Camping & Survival

Survival Saturday: Starting a Fire

quail on the stick grilled in the fire. delicious forest picnic. bushcraft concept

Have you ever been out camping with your city friends and someone started the campfire with lighter fluid and newspaper. Seems like cheating doesn’t it? What if you find yourself lost in the woods on a hiking trip gone wrong and it is getting cold. Not cold like your kitchen floor in the morning cold, more like the Eskimos have already given up and gone inside cold. You need to start a fire to stay warm and survive through the night. A roaring fire has several uses in the woods at night. It can scare away potential predators, and can offer some sanity in an otherwise stressful situation. You can cook your food or just relax and warm up your body. There are tons of ways to get a fire going, some more difficult than others. With a little knowledge and willpower, anyone can sleep comfortably next to a roaring flame.

Lighter or Matches

If you are a smoker, you are in luck. A .75-cent cigarette lighter is a cheap and effective tool to get a fire going. It is not however, the only way. Let’s say you dropped your lighter in the creek and it is water-logged, or maybe the wind is blowing so hard that you can’t get the thing to light. You need some options, so here are just a few ways to turn wood into smoke and heat. Matches can obviously work pretty well. If you are going to rely on matches however, I would suggest going with the waterproof, strike anywhere variety. The only downside is even with a box of matches, you only have a limited number of them on hand, so it would be a good idea to keep your fire going through the following day, just in case. As long as you still have red embers, you can easily bring a fire back to life.

Bow and Drill

Ah yes, for the absolute manliest way to build a fire, there is the old bow and drill method. This is an ancient method of starting fire without matches or a lighter. It uses friction to generate heat. The heat eventually produces an ember in the burnt sawdust. The ember is tiny, smaller than the head of a cigarette, and fragile. Once you form the ember, you carefully place it into a “tinder bundle” (a bird’s type nest of stringy, fluffy, and combustible material). Once the ember is in the tinder bundle, you can then carefully nurture and coax it into flame. Once the tinder bundle bursts into flame, you can then place it into the fire lay. All you need to start with is a shoestring and a small knife or sharp stone, and you can have a roaring fire going in no time. In my opinion however, if you are resorting to building a fire with this ancient method, you screwed up by not preparing yourself with the right equipment.

Fire starter tools

A fire starter probably the best thing to keep in your bug out bag, these kits work for thousands of uses and they work well. There are a myriad of choices here, and they all work. I keep a magnesium bar on my keychain for just such an occasion. I actually find this method easier than matches sometimes, since magnesium doesn’t care if it is wet outside.

Other Options

A magnifying glass might be a good idea in a pinch; the major downside is of course it requires direct sunlight to work. If you are trying to start a fire at night or evening and all you have is a stupid little magnifying glass, you are in for a cold night. Did you know that you can start a fire with a water balloon? It works on the same principle as the magnifying glass method. You simply hold a clear water balloon a couple of inches from your target and wait. It doesn’t work quite as well as a magnifying glass, but it does get the job done. Starting a fire with a beer can and a chocolate bar is also possible. I haven’t tried this one, but I’d be curious to know how well it works. You simply use the chocolate bar like car wax, and polish the bottom of the can until it shines. An old rag, sock, or t-shirt would work fine for this. Once the bottom of the can is super shiny, and I understand this takes a while, you can reflect the sun’s rays like a mirror, a voilà, flame city! If you are lucky enough to have a 9-volt batter and some steel wool, you could have an instant fire in no time. It is super easy and fast, this actually works even when it is fairly wet outside.

A fire is far easier to build today than it was in prehistoric times, but they are no less useful. Be creative with your fire building, and be sure to select the proper kindling. I understand Fritos have enough oil in them to work well for kindling. Things like pocket and dryer lint ignite extremely fast. Growing up in east Texas, I always used dried pine for kindling. That stuff burns like rocket fuel. Do you have any creative ways to build a flame? Comment below and let us know, maybe we can try it out on the next company camp out!

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Comments (6)

  1. Always collect the fine, papery bark from any young peeling birch tree when you find one. The young ones usually have little feathery bits of bark peeling off. Pick at these until a strip comes off like peeling sellotape. This stuff burns hot and long, and if you have enough, it will drip a thermoplastic resin. It also smells like incense.

  2. I always carry a “Hot Spark” purchased at a Boy Scout shop for around $3.00. I keep it in a medicine bottle with a couple of cotton balls and a small tube of lip balm. The cotton helps keep the sparking rod and the striker apart so there’s no chance of a poorly timed spark.

  3. Here in New England, we know that even after a week of solid rain, the bark from a white birch tree (preferable one that has fallen,but not necessarily)will still burn like gasoline, once you’ve started a fire. Also, lint from your dryer will light using the flint wheel from a cheap, empty lighter. Considering that the lint comes from the clothes that you wear, it’s pretty scary how easily that lint will light.

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