During a survival situation your ability to make, and sustain, a fire is going to be of vital importance. A fire allows a person to heat themselves or an area (fireplace/wood stove), cook food, boil water, act as a signal, the list goes on. All the utilitarian uses of a fire aside there is nothing better at boosting a person(s) mental state and morale than a nice warm fire.
We can think of fire as a tool and just like any other tool in our kit we need to understand how to use it and this begins with how to start one. To best maximize the benefits of your fire it's important to start it, and maintain it, in a controlled manner. Fires that start and flourish in an uncontrolled manner are detrimental not only to the immediate environment but can also cause serious bodily injury and death. All of these are counter-intuitive to the concept of "Survival."
First choose the location for your fire. All fires produce smoke, you don't want to breath the smoke, so it's important to make sure that your fire spot has good ventilation and/or a mechanism for the smoke to escape and not build up around you. The good news is that smoke generated by a fire is heated so it will rise. You can use this fact when looking to ventilate your space. In addition to ventilation you want to make sure that your fire is not going to spread beyond your ability to control it so make sure that the ground and environment immediately adjacent to your fire is not prone to combustion.
Prior to starting your fire make sure that you have collected enough fuel to keep your fire going for some time. If using wood collect it in varying sizes from small, to medium, then large so that you can feed the fire allowing it to grow at your pace. It's not a bad idea to separate the fuel (wood) into individual piles based on size that way you’re not trying to fumble through your firewood looking for the right piece as your fire dies.
There are any number of ways to get a fire going, the real key to success is to be able to generate one under adverse conditions. I am a believer in the idea of “work smarter, not harder.” It’s with this idea in mind that I utilize tools when it comes to starting a fire in less-than ideal conditions. My personal favorite is a cotton ball soaked in Vaseline or other petroleum jelly. These things are easy to make, take up very little space when packaged, and weight basically nothing. When lit they will burn for some time, even in the rain. I will caution not to store matches in the same container as cotton balls with Vaseline. I have been told that the fumes from the Vaseline can impact the match heads negatively. I can’t say this is true, but why risk it.
What worked best for me was to either put the cotton ball on the ground or on top of a small base. Then build up around the cotton ball with your smaller kindling, making sure not to pack it tight, allowing for good air flow so the fire can breathe. Light the cotton ball and then feed the fire as needed. Keep in mind that this may not call for the use of an entire cotton ball. If the weather is dry you can get away with using a portion of a cotton ball. If you are using a metal-match or a blast-match be careful not to get so close to your cotton ball and kindling that when you strike down, your hand hits it and sends everything flying.
There are any number of commercially available contemporaries for the Vaseline soaked cotton ball, this is a home-made version that you can put together for the price of a bag of cotton balls and small jar of Vaseline. For carrying these in a survival kit you can pack several of them into a small plastic 35mm film cannister (if you can find one). Really any small plastic container will due, just make sure that it seals tight. You don’t want it coming open and dispersing Vaseline soaked cotton balls in with the rest of your kit.
Give some thought to this stuff, take a few minutes and think about how things work. Then start thinking about how you can utilize items outside of their initial design to improve your situation. The greatest survival tool ever invented is sitting right between your ears.