in an emergency, but on the other hand, the charcoal has some potential!

Burnt wood or charcoal has the potential to hold heat. This means that if you can apply a heat source to it, the charcoal can eventually become red hot and will have sufficient heat to ignite a fire. This has an application for emergency situations or where you have issues with your tinder!

Charcoal is wood that has burnt with insufficient oxygen available to reduce the wood to a fine ash. It still has enough mass and matter that will react to heat and absorb it, causing the piece of charcoal to glow red hot.

Charcoal will not burn with a flame, but rather smolders, and in the case where there is a significant amount of the charcoal pieces, it will easily transfer the heat to other pieces and turn them into embers as well. This has the effect of spreading the heat and creating a bigger, glowing pile of coals that can be used to get your fire established.

How To Start A Fire With Burnt Wood

There is essentially one basic way to start a fire using burnt wood, and that method is to apply some sort of heat source to the charcoal until it starts to glow red. However, there are different options to use as a heat source, and this is where methods to get the fire going may vary.

There are two components you will need to get a fire established with burnt wood.

  • A heat source, which can be from a number of different methods that we will expand on later.
  • A constant source of air, which can be from makeshift bellows or from you blowing on the ember.

The first step is to apply the heat source to the piece of charcoal. The heat source needs to be held to the coal until a section or the coal as large as your thumbnail is glowing red.

The heat source can be from any one of the following methods.

  • Matches are a good heat source for the charcoal. Strike a match and hold the flame under the piece of charcoal until the piece glows red hot. The match will last longer if you hold the match vertical under the charcoal as opposed to horizontal.
  • A lighter is another good source of heat that you can use to apply to the charcoal to get it glowing.
  • A magnifying glass will also work to heat up the charcoal as long as you have sunshine available at the time, so don’t leave it till too late in the day to try this method if it is the only heat source you have.
  • If you have a flammable fluid and a Ferro rod, you can pour some of the fluid over the charcoal and ignite it with the Ferro rod. This should generate enough heat to get the charcoal to develop a red hot glowing ember.

Once the charcoal is glowing, remove the heat source and start fanning the ember on the charcoal to intensify the heat and to get the heat to spread throughout the entire piece of charcoal. At this point, you need to place the charcoal with other pieces of charcoal or wood or other material that can ignite to extend the fire further.

There are several ways you can add air to the ember to intensify the heat.

  • Blow on the ember with long steady breaths. Be careful with this method that you do not hyperventilate and become lightheaded and potentially pass out.
  • Fan the coal with an item of clothing such as a t-shirt or a jacket
  • If you have a straw or a pipe that can focus your breath on a particular area, it helps to intensify the heat and slowly ignite the entire coal and others around it.
  • A large leaf can also be used as a fan to waft air vigorously over the glowing piece of charcoal.

This process to get the charcoal sufficiently hot to start a fire may take a bit of time, so you will need to be patient and persistent in order to succeed.

Once the coal is glowing, you can use it in several ways to expand it to be a bigger coal bed or a full-blown fire with flames.

If you have other pieces of charcoal, you can pile them on top of the hot piece and continue to blow or fan the ember until the whole pile of charcoal starts glowing.

You can use the piece of charcoal to ignite other pieces of tinder that will produce an actual flame and then put progressively larger pieces on to grow the fire. At this point, you have a fire going and have just started a fire with burnt wood!

Why Would You Want To Start A Fire With Burnt Wood?

At this juncture, I can hear the question being asked why not use the heat source to start a fire with some other more traditional tinder that would ignite more easily?

From a survival point of view, it is important to be able to perform tasks that are potentially critical to sustaining life in multiple different ways.

If your tinder is wet or damp, you can use this method to start the fire, or at the very least, use the glowing piece of charcoal to dry out your tinder and ignite it to get a stronger fire going.

Charcoal burns hotter than raw wood due to its low moisture content and burns longer than a natural wood log and will generally light easier than wood. These advantages to charcoal make it a viable method of starting a survival fire. As such, if you are a survivalist, it warrants investigation as a potential additional skill you can notch up on your fire-making belt!

Other Survival Uses For Charcoal

Charcoal is actually a pretty useful substance in the wilderness, and particularly if you find yourself in the position of a survival situation.

Other charcoal survival applications can include the following.

  • Water filtration. Charcoal is an excellent toxin absorber and can be used as one of the layers in a makeshift survival water filter to extract pollutants and render the water safe to drink and use in cooking.
  • A wound dressing. Charcoal wrapped in a bandage and places over an infected wound can help to draw out the toxins and also draw moisture away from the wound, helping it to dry out.
  • Writing implement. You can use charcoal to write on rocks indicating the way you have gone and the date, which may help rescuers to locate you sooner.
  • As a medication. Charcoal can help alleviate diarrhea which can rapidly lead to dehydration in the wilderness. Crushed up charcoal swallowed with water will cause constipation, thereby stopping diarrhea and the consequent water loss.

Of course these are ideas that you will need to investigate further to learn how to apply them correctly to the particular survival situation that you find yourself in.

Bushcraft is an art, and like other arts, it requires practice to become an expert!


While starting a fire using burnt wood or charcoal may not be easy, very few things in a survival situation are going to be easy. However, with knowledge of multiple strategies to get the basics of fire shelter food and water and practicing these methods, you will stand a better chance of surviving the rigors of an outdoor survival situation than the average Joe!

Survival fire-starting is something that, I am sure, appeals to the inner child in all of us, so practicing these skills is more like fun and adventure rather than a tiresome chore! But then again, maybe I am alone in feeling this way, and it is rather a reflection of my wilderness roots more than anything else!

Whichever it is, if we find ourselves in a survival situation together someday, I may invite you to sit by my fire that I started using a piece of burnt wood!

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