Fire: Friend or Foe?

Featherstick

Featherstick

For the vast majority of the time fire is almost certainly your friend, sometimes your best friend! The importance of being able to produce fire at will under any weather conditions cannot be overstressed. Even if you’re travelling through a hot country, the need for fire is still there; you will need to cook and to boil water for drinking.

A Stove

‘Why not use your stove’ I hear you cry. Good point. For trips of a few days a stove is fine and is obviously the first choice, but on longer trips the weight of fuel can be a problem, not to mention the room taken up.

An Open Fire

In some areas there are restrictions on starting fires for safety reasons; these should be adhered to and would have been noted when planning the route. When you’re used to cooking on an open fire it’s as easy as using a stove. To go into the different types of fire and their uses here will make this article far too long (and boring); so for this one, we’ll keep to the very basics of producing fire.

A Good Combination

It’s a good idea to have all bases covered so I normally go for (in conditions above freezing) a small, light gas stove and two small (around 100g) gas cartridges; the idea of two small ones over a medium size (around 250g) one is simple. If the valve leaks or you puncture the medium cartridge you lose all your gas, if the valve leaks or you puncture a small one you still have half your gas.

Safety

If you need fire for safety purposes, say to keep warm in freezing conditions or to boil water in an emergency, the restriction of ‘No Fires’ doesn’t apply; the general unwritten rule is ‘Don’t abuse the situation or the trust’. An example would be ‘I needed a fire to cook my supper because I ran out of gas’. This isn’t an emergency, it’s an inconvenience and any prosecution would be justified.

Down to Business

I always take a knife and sparking tool whenever I go out, even if it’s only for a few hours. With the knife you can make most of the other methods of starting fire even if something happens to your sparking tool. Keep the sparking tool attached to your knife sheath so that they are always together. Producing fire from a sparking tool takes a lot of practice and you have to be very, very proficient to produce fire under cold, wet, windy conditions. In this article we will look at producing fire from the sparking tool only and if there is any further interest we can look at the fire bow, fire plough as well as producing fire from chemical reactions and electricity.

The Things Needed

To produce fire we need fuel and we can split this down into three parts, tinder, kindling and logs. To produce a good fire we have to make sure we have three basic things, heat, fuel and oxygen; if we take any one of these away we will not succeed.

Preparation

This is by far the most important part of fire lighting, if our preparation is lacking it will result in extreme difficulty later on. Although the preparation always follows a set routine the conditions will dictate the level of preparation needed; obviously, if the conditions are cold, wet and windy the preparation needs to be better than if you are lighting your fire in hot, dry, still conditions. One last word on preparation; don’t skimp on it or you’ll end up doing it over and over again. Do it once… Do it right. Any short cuts will come from experience later on.

Tinder

Tinder & Kindling

Tinder & Kindling

Tinder comes in many forms depending on where you are. Constant experimentation will expand your experience quickly with this. You are looking for anything that will take a spark and produce a flame or ember. The types of tinder are likely to change depending on the time of year. I have listed a handful below to get you going but there are hundreds. A good tip here is to collect your tinder throughout the day and put it in your pocket or a small cloth bag to keep warm and dry.

  • Seed heads.
  • Birch bark peelings.
  • Cedar bark shavings.
  • Reedmace (cattail) heads.
  • Kapok.
  • Dry, dead grass.
  • Clematis down.
  • Thistle heads.
  • Old, dry birds nest.

Kindling

Kindling is the next stage up from tinder and is necessary to get from the tinder stage to the log stage. Two or three good handfuls are required to get some heat into the fire so that the logs will take. I have listed some of the things that you may use for kindling below.

  • Feather sticks.
  • Thick birch bark strips.
  • Dry, dead birch bark twigs.
  • Small, finely chopped sticks.
  • Resin rich chopped pine sticks.

Logs

The main fuel will more often than not be in the form of logs. The type of logs used will depend on what you want to use the fire for, boiling, roasting, keeping warm, smoking or protection. Don’t be tempted to use great big logs straight away, you will put the fire out. In the vast majority of cases logs of about 50mm (2″) in diameter will do everything you need; occasionally 75mm (3″) logs are handy.

The Best Place to Find Wood

Although you can often collect enough wood from the floor, the best wood to look for is what is known as standing timber; this is dead wood that is still on the tree or off the ground. This is better because it is nearly always dryer and as such burns more cleanly; damp wood will smoke and give out substantially less heat.

Safety

Safety is always paramount in any outdoor situation and fire lighting harbours perhaps more dangers than most, not all from the fire itself. Normally you would light a fire at the end of the day, just before dark; this is where you have to be on your guard, mainly against stupidity. If you are a wilderness backpacker you will have a fixed blade knife and a small axe or hatchet to assist with matters of this nature; these two tools will be sharp, indeed, they need to be to do their job efficiently. If the knife and the axe/hatchet will not shave the hairs from the back of your hand they are a dangerous liability. This in mind, do you really want to be using either in the dark? An experienced backwoodsman will always allow enough time to prepare all of the materials required in daylight. Of course there will be emergencies when you will have to do it in the dark; my advice here is to make sure that these emergencies are the only times. I do not take matches (of any kind) on a trip, ever; they are an accident waiting to happen. A sparking tool will only produce a spark when you want it to; in all other situations it is totally inert.

Practice

Most people think that because they have got a sparking tool that it will just produce fire on demand under any conditions; this is of course absolutely correct. Well, sort of. To get to a stage where you can produce fire from a sparking tool under any conditions takes a lot of practice, in the hundreds of hours. This is one of the most important survival skills you will learn, if not the most important; often when you need this skill most you will be cold, wet, tired and possibly injured. All I can say here is ‘Don’t get caught with your pants down’; practice often and in poor conditions, pick places that have few natural materials to make it harder. A disaster rarely happens under ideal conditions.

An old saying that sums up perfectly the procedure of survival fire lighting… Perfection is the road, not the destination.

Have lots of fun practicing.

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