When the weather is great and you have all the time in the world, most anyone can light a fire. But when it’s raining or snowing, your hands are shaking, your decision-making abilities are compromised, and the ground is soaked – and you desperately need a fire – it can be a frustrating, difficult, and often impossible chore.
Fire is life. With it, you can dry out wet clothing, keep hypothermia at bay, disinfect water to drink, and provide a psychological boost in a dire situation.
If you ever hope to be able to make a fire in a tough situation, when the chips are down, you need to know how to make a fire the right way. It’s all well and good that you have the latest piece of gear that can make a spark under water, but if you can’t make a fire from that spark, who cares? If you can’t nurture an ember into flame and create a sustained fire, you’re dead.
Here are 10 tips that can help you make a fire in a tough situation:
- Think Fire. Always be thinking about the need for your next fire. Sure it might be a beautiful day, but how will you make fire if you have to? Having a mindset that you will be required to create a fire helps us to be prepared with our skills and ability, tools, and experience to light a fire efficiently when it counts the most.
- Carry Fire Tools. To make fire we need an ignition source, fuel, and oxygen. What ways can you easily ignite a fire? What are the various tools you are carrying that create a flame or spark? A lighter? A ferrocerium rod? Have back up tools and carry them with you. I have a small leather pouch that I use as a fire kit. It contains a ferro rod, a striker, some petroleum jelly soaked cotton balls, and a couple of Tinder Quik tabs. I wear it around my neck with a neck knife whenever I am in the woods. I carry a small butane lighter in my pocket.
- Think Simple. When visiting Guatemala I was watching a man prepare to start a fire. I was hoping to learn some ancient Mayan fire-starting technique. Instead he pulls out an ordinary butane lighter. The expression on my face must have been priceless. ¡Es sencillo! he says. “It’s simple!” He was right. In a survival situation, use the simplest way you have to ignite a fire. A butane lighter with an adjustable flame is a lifesaver.
- Collect Tinder as You Find it. Even if you don’t plan on having to light a fire, hiking with a “Think Fire” mindset means that we get in the habit of collecting fine, dry tinder as we hike. Ideal tinder materials are resin-rich fatwood, birch bark, cedar bark, tinder fungus, Old Man’s Beard tree moss. dried pine resin pieces, cattails, an abandoned bird’s nest, dead branches at the inside base of conifer trees, dry grass, and the like. Carry the tinder in a safe dry place. I use an old canvas bank bag with a drawstring closure that has been wax treated. I also drop a few of those silica desiccant packets into the bottom of the sack to reduce moisture further. You can carry the bag tied to your belt or on a lanyard around your neck. If weather is poor, stick the bag under your coat to keep the tinder warm and dry.
- Protect Your Fire Making. While you keep your tinder protected under your coat, in a pocket or in a tinder bag, locate the best place to build the fire. Use a large stand of trees, a rock wall, or the opening of a cave to shelter the fire from wind, driving rain, or snow. Don’t build a fire under tree boughs full of snow – unless you want the fire extinguished by a mini avalanche of snow when you least expect it. If you have a tarp, set it up. It can protect the fire and reflect heat back to you. Other members of your group could build a shelter from natural materials that could provide protection from the elements.
- Fire making is more than Producing an Ember. Producing an ember is not creating a sustainable fire. Many people practice sparking a piece of cotton with a fire steel, or creating an ember from a primitive hand drill or bow and drill. These are beneficial skills to have. However you know as well as I do, that catching a spark or creating an ember is only the start. Don’t neglect the important skills of transferring spark and ember to tinder, nurturing the ember to flame, and then patiently building a sustainable fire.
- Master the Tinder Bundle. Take a look at the type of material that a small bird collects to make a nest. Those are the same kinds and size of materials that we should collect to make a tinder bundle that could receive an ember or spark to create a flame. Master the art of nest making like a bird. Try different materials to make the tinder bundle or birds nest. Scrapings from birch bark or cedar or Old Man’s Beard tree moss can be placed in the center of the nest and will most easily welcome that spark or ember. Once the spark is in the nest, be gentle, have patience, don’t flood the nest with billows of your moist breath in an attempt to have the ember take hold. Protect the ember like a valuable jewel in the nest, because it is!
- Build a Hearth. Clear the fire making area from snow and create a fire hearth or platform of dry wood to get the fire up off the wet ground. Take some dry wood, about 18 inches long and an inch or so in diameter and make a “raft” of sorts on the ground that covers a larger area than the size of your expected fire. This helps prevent your dry tinder and other fuel from absorbing moisture from the ground.
- Prepare Fuel for the Flame. Collect various size branches from dead standing trees. If it’s raining or has recently snowed, you’ll find the driest branches at the inside base of conifer trees. Once you have a flame in the tinder bundle, you will need to feed it this dry wood starting from a very small size and increasing in diameter until the fire is sustainable. Have patience. Don’t fuss too much with the bundles of fuel. Let the fire do its thing. Leave the branches 12-24 inches long so you can reposition them around the tinder bundle.
- Practice, Practice. When you can consistently find tinder, kindling, and larger fuel in your familiar forest environment, and you are able to start a fire under the best of circumstances, then start applying these techniques to more adverse conditions. Challenge yourself. Keep practicing until it’s second nature. Go out hiking in the rain and build a fire. Use only one match. Practice building a fire with very little daylight left, or in the dark. There’s no telling what sort of difficult situation you might find yourself in and have to build a lifesaving fire.