To Build a Fire
I awake to the cold air slithering against my body. The sky is clear and dark. Absent of clouds to keep the heat of the day from escaping the Earth.
The thick wool blanket covering me usually keeps me warm, but my restless sleep, evidenced by nighttime tossing and turning, compromised the tight cocoon I earlier found slumber in.
I lay awake but can’t seem to acquire sleep again. The relentless cold is winning this battle.
I look to my fire for the warmth I so need.
Once encompassed in its ring of rocks and reflected by a wall of logs, it has descended into charcoal and ashes.
I arise and dig through the rubble to expose a few chunks of charcoal, known as fire dogs.
Striking a match with benumbed fingers, and holding it up to a fire dog, I’m able to get an orange candescence.
My gentle blowing gives enough oxygen to produce a flicker of light.
I add the remaining fire dogs to maintain the flame, while I retrieve an armful of kindling and firewood from my dry cache.
Methodically placing the proper fuel, I soon have a good fire going.
The chill subsides and I find contentment in the radiant warmth.
In situations like above, it doesn’t matter how a flame is procured. What matters is the production of fire, the rewarming of your body, and that you have improved your circumstances. Yes, there are other methods to find warmth in a likewise predicament, but for the sake of this article, we will focus our attention on fire starting.
There are so many ways to kindle a fire, from primitive methods to a more modern approach. I personally enjoy striking a spark with flint and steel, or creating a dust ember with a bow drill, and then building my fire from there. But if the need arises, I’m not ashamed to light a match or use a lighter. The key is: know how to start a fire as many ways as you can, because if one way is not working for you (given adverse conditions, physical constraints, etc.), you need to be able to fall back on a different method to gain success. When it comes to fire, “exitus acta probat,” the end justifies the means.
Let’s go over five methods of fire starting, the pros and cons of each, and why they should be in your bag of fire tricks.
The most widely known ignition source is the match. Whether it’s a flimsy bookmatch or an oversized stormproof match, everyone is familiar with this instant flame source. Matches are a convenient choice, but there are many instances when a match will fail. For all outdoor applications, I highly stress the need to carry matches that are extra long and also have great vitality against windy and wet conditions.
Ease of use.
Basic matches will collect moisture and can also be easily extinguished by wind.
Short flame life.
Difficult to use when fingers are cold.
Tips: Buy large waterproof and windproof matches. Always store matches and extra strikers in a weatherproof container (a.k.a. matchsafe). Keep a small candle in your fire kit. Light the candle with a match for a prolonged flame that will increase your chances of igniting a tinder source.
Another wonderful source of flame-in-a-flash, lighters contain their own fuel source, providing extended flame life that could greatly aid in igniting moist and stubborn tinder sources. Lighters come in a variety of designs, from a generic Bic lighter to amped up survival lighters. Even so, the rule remains the same, the fuel contained within is limited. If possible, use sparingly.
Great option for an open flame ignition source.
Lengthy flame life will increase your chances of success.
More difficult to use in colder weather due to losing dexterity in fingers.
Fuel amount is not infinite.
Generic lighters are susceptible to wind and moisture.
Tips: Purchase a lighter that is impervious to wind and rain. If a cheap generic lighter is used and wet conditions breach normal operation, remove child safety lock, turn lighter upside down and run wheel repeatedly on any kind of surface (your pant leg will work fine) until the striker wheel and interior flint are dry enough for reuse. If the gas level in the reservoir is exhausted, you are not out of luck. Sparks will continue to be produced by the striker enabling an alternative ignition source that can be used with tinder that will receive those sparks.
Or more commonly referred to as a “Ferro Rod,” this cylindrical shaft consists of a combination of alloys which when scraped with a hard, sharp, or rough object easily dispenses high intensity sparks. They are offered in different diameters and lengths, and can come paired either with or without a striker. In leu of a striker, the spine of a knife, sharpened to 90 degrees will work perfectly.
Will work in adverse conditions.
If well cared for, has a long field life.
Very easy to use.
Requires selective choosing and preparation of tinder sources.
Some tinder material, or condition of material, will not readily accept sparks.
If rod becomes saturated and not allowed to dry out, metal will deteriorate.
Tips: Better results are produced with larger sized ferro rods. Tinder needs to be completely dry and fluffy for your best chance of igniting successfully . Practice the technique of drawing the ferro rod up, or back, against a striker held stationary, rather than drawing the striker down against the rod. This helps prevent your hand from hitting and scattering your precious tinder bundle.
Flint & Steel
A great addition to any fire kit, is the traditionally popular flint and steel. It is the simple pairing of a striker made of high-carbon steel with a hard stone that has a fairly sharp edge. The stone does not necessarily have to be flint; quartz and chert will result in the same outcome. The main goal is to strike the steel against the stone to produce sparks, thereby igniting your tinder, being char cloth or a natural tinder source suited to receiving sparks.
Like the ferro rod, flint and steel is a weatherproof approach to ignition.
The striker is long lasting, the stone, being used up at a faster rate than the striker, can be replaced in the field, given quality stones can be found in your location.
Gives off fewer, as well as cooler, sparks than a ferro rod, so can be somewhat more difficult to use.
Be cautious of stone chips flaking off during striking, for this reason, protect your eyes.
Tips: Hold char cloth, or a natural tinder, on top of stone. Strike down against stone with striker, allowing sparks to fall on the tinder. This is a more controlled and accurate way to catch sparks than say laying your tinder source on a surface and attempting to throw sparks directly on that combustable material. Maintain the needed sharp edge on your stone by using the “pick” end of your steel striker to pressure flake pieces off until an acute edge is achieved. Note that some strikers do not have this “pick.” I recommend acquiring one with that feature.
In everyone’s repertoire of fire knowledge should be the bow drill. A primitive and extremely sustainable option, this method of fire by friction can be completely made on-site with materials from natural sources. Knowledge in basic tree identification and fundamental cordage selection are the key requirements, not to mention practicing the proper technique. The ultimate reward being the self-smoking dust ember that culminates from one’s determined efforts.
Expands your knowledge into broader areas (i.e. distinguishing tree species and habitats, advantageous qualities in hard and soft woods, cordage making, etc.)
When modern materials fail, primitive technology commands the stage, showing its timeless importance.
Takes time to create a fine tuned set; if a fire is needed quickly in a survival situation, this could pose a problem.
Tips: Play with different wood types to find combinations that work well together. To bypass the need for natural cordage, manmade options include: paracord, bankline, even a shoestring will make due. Practice (with the proper technique) for proficiency. Though difficult to use in wet weather, it’s not impossible to succeed. If set is saturated, use your body heat to dry it out as much as possible. A damp set can actually produce an ember!
On sunny days,
Under cloudy skies,
Against gusts of wind,
With waterlogged hands,
Or fingers numbed by cold,
Know how to effect a flame in any and all circumstances,
With each of the five ignition options I briefly overviewed above.
Increase your success rate by practicing at home until you become thoroughly proficient,
and then practice more,
and then even more.
Practice worst case scenarios.
Practice with your weak hand.
Play it smart! Always carry multiple fire starting options on your person and in your pack.
Parting note: The very first step to creating a successful fire is the source of ignition. Without a hot spark to catch on tinder, without the chemical reaction that alights a match, without the inflamed fuel of a lighter, and without heated dust falling through the notch of a bow drill hearth, there will be no fire. No chance of procuring that wonderful warm flicker of light that has an innumerable amount of useful qualities.
Whether you’re enjoying a fire’s camaraderie safe at home, or your fellowship with the flames occurs in wild places, remember this: every fire has a genesis.